Victor Wembanyama walked into his first NBA news conference Wednesday morning, took his seat and looked out at a maze of cameras and microphones that have been awaiting him for years.
And then he smiled.
“What’s up, everyone?” the French teen said.
Seeming poised and completely ready for what awaits him, Wembanyama’s NBA chapter is now underway. The NBA draft — one that Wembanyama’s towering shadow has hung over for months, blocking much of what is usually part of the process — is Thursday night, and he’ll be selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs.
“Ever since I knew about the draft, exactly how it worked, I wanted to be first,” Wembanyama said Wednesday. “I think I started to realize I could be a professional basketball player at the age of 12. Tomorrow, something’s going to happen, something that I’ve been thinking (about) for years and years, I can’t really describe how I feel right now. I just know I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight, for sure.”
There has been no debate about who the Spurs should take with the No. 1 pick, no discussion of which player might be a better fit, no real attempts to raise any red flags about the presumed selection.
When a player like Wembanyama comes along — and maybe none ever has — there’s no real reason to drum up any drama. The Spurs are not going to pass up someone who is listed at 7-foot-4 but has the skills of a player much smaller.
The decision is certain, but not official until Commissioner Adam Silver says Wembanyama’s name Thursday night. And Wembanyama playfully corrected a reporter in New York on Wednesday who welcomed him to San Antonio.
“Not there yet,” Wembanyama said. “But thank you.”
The 19-year-old from France has been called the best prospect since LeBron James came out of high school 20 years ago, perhaps with some physical gifts that even the NBA’s career scoring leader didn’t possess.
Expectations from the outside world are sky-high. Wembanyama insists that won’t bother him.
“I don’t let all this stuff get into my head,” Wembanyama said. “I’ve got such high expectations for myself that I’m immune to all this stuff. I really don’t care.”
He arrived Monday in the New York area, surprised that some fans were waiting for him when he landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. On Tuesday, there was his first subway ride — even hopping a turnstile as he exited, though the police who were flanking him didn’t complain — and a trip to Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch; it was well out of the strike zone. And on Wednesday morning, before his NBA duties began, he had a weightlifting workout with a coach.
He has been a big kid in a grown-up world. He signs autographs with a smile, pokes fun at himself, doesn’t mind that everyone tends to stare at someone of his height.
“Crazy,” he said of that first subway ride, with New Yorkers all around him.
Let the craziness begin. Silver will call his name Thursday night, shake his hand, and before too long Wembanyama will be on a plane for San Antonio to start the first chapter of his NBA life. Wembanyama said he will play in Summer League that starts in early July, though it remains unclear if he’ll be participating with the Spurs in the Sacramento summer league, the primary NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, or both.
“Wembanyama is built for the modern game,” said analyst Jay Bilas, who has been part of ESPN’s coverage for every draft since James topped the 2003 one. “We’ve never seen anything quite like him on a basketball floor.”
The modern NBA game requires big men to be comfortable playing away from the basket, able to handle the ball and defend opponents on the perimeter. It’s a league where 7-footer Nikola Jokic just guided the Denver Nuggets to their first championship by becoming the first player to lead the postseason in total points, rebounds and assists, where first-team All-Defense centers Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brook Lopez block shots on one end and shoot 3-pointers on the other.
Wembanyama can seemingly do all that. He was the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the French league, leading the league in scoring, rebounding and blocks. The almost-unbelievable highlights of some of those plays, a slam or a swat when he seemed too far away to pull it off even with his enormous wingspan, had basketball fans and even future opponents on both sides of the Atlantic buzzing throughout the season.
He will go to a San Antonio team that won five titles after selecting Tim Duncan the last time it had the No. 1 pick in 1997. Duncan is a Hall of Famer and one of the best power forwards in NBA history, and maybe it’s too much to ask Wembanyama to become quite like that.
But he’s the best of the bunch this year, and maybe of the last 20 years.
“I’m trying to be the best,” Wembanyama said. “Being the best, it’s not only on the court. There’s whole dimensions in the job of basketball player, an NBA player. I want to be the best also at the media, the press conference, all this stuff. I don’t like to do things halfway.”
Charlotte is expected to decide between Alabama forward Brandon Miller and G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson with No. 2, with Portland perhaps taking the other at No. 3. The Rockets and Pistons round out the top five.
Those teams have been recent regulars near the top of the draft and should add another good young player for new coaches Ime Udoka in Houston and Monty Williams in Detroit. But those clubs shared the best odds with the Spurs of winning the No. 1 pick in last month’s draft lottery, so there was disappointment to wipe away before thinking ahead.
That’s because, while every draft has good players, very few will ever offer the chance to draft one like Wembanyama.
Just ask someone who would know.
“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, but he’s more like an alien,” James said last fall. “No one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor.”
James will get an up-close view this coming season when he plays against the Spurs. So will the rest of the league. Wembanyama’s time starts now, and he sounds as ready as can be.
“I just feel really, really lucky to be able just to live this life,” Wembanyama said. “I’m just so lucky.”