Paris: Just 19 and heading for No 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Victor Wembanyama is aiming to ride a wave of expectations to become the latest successful French export to the NBA.
The 7ft 4ins (2.24m) Wembanyama’s last domestic game in France ended in defeat as his club Metropolitans 92 were beaten by Monaco in the league finals on June 15, completing a 3-0 sweep of the series.
Wembanyama now has bigger things on his mind — on Thursday, he will be the first player taken in the Draft and looks set to go to the San Antonio Spurs.
Fittingly, the Spurs is where the most successful Frenchman to play in the world’s top league, Tony Parker, won four NBA titles.
The fact that Wembanyama’s final game was played in front of 15,000 spectators on the centre court at Roland Garros, which days earlier had hosted the finals of the French Open tennis Grand Slam, speaks volumes about his impact in France this season.
Quite simply, he has been box office gold.
Fluid for a big man
Wembanyama has been closely watched in France for several years but he came to international attention when the NBA invited his club, based in Boulogne-Billancourt in the Paris suburbs, to play in Las Vegas against G-League team Ignite in October.
Wembanyama scored 37 points and 36 points in two games against a team containing another high draft pick, Scoot Henderson.
LeBron James ratcheted up the hype, calling Wembanyama an “alien”.
“I’ve never seen — 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 said.
Once Wembanyama returned from the US, the Metropolitans’ modest 2,800-capacity gym sold out for every game within an hour of tickets going on sale — and he became a huge attraction on the road as well, ensuring packed-out arenas across France.
Everyone wanted to see him — in Paris, actor Michael Douglas and Paris Saint-Germain’s star forward Kylian Mbappe were among those in the crowd.
Rudy Gobert, the Frenchman who has won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year three times, made a special trip to present Wembanyama with his MVP award in May.
So what makes him so special? Wembanyama moves as gracefully as a far shorter man and has formidable blocking ability — Best Blocker was one of the five French league awards he won this season, along with MVP, Best Young Player, Best Defender, and Top Scorer.
For such a big man, he also has exceptional passing ability.
He is not Nikola Jokic yet, but his touch as he dishes off a no-look pass to a teammate is reminiscent of the giant Serb who led the Denver Nuggets to their first NBA title this season.
Wembanyama also has a credible three-point shot, an invaluable weapon in the NBA.
His coach at Metropolitans 92, Vincent Collet, who doubles as France’s national coach, said though that his young charge should be getting closer to the basket rather than throwing up threes.
“If he is shooting from the three-point line, he will not be perfect. With his height I want him to be playing in the paint, because there he is going to be 100 per cent,” Collet said after a game in March.
Collet is convinced of Wembanyama’s destiny and believes he will average 20 points and 10 rebounds a game in the NBA.
“He is an exceptional player even if he is young. He is going to become an even more exceptional player,” he said.
“I hope I have helped Victor to cross the Rubicon. Next year he will have other challenges. I hope we have prepared him for it.”