Victor Wembanyama’s rookie campaign has been the story of the NBA season so far, which is little surprise given that he’s 7ft 4in and plays with the agility of a much smaller man. Now that we have a decent body of work – 10 NBA games – to learn from, what do those who have been around basketball their whole lives think of the young Frenchman.
Kevin Willis (NBA All-Star, 2003 NBA champion with Spurs)
He has a tremendous amount of skill and talent and height and he’s doing things that you would usually not see in a guy who’s 7ft 4in. Ball-handling, shooting touch. When you look at guys that big who can shoot, [there’s] only probably three [players] over the years who [could do it]. Ralph Sampson, Bol Bol and this kid here. Out of those three, Sampson could never shoot like that, though, [he had] maybe 10-12 foot range. And Bol Bol, he had to work on his shot.
With [Wembanyama], it looks more natural. Not to say he doesn’t have to work on it. But it looks more fluid, in-rhythm and part of his repertoire. He loves the game. And I think he’s in the perfect organization [San Antonio] that’s going to not only bring out the best in him but have the ability to make him one of the NBA’s elite over the next three-to-five years.
[Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] is just looking at what type of talent he is. He’s trying to perfect it and let him play within himself. I’m quite sure [they’re] working on a lot of different things in practice. And he’s working on his own game on his own time and just trying to get better every day. That’s what Pop expects. The kid is 19 years old, and he has tremendous upside. Once he gets stronger, puts on not necessarily a lot of weight but muscle, he’s going to be scary.
Lenny Wilkens (Hall of Fame coach and player)
He’s very fortunate to have an excellent coach in Gregg Popovich. Gregg is outstanding. So, he’ll develop and grow and I’m sure he’ll be a good player, barring injuries. [If I was his coach], well, I mean, I’d probably [be acting] the same way Gregg is. You have to let young people know who is running the show, who’s in charge. And [young players] got to know what’s expected of them.
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But he’s going to be a great player. And the thing is that, you know, the young talent today gets to do more than guys did at one time when I first came in [the league]. I came to the Hawks, and they didn’t have one play for the guards! But you know, [Wembanyama] is playing for a smart coach and so he’s going to grow and develop, I have no questions about it. And he’ll get stronger, because he’s wiry [but] he can still gain some strength.
Micheal Ray Richardson (four-time All-Star, 15-year international career)
The kid can play. He can shoot the ball, he’s very skilled. Shit, he’s a great passer, too, so you can’t really double-team him. And then he understands the game so well. I’m not surprised [at his talent] because overseas, the players are much more fundamentally sound than our players. All big guys that have come over here shoot the ball well, because they are fundamentally sound. Look at Jokic! He’s another example. He’s not the fastest, not the highest jumper, but he understands the fundamentals. He knows how to rebound. It’s not about how high you jump, it’s the position you get. That’s how I was able to play until I was 46.
He’s the best rookie of his era. LeBron was the best in his era. Magic and Bird were the best their era. So, it’s all about eras.
Muggsy Bogues (played in NBA for 14 seasons)
Oh shit, I would love to play with a guy who was skilled like that. I played with one in [7ft 6in] Manute Bol, but he wasn’t as versatile as Wemby is. I mean, Wemby just has a high IQ for the game, especially in today’s game, with his skillset. I guess that’s how the kids today are working on their games, how they envision their games, not just as a big guy with his back towards the basket. You’ve got to give credit to all the trainers and the people who oversee his process because they’ve trained him not just to be this big with his back to the basket. They trained him to be an all-around player.
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You know, Manute liked to shoot the three, too, before it became popular for big men. That was his ability, to shoot the ball. [On defense] with his length and understanding, [Bol knew] how to make guys shoot over the top of him. And you can see that in [Wembanyama] because [like Bol], they both have a knack of blocking shots, an instinctive ability. But I think they’re totally different players. Manute’s son Bol Bol is closer to [Wembanyama] than anybody in terms of being able to hand the ball, shoot the three. He’s [also] versatile in that regards.
Kenny Anderson (NBA All-Star, second overall pick 1991)
He’s going to be an awesome player. I was giving him probably two years to develop, but it’s happening so quick. He’s the great one. And the thing is that he went to a great organization … Pop is going to work with him and bring him up the right way. He doesn’t probably know this, but he’s blessed to be in the situation he’s in, the organization he’s in.
The San Antonio Spurs, which is known to have great centers like David Robinson, Tim Duncan, how they carry themselves as an organization, it’s just great. He’s only going to get better. If I was in practice [with him], I’d just speak to him. I’d just tell him in certain situations how he will be a better performer. But he’s at the [beginning] of his talent right now. He has to demand more and this is where it gets kind of sticky when you’re young and coming into the NBA.
He has to be “the man” more. I think he has to put more shots up, at least 20 shots [a game]. Rebound. He’s a great defender already, so [he should continue to] block shots. Offensively, he has to demand the ball. He’s the future. The franchise player. He has to make it known. But he’s not like that yet. He’s one of those shy guys. He’s not the blunt kid with talent. He’s not like that. So, he needs some time.
But he’s at a great place for time. Now, if he went somewhere else, I don’t know if the development would be like it would be with the Spurs. Everything [they do] is on point. Now, he has just got to perform and he’s doing that. He’s a rookie. He’s going to have his spells, his highlights and his down spells. That’s the nature of the beast. But he’s at a great organization that understands to give him an opportunity.
A lot of people are saying [he’s the best] because of his height, ball-handling ability, that he can shoot the three, that he can do everything. But there are a lot of great players. Shaq, Tim Duncan. I don’t really know. But he’s in that boat, let’s put it that way.