Four years ago, 15-year-old Victor Wembanyama celebrated his appearance in the FIBA Europe U16 European Championship tournament by opening an official Instagram account, one that he or his people (or both) maintain to this day. The first post was a small collage of him and his teammates playing for Team France. A push-shot Wemby, as he is colloquially known; a shot block; a pic of him and his fellow Frenchmen cheesing for the camera and getting a group flex in. The first comment, posted all those years ago, from ‘Stratton_05,” is a goat emoji. Timothe.krb, posting in French, said, “Already the MVP.” It’s not uncommon to read this kind of hyperbole about a teenage prospect. The difference with Wemby is that it never stopped. He just got better and better.
But tonight, that all ends. At the 2023 NBA Draft, Wemby will be selected first overall by the San Antonio Spurs, a charmed landing spot for European basketball products and No. 1 overall big men alike. Moments after this happens, he will cease to be an NBA abstraction, plying his trade somewhere over the Atlantic, racking up hype and value in the shadows of the French League. Instead, he will be a basketball player, with stats and wins and losses, moments seized and moments farted away, the sum total of his on-court accomplishments and off-court foibles.
But before that happens, it’s worth spending some time thinking about the ways that Wembanyama has tantalyzed the NBA world before he even set foot on the court.
Around 2016 or thereabouts, there was a word on the lips of every trendy NBA fan: “Unicorn.” It did not refer to a magical horned horse or the third in a couple’s throuple experiment. No, it was a catchall term for a theoretical NBA player that was coming to life. Close your eyes and take a second to think about what the ideal basketball player would be. Don’t bring realistic expectations. Don’t scale skill for size. Don’t assume that there are any trade-offs in building them. Access the childlike part of your brain, steal your mother’s credit card, log onto NBA2K, and just max out the sliders as far as you can go to create a player.
The mythical player you come up with would be tall. A player that’s really tall? That’s a useful guy even if he’s pretty bad at a lot of other stuff. Then, you make his arms long, since long arms make you better at shot-blocking.
Then, he needs to be mobile. Now, sometimes, when you’re tall and heavy, you’re not super quick on your feet. This is a problem, especially on defense, where everyone wants you to be moving all the time to take up space that could be invaded by driving guards. Then, let’s make our guy strong, so he can crush a teeny little guard on a screen or take someone in the post and score on someone who isn’t as strong as he is.
OK what we’ve made, thus far, is a five-time NBA All-Star. But we’re not done. Next, this guy is going to need to be a good ball handler who can get to the hoop in a flash if you give it to him at the three-point line. Now, make him a three-point shooter, so that he has to be guarded everywhere.
Then, make him very competitive — the kind of guy who steps onto the court every night looking to draw blood and lead his team. Then, make it so he never gets injured.
For most of the league’s existence, this guy was nonsensical. There have always been trade-offs. Wilt couldn’t shoot. Bill Russell couldn’t either. Tim Duncan wasn’t a ball handler or shooter of note. Shaq had troubles at the line and wasn’t always one hundred percent invested in the game. Yao Ming got injured a bunch.
But in the aughts, Dirk Nowitzki expanded the NBA’s vocabulary for what a big man could do. He was an immaculate shooter, an obsessive worker, rebounded well, and defended his position. When his Mavericks squad won the title in 2011 over LeBron and the Heatles, it kicked off an overnight change in the league. The slow, isolation-heavy Lakers squads that won the year before were useless now. Teams would spread it out, employ centers as defense-first space eaters, and fire off threes at volume. Power forwards needed range now to spread the floor and allow guards to get to the rim. From this morass, Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors emerge. Draymond Green, with his gigantic arms and his bizarre mismatched-masteries, would have seemed like an incomplete product in any other era. But in a post-Dirk world he was essential, a high post playmaker, mobile defensive presence, and a hardcore competitive asshole.
People, naturally, wondered how far this could all go.
In 2015, the New York Knicks, ailing after a shitty season from their Carmelo Anthony-led team, selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. He was tall as hell: 7-foot-3. He had some handles, could shoot, could block a shot or two, and his midsection was pretty beefy, all things considered. For a hot second there, he looked like the future of basketball — the multi-tool warrior who could double up as a true three-point threat and a defensive bullwark. The Unicorn was alive and you could watch him in MSG, the World’s Most Famous Arena. But it couldn’t last: he got injured, drifted around the league, and washed up on the tortured shores of Wizards island. Unicorn dashed.
