Now that Aleksej Pokuševski and Franz Wagner have understudies and Jabari Smith Jr. has a couple more guards who won’t pass him the ball, it’s time to peek inside the 2023 NBA Draft. And if you’ve done that, you’ve no doubt come across the name Victor Wembanyama. The French big man has a frame similar to Chet Holmgren if Holmgren was 7-foot-2. While they both have skill sets befitting modern basketball — can handle and shoot from everywhere — Wembanyama has more alpha in his game.
He doesn’t have the passing capability that Holmgren possesses, but the trade-off is an urge to dunk and block shots just so he can bellow guttural screams afterward. In a U-19 game against a Team USA squad that featured Holmgren and fellow 2022 top five draft pick Jaden Ivey, Wembanyama had 22 points, eight rebounds, and eight blocks.
That highlight reel produces more questions than answers because at his size, his potential is limitless. (My other pressing question from that clip is, who is No. 11 for the US, and can he please get some more post touches?) The 18-year-old Frenchman might actually be the I spliced offspring comp that Kendrick Perkins conjured up for Holmgren during his five minutes of draft prep.
There’s no question that he qualifies for a unicorn designation, which is as encouraging as it is concerning. In no other sport does this notion of a unicorn exist. Sure, football has plenty of athletic specimens, but there’s a height limit due to the need for leverage. It’s the same thing for baseball and other sports where height doesn’t have a huge advantage.
If we really want to have an honest conversation about unicorns, it’s just a term for a big man who can do more than what we expect from a stereotypical center. Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokić, and Joel Embiid are startling in the same way that any step of evolution is startling. We’re beginning to see more and more of them, and that’s great for a league with a storied history of larger-than-life superstars.
However, the resurgence comes with a caveat. For every Giannis or Kevin Durant, there’s a Porziņģis, a Zion Williamson, or an Anthony Davis. While objectively great when healthy, the durability and ability to return from major injuries is troubling. If these unicorns slip even one iota athletically it’s catastrophic because there’s no hiding players on defense anymore.
The Zinger went from savior of New York to a trade partner for Spencer Dinwiddie and David Bertans in the span of a torn ACL. And the biggest reason for his decline was a loss of mobility. There are very few NBA offenses that allow opponents to play lumbering big men. Controlling the paint doesn’t matter if it comes at the expense of open 3s, and drop coverage is as useful as an ’80s enforcer.
That’s also not accounting for the worst-case scenario. Michael Porter Jr.’s back has his future — at least from a “maximizing his potential” point of view — in jeopardy. It feels like a miracle that Embiid’s career survived all of his injuries. Ben Simmons even had his own back issues with the Nets last year. I know Simmons and MPJ aren’t new-age bigs like their unicorn counterparts; I’m just reiterating the health risks that come with being that large and playing a professional sport.
I don’t care how fluid Wembanyama’s handle is, or how smooth his jumper looks — he still feels like a branch that could easily snap under duress. That was the concern for Holmgren, and despite being 30-40 pounds heavier than the former Gonzaga Bulldog, it’s impossible to watch Victor and not wonder about the lifespan of his body.
It’s unfair to call Wembanyama “Rudy Gobert with a jumper,” but it’s also an exaggeration to say he’s Giannis 2.0. He’s somewhere in between, and his upside still warrants a No. 1 overall selection and the unicorn label.
That said, for these mythological creatures, being that tall and that talented isn’t a gift and a curse — it’s a gift or a curse.
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