HENDERSON, Nev. — For any prospect, even one as heralded as Victor Wembanyama, LeBron James’ endorsement is no small feat.
On Wednesday night, the 37-year-old Lakers superstar praised the 18-year-old who many NBA minds say could one day rival his greatness. He called him a “generational talent,” “fluid and graceful,” and said his 7-foot-3 height (or 7-4, or 7-5 depending on the source) combined with a perimeter-oriented game made him less like a “unicorn” and “more like an alien”.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon at the conclusion of his week-long Las Vegas residency, Wembanyama took a moment to digest those comments. But it was clear that, although he is flattered, the Frenchman is not one to delay praise – even from James.
“I felt like I deserved it, so I won’t be surprised by the attention,” said Wembanyama, who speaks fluent English. “That said, if all of this surprised me or surprised me, it would mean that I am satisfied with it, and I am not. I want to improve every day. So this state I’m in right now, it’s not enough.”
By the end of his two showings against G League Ignite, most NBA minds had seen enough to believe: Wembanyama might be the best prospect in a long time. He resembles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; he plays more like Kevin Durant.
The second of these games on Thursday afternoon was packed with moments that left talent evaluators at The Dollar Loan Center in awe. Playing against a mix of elite prospects and fully developed and experienced G-League players and foreigners, Wembanyama was clearly a cut above. The geometry of his game, shaped by his 7-11 wingspan and his towering height, allows him to do things even the NBA has never seen.
He can block shots from anywhere: 6-10 forward Efe Abogidi caught on in the third quarter when he attempted a hook shot, only for Wembanyama to pummel him out of the sky once he was already three feet above his hand. In the fourth, Wembanyama ducked at the ankles to prevent a ball from going out of bounds, then recovered to hit a hapless 6-10 Leonard Miller, who looked like an overwhelmed guard next to his hulking foe.
But what really has people talking is what Wembanyama can do as a perimeter player: He hit a 3-pointer in the second quarter with ease. He intimidated poor Miller later with a Dream Shake, Hakeem Olajuwon’s signature move, from the baseline. Just one day after James’ tag, a new nickname “The Alien” was beginning to spread through the arena.
The Ignite tried to be more physical with Wembanyama than in the first game, when he had scored 37 points. Initially, Ignite forward Eric Mika said that seemed to be working (he had just three points after his first-quarter stint). But while Ignite’s defense kept it out of his comfort zone, Wembanyama rose to the occasion, like when he spun into a baseline jumper to Mika’s face in the second quarter. . The firing point, about eight feet in the air, was impossible for anyone else on the ground to reach.
“It’s rare to see a guy who can change shots and block shots like (Rudy) Gobert. … He has a lot of presence in the paint, but last game he hit seven 3-pointers,” Mika said. “He’s hitting those baseline jump shots that are literally impossible to guard.”
Then Ignite coach Jason Hart noted that Wembanyama had shot 9-of-18 from 3-point range in the two-game series, and the Ignites were pleased to have limited him to just two in Thursday’s game. But that didn’t stop him from racking up stats: 36 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots in a win for the Wembanyama Metropolitans, based in a suburb of Paris and competing in France’s top league.
Assuming health, it’s only a matter of time before Wembanyama is the first pick. Among the many glowing reviews shared by scouts and other basketball watchers, a Western Conference executive offered the Southern California News Group a two-word scouting report for the team that ends with the No. 1 option: “Take him.”
Wembanyama has guidance: Gobert has mentored him for the past five years and the two players share an agent. The Minnesota Timberwolves center smiled for photos with Wembanyama, who manages to dwarf even the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He is eager to leave France, the only home he has ever known, but he has plenty of time to prepare for life in the NBA.
“It has been a goal of mine for many years,” he said. “Yes, it must be difficult to leave my family in Europe and almost everything I know, but at the same time my future is (in the United States). So I’m still excited and very happy about it. I know I am very lucky to have this opportunity.”
The games were also a showcase for G League Ignite, a show entering its third season as an alternative for gamers looking to skip the college level. They boost Scoot Henderson, a 6-2 shooting guard widely considered the runner-up in the draft after Wembanyama and who had a good game in the first matchup before leaving early in the second after hitting knees with the Frenchman.
But in a larger context, the Ignite will be remembered as the first American foe to really test Wembanyama on his rise. Even Hart seemed to understand that his team was just a stop along the way.
“The good thing for me as a coach: I’m glad I had the opportunity to play against him at 18 years old,” Hart said. “At 24, he will be a completely different player, someone else’s problem.”