New York (AP) – Victor Vembanyama walked into his first NBA news conference Wednesday morning, settled into his seat and watched the maze of cameras and microphones that awaited him for years.
Then he smiled.
“What’s up, everyone?” said the French youth.
Seemingly ready and fully prepared for what awaits him, Wembaniyama’s NBA chapter is now underway. The NBA draft — the towering shadow of Wembaniyama has hung over for months, barring much of what would normally be part of the process — is Thursday night, and he will be selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs.
“Since I found out about the draft, how it worked properly, I want to be the first,” Wembaniama said on Wednesday. “I think I started to realize that I could be a professional basketball player when I was 12. Tomorrow, something is going to happen, something that I’ve been thinking (about) for years, and I can’t describe how I feel. I feel it now. I know I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight. , of course.”
There was no discussion of who the Spurs should take with the No. 1 pick, no discussion of which player would be the best fit, no real attempts to raise red flags on the presumed pick.
Wemby is ready for her close-up 🏀 💯
— NBA Draft (@NBADraft) June 21, 2023
When a player like Vembanyama comes along – and no one has – there’s no real reason to drum up any drama. The Spurs aren’t going to let go of someone listed at 7-foot-4, but with the skills of a much smaller player.
The decision was firm, but not official until Commissioner Adam Silver named Vembaniyama Thursday night. Wembaniyama playfully corrected a reporter in New York on Wednesday as he welcomed him to San Antonio.
“Not yet,” said Wembaniama. “Thank you though.”
The 19-year-old from France has been called the best prospect since LeBron James came out of high school 20 years ago, with some physical gifts that perhaps even the NBA’s career scoring leader lacks.
The expectations of the outside world are sky high. Vembaniyama insists it doesn’t bother him.
“I didn’t let all this get to my head,” Wembaniama said. “I have high expectations and I’m immune to all of this. I don’t really care.
He arrived in the New York area on Monday, surprising some fans who were waiting for him when he landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. On Tuesday, there was his first subway ride — he jumped a turnstile on his way out, though police surrounding him didn’t complain — and a trip to Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch; Well outside the strike zone. On Wednesday morning, before his NBA duties began, he worked out with a trainer for weightlifting.
While in New York… by Victor Wembanyama (@vicw_32) Trip to Yankee Stadium! ⚾️
— NBA (@NBA) June 21, 2023
He has been a big kid in the grown up world. He signs with a smile, making fun of himself, not caring that everyone stares at someone his height.
“Crazy,” he said of that first subway ride, surrounded by New Yorkers.
Let the madness begin. Silver called his name and shook his hand Thursday night and before long Wembanayama will be on a plane to San Antonio to begin the first chapter of his NBA career. Wembaniyama said he will play in the summer league, which begins in early July, although it is unclear whether he will participate in the Sacramento Summer League with the Spurs, the premier NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, or both.
“Vembanayama is built for the modern game,” said analyst Jay Bilas, who has been a part of ESPN’s coverage of every draft since James went first in 2003. “We’ve never seen anything 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. 7-foot Nikola Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to their first championship and became the first player to lead the league in total points, rebounds and assists in the postseason, where first-team All-Defensive centers Jaron Jackson Jr. and Brook Lopez. Block shots on one end and shoot 3-pointers on the other.
Vembanyama can do it all. He was 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 swat when he seemed too far away to pull it off even with his enormous wingspan, had basketball fans and even prospective opponents on both sides of the Atlantic buzzing all season long.
He would go to a San Antonio team that had won five titles since Tim Duncan was last selected as the No. 1 pick in 1997. Duncan is a Hall of Famer and one of the best power forwards in NBA history, and perhaps even that should ask Vembanyama to become the same.
But he was the best this year and the last 20 years.
“I’m just trying to be the best,” Wembaniama said. “Being the best, it’s not just on the court. There are whole dimensions to a basketball player’s job, an NBA player’s job. I want to be the best in the media, the press conference, all those things. I don’t like doing things halfway.”
Charlotte is expected to take the No. 2 pick between Alabama forward Brandon Miller and G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson, with Portland taking the other at No. Could have taken in 3. The Rockets and Pistons round out the top five.
Scoot reflects on his last media availability before being drafted 👀
— NBA (@NBA) June 21, 2023
Those teams are the latest regulars at the top of the draft, and new coaches Ime Udoka in Houston and Monty Williams in Detroit should add another good young player. But those clubs shared the best odds with the Spurs to win the No. 1 pick in last month’s draft lottery, so there was disappointment to sweep away before thinking ahead.
Because while there are good players in every draft, few would give a chance to draft someone like Vembanyama.
Ask those who know.
“Everybody’s been a unicorn for the last few years, but he’s like an alien,” James said last fall. “Nobody’s ever seen anyone as tall as him, but he’s as fluid and beautiful as he is on the ground.”
James will get a closer look this upcoming season when he plays against the Spurs. The same goes for the rest of the league. Vembanyama’s time begins now and he is as ready as he can be.
“I feel very lucky to be able to live this life,” Wembaniama said. “I’m very lucky.”