Victor Wembanyama’s NBA soft launch showed the hype is real

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Las Vegas likes to remind prospective visitors that its triple-digit summer temperatures are a dry heat. But at the Thomas & Mack Center for NBA Summer League on Friday evening, as the energy of a sold-out crowd of more than 17,000 fans permeated from the smoldering parking lot to the seats of the arena, the human-generated humidity was as pervasive as the excitement. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” one media member turned and said to me as we anxiously waited, with the rest of the arena, for 6pm tip-off of the San Antonio Spurs’ first game. “And I’ve been coming to this thing for years.”

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The fever pitch was brought on by the likes of a 7ft 5in, 19-year-old French phenom named Victor Wembanyama, who was about to step on the court for his first ever game as an NBA player. The hype around Wembanyama has been, to put it mildly, immense: teams have had plans to tank for the chance to draft him since he was in high school, and basketball talking heads have gone so far as to say that if he doesn’t end up as one of the greatest players of all time, he’ll go down as a “disappointment”.

The pressure was palpable on Friday, and it seemed to affect the remarkably poised teenager, as he had what can only be fairly described as a lackluster (albeit statistically balanced) first outing. NBA scribe Ben Golliver of the Washington Post, a Wemby aficionado who sat down with the Guardian on Monday, acknowledged that the mayhem of Vegas Summer League, in combination with the voraciousness of the crowd, appeared to rattle Wembanyama. “He has a very ordered way of thinking. He showed up to the draft three hours early so he could practice walking on stage. Everything [with him] is scripted.” Golliver said. “Summer League is just chaos – and it was the craziest night of Summer League ever. It was completely sold out. There was a mosh pit of media almost blocking his way to the court, and the game before him was running long so he had to wait a super long time in the tunnel for his chance to play. Just so much opportunity for tension to build up.”

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Wembanyama came out flat, his shots refused to fall, and the blisteringly loud crowd let out audible sighs of disappointment as the basketball clanked off the rim. To his credit, he still found a way to contribute on Friday, helping out defensively and as a facilitator, and San Antonio came away with the win. Real students of the game could see that this was not a performance to raise a red flag about, that Wembanyama clearly had both talent and a deep understanding of basketball, along, yes, with being as astonishingly enormous as advertised. But for the casual fan, the relative dud of a game was enough to start the take machine churning online that Victor was a bust. It wasn’t until his bounce-back game on Sunday where he erupted for 27 points and 12 rebounds (along with three blocks and a steal), that the doubters’ murmurs were hushed.

The fact that a one-game chance to adjust to both Vegas and the crowd seemed to be enough for the wise-beyond-his-years teenager is, ultimately, impressive in and of itself. Wembanyama looked a lot more confident and comfortable by game two. And clearly not any more content with his poor showing than his disappointed fans, Wembanyama was observed slapping himself repeatedly in the face before stepping onto the court on Sunday. “Like 10 times,” said Golliver. “He was so amped up.”

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The level of hype the rookie has received is understandable: the gargantuan size of him is rare as is, and when combined with his guard-like skill set, it makes him even rarer still. Indeed, Wemby seems somewhat uninterested in doing the traditional basketball work of someone his size, which historically has been cleaning up the glass and generally hanging out at or near the basket. The most notable video clip this year that set the internet ablaze about the prospect was of him securing his own three-point rebound for a putback dunk, a feat that kind of summarizes his unique combination of skill set and size.

The truth of that combination is that his approach to the game is a more accurate indication of who he is than his body, which he obviously came by honestly and by accident. He’s similar to predecessors like Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant in that way: scorers and basketball students by nature who happened to be born in larger-than-life corporeal forms. He’s a cerebral, measured thinker, not a bully, which comes across in his basketball style. He reads books, he builds Legos. He’s fiercely competitive, but not necessarily interested in being physically imposing. His mind and approach are, in some ways, as unique as his frame.

Maybe, in part, as a result of being forced to stand out from a young age by his size, or maybe due to the sky-high expectations he’s had placed on him since adolescence, Wembanyama is unusually adept at navigating his international superstardom for someone his age. He’s poised and, clearly, heavily media-trained. Golliver describes him as feeling duty-bound, noting that he speaks often about “fate” and “pride”.

“It almost feels like how we talk about royalty,” he said. “You know, like how they’re raised to be the next king. He approaches his life like that.” That reverence for the expectations shrouding him and for the astronomical outer limits of potential for what he can achieve will probably be more gift than curse in the NBA, but might provide an explanation for why his opening performance came off as underwhelming. Wembanyama understands, maybe too well at times, just how much is at stake, just how many people want to see him succeed (and are expecting him to), just how historic the trajectory of his career could look if all breaks right.

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But Golliver, and other experts in the field, are in agreement: no hopes for what Wemby can become were shaken by his unspectacular Summer League debut. “From a character standpoint, I have had fewer concerns about [Wembanyama] than almost any other top pick from the last 10 years,” he said, rattling off the sprawling list of reasons Wembanyama is so special: “He’s incredibly coachable. He wants to win. He’s a people pleaser. He wants to learn, and he’s honest in his self-assessment. He’s even-keeled: so he’s not going to run super hot, super cold. He has the ability to be a vocal leader. Plus how selfless he is, how team-oriented he is.”

The shots will sometimes fall, and sometimes they won’t. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his staff will probably be tasked with getting a reluctant rebounder (with a frame created, as if in a lab, to grab rebounds) to learn to love doing the dirty work. And with a body like his, health will always be an understandable concern. But any worries about Wembanyama’s NBA future are, at this point, unfounded. And if the buzz in Vegas this week was any indication, San Antonio are in for their most electric opening night in a generation.

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