The summer break in the NBA was just two weeks old when the San Antonio Spurs parted ways with their best player at the end of June. The basketball team from Texas, where the legendary Gregg Popovich, 73, has been a coach and decision-maker for a quarter of a century, sent Dejounte Murray, 26, to Atlanta. The equivalent of a few extra picks in the upcoming NBA drafts seemed surprisingly low for a pro who even made the All-Star last season. At least at first glance.
Sports teams in the USA usually either want to be very good – i.e. play for championships – or they want to be very bad, preferably the very worst. The enemy is called mediocrity. Because you can’t get relegated in the closed leagues. Nevertheless, a largely balanced league should be guaranteed, which is why the team with the most losses at the end of the season is even rewarded: with the first pick in the draft, when the greatest talents are distributed among the teams in the summer. Deliberately losing, called “tanking”, has a long tradition in America’s professional leagues.
This repeatedly leads to criticism because it obviously damages the quality of the product when some clubs have no interest in winning. The professional league NBA is aware of this problem, and the right of first access is therefore drawn by means of a somewhat complicated lottery. But the bottom line is that the worst team of the past season has the greatest chance of getting the best player.
In two friendlies in Las Vegas, Wembanyama showed all his skills
And, as observers agree, in the coming season it will be more worthwhile to torment your own fans with defeats than ever before. The reason is Victor Wembanyama, born in 2004 in the Paris suburb of Nanterre and about 2.24 meters long. Since the 18-year-old recently played two friendlies in the USA with his French team Metropolitans 92, the local basketball community has hardly heard any other topic – even though the new season starts in a good week. Mind you, without Wembanyama. Because he is still too young for the NBA, his vintage can only register for the draft next year.
Its potential has long been known. The Frenchman made his Eurocup debut at the age of 15 in 2019, and in the past two years Wembanyama has been voted the best young player in France’s league. “He can be one of the best players of all time,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo recently, who is currently one of the top three NBA professionals himself.
Experts have largely agreed that Wembanyama is the greatest talent of his age group, at least since his excellent performances at the U19 World Cup last year. Most recently, 48 hours in a multi-purpose hall near Las Vegas were enough for him to convince even the last skeptics. Against the talent selection G League Ignite around Scoot Henderson, America’s best player of the year, Wembanyama scored 73 points in two games, hit nine three-pointers (in 18 attempts) and blocked just as many opposing throws.
Since then, everyone in the NBA has been asked for their opinion. Former player Richard Jefferson, now a TV pundit, thinks Wembanyama is better than LeBron James at the same age. LeBron James himself used an unusual analogy: “He’s an alien.” In fact, comparisons are difficult. James probably speaks for most when he says, “I’ve never seen anyone like him.” What sounds like an overreaction is actually a repetition of what scouts have been saying for years.
Wembanyama is an invitation to lose
Not only his size is remarkable: Wembanyama is already as long as Boban Marjanović (224 centimeters), the currently longest in the NBA. So even by basketball standards, the Frenchman is a giant. The difference to players like Marjanović: He moves differently and has different skills than you know and expect from players of his size. Wembanyama plays more like a winger, sometimes even like a point guard. “Even if he were 30 centimeters smaller, his skills would probably be enough to become the first pick in the draft,” explains expert Torben Adelhardt, who works for the German specialist media GotNexxt and Every day NBA watching talented basketball players.
Wembanyama has the ability to convert jump shots from distance, turning and running, has top-level ball handling, good passing and an explosive move to the basket. Defensively, he can hardly be beaten anyway, with his size and athleticism he even manages to block jump shots with all regularity. In short: Victor Wembanyama invites you to marvel.
And to lose. Not only the San Antonio Spurs made it clear with their squad planning in the summer that they are happy to give the coming season away for the prospect of the supposed great talent. The broadcaster ESPN quotes a league manager as saying: “We will experience a race towards the bottom of the table like never before.”
Incidentally, the last time Gregg Popovich loved to lose was in his debut season in 1996. The reward then: Tim Duncan, who then shaped one of the most successful eras in US sport; Spurs won five times with Duncan. And Popovich is now the coach with the most NBA wins in history.