Yet the dream lived on in his draft classmate, Karl Anthony-Towns. He was tall, had big arms, and seemed pretty mobile out there. He was an ace shooter, one who would eventually develop into one of the game’s best at any position. He could handle a little, score low or high or wherever. But he never really panned out the way they dreamed. Towns is a crummy defender by every measure and prone to lapses in competitive spirit, a fact the world caught onto when he teamed up with guard/forward and all-world psycho Jimmy Butler, who really, REALLY disliked Towns while he was on the Wolves, belittles him in public as much as humanly possible, and has never been wrong in this assessment.
As the Unicorns transformed into donkeys, a new kind of NBA big man emerged. Nikola Jokíc, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid, and Jaren Jackson Jr., the current cream of the big man crop, don’t resemble mutant Dirks so much as they are advanced Marc Gasols. They operate a lot from the high post, making plays by passing or taking short drives to the rim, eat up smaller defenders down low, devour space and protect the rim on D, set bone-crushing screens, and play off their guard teammates with a keen sense of themselves as one part of a team-first concept.
It’s been awesome seeing the traditional big man return with a whole new set of skills. But they aren’t Unicorns — threats in every way from everywhere at all times, the ultimate maxed-out men. Even Jokíc, good as he is with his feet, isn’t exactly rising up to send shots flying or driving to the rim from three like he’s Chris Paul. The dream of Unicorn perfection was put on hold while these dudes brought the big man back in canny ways.
While this was happening, Wemby trained in the shadows. He dominated the U.S. Men’s U19 team in 2022 and won MVP in a pro league. He flashed a package of skills that seem impossible.
That’s Wemby taking a convincing between-the-legs step-back three-pointer against a defender. Before it even draws rims, he sees that he’s missed by a sliver. He immediately switches from “skill shot” mode to “be large” mode and crashes the rim, graceful like a deer. He rises over the puny little men who aren’t boxing out — because why would you box someone out when they just took a step-back three? — barely needing to raise off the ground to throw it down, on account of his eight-foot-wide wingspan. His extraordinary skill level and length make his windmill dunks look almost rote. Dull, even.
Wemby has been the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft all year, and something close to it for two years before that. The No. 2 prospect (but maybe not pick) in the draft, G-League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson, is also regarded as a super-prospect, a No. 1 in any other year, but has never even touched Wemby’s apron for first pick consideration. For what it’s worth, he and his team have played it all perfectly: he gives interviews avoiding comparisons with his future colleagues, plays for a French league squad that was designed to showcase his talents (they lost in the French league finals this week, a reminder that being a grown man is an asset in pro sports), and has mitigated any concerns by dominating every game he plays in.
And there are concerns. One is that he is skinny, but it’s generally agreed that he will fill out in time. The other is that 7-foot-4 guys, even ones with space-age skill sets, aren’t exactly known for their on-court durability. Wemby takes the personal maintenance of the job very seriously and is dead set on playing a long NBA career, but it still makes you nervous.
I feel a bit strange writing this, because I’m not the kind of guy who’s inclined to write a glowing review of a surefire NBA prospect. A few years ago, when Zion Williamson was a consensus No. 1 pick Death Star-looking dude, I would always half-jokingly say that he was going to be a bust, simply because that position would always be more truthful than the one that draftniks are inclined to take — that he would inevitably be an NBA All-Star and lead his team to the Playoffs year after year. (He might still, even if he hasn’t yet.)
Nothing is certain with these guys. And I’m not even talking about injury risk or the ability of NBA organizations to really screw a good thing up by not surrounding someone with a decent enough environment to excel on the court (Wemby, fortunately, has ended up somewhere where that has never been a problem). I’m also just talking about the shit between your ears, and how it’s going to react to life as a professional athlete. A few years ago, Karl Anthony-Towns really did seem like a savior for the Timberwolves, right until he drifted in Jimmy’s orbit and was exposed by Butler’s obsessive drive for personal improvement.
It’s possible that Wemby could be in for the same sort of rude awakening when he’s exposed to the pressure of the day-to-day league grind. But he does have one advantage over Towns in this regard: he has been a pro for a while now, and has a much better understanding of what’s required from the “job” part of being a pro athlete. It’s possible, when all is said and done, that this is another sell-job from the draft complex, but when you see him curl off a defender with a lightning-quick spin-move in the post and lay it in with balletic grace, it’s harder and harder for even a draft nihilist like myself to preach the gospel of Wemby the Bust.
So, welcome to the Unicorn era. Probably. Maybe.