I. Who is Wemby the Alien?
Birds fly, rabbits run; at 7-foot and 3 inches, Victor Wembanyama doesn’t need to do either. The eighteen-year-old French phenom has been labelled the best basketball prospect in two decades.Three weeks ago, Victor’s Metropolitans 92 faced off against the NBA G-League’s Ignite in two hotly-contested games in Las Vegas. The games pitted Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, the forecasted first and second picks of the 2023 NBA draft, against each other in an earth-shattering showcase. On the court, Victor dazzled scouts and NBA media members with his shot repertoire and obvious defensive ability. Comparisons to fellow ‘Big’ and French national Rudy Gobert abound (watch out Team USA for France at home in 2024). Frankly, there are no good comparisons. Wembanyama’s game is visually remarkable; just given his sheer size and skill, he is unlike anything ever seen before in the NBA—he makes threes look like twos. When asked if there’s another player he wants to be like, Victor has it right: “I wanna be like no one else”.
II. The part where I go to see him because I’m on a year abroad.
Last Friday night’s game: Metropolitans 92 versus Ada Blois. This is their first game at home since the Las Vegas trip. Metropolitans play at the Marcel Cedan Palais des Sports, a small arena that doubles as a sports centre (complete with climbing wall) in the Parisian suburb of Levallois. The regular tickets sold out online in under two hours. I arrive an hour early and there are already a hundred people outside. The only tickets left available are courtside on the South “VIP” stand. I sit behind the hoop to the right. Beside me on the bench are the teams’ photographers. The arena is mostly empty as the teams warm up.
The South stand, it turns out, is where the away fans are seated. They enter behind me, all in green, carrying giant flags and licence plates that spell BLOIS. Across the court, I spy Lionel Jospin, basketball fan…and former French Prime Minister. Large swathes of the North stand are taken up by local primary school children shouting “Met-Ro” in defiance. They wave yellow and blue pom poms and unfurl a yellow banner across eleven people: METROPOLITANS. A dance version of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ plays and the Metropolitans’ primary school fans are now doing the Icelandic slow hand-clap. Show time.
The players all run out, but only Wembanyama gets a cheer that rocks the Palais. As the two teams stand in a line, he does a two-footed jump on the spot and the arena collectively gasps. A minute out from the start of the game, Wemby’s warm-up intensifies. He almost head-buts the rim; he practises dunking. The game begins. Of course, he wins the tip and, in his first real touch of the ball, Wemby drives to the basket and scores.
Later, Victor lurches forward catching his defender off-guard; he gets a pass within the paint to go up for an easy dunk. The game is now 10-10.
With 2:22 left in the first quarter, what follows is a tripartite saga, a Godfather trilogy of blocked shots. And, like The Godfather, it is a story of revenge:
Part 1: One minute to go in the quarter, and Wemby blocks Brice Dessert easily amidst traffic. Dessert quickly regains the ball and is fouled by one of Victor’s teammates. Dessert is fouled once more, score: Metro – 24; Blois – 20.
Part 2: Down the other end, Dessert blocks Wemby. It’s the death of superman. Wemby hits the hardwood.
Part 3: Wemby yanks himself off the floor and chases after Dessert who is about to receive a pass within the restricted area. Brice gets the pass, goes up, but Wemby pins it to the backboard. Dessert’s shoe is on the ground, it appears as though Wemby blocked him so hard that it came off; in reality, Dessert had lost the shoe before going up to the rim, but it doesn’t stop Dessert from appealing to the referee on account of some shoe-related defensive foul. The quarter ends. Metro – 26; Blois – 22.
Sometime into the second quarter, Wemby is caught in a two-on-one fast break. He is able to force his opposition player to pass, looping it over him, and then demolishes Blois’ power forward, Amadou Sow. Perhaps shocked by the power of his own block, Wemby appears lost. He thinks that a foul has been called on him, he appeals to the referee, but no foul was in fact called. Meanwhile, his teammate, Hugo Besson, has scored at the other end. After a few minutes off, Wemby comes back on with 1:47 left in quarter. Goliath/Wemby finds himself defending David/Thomas Cornely, a 6-foot 3-inch Blois point guard. This matchup isn’t exactly even. They come to the left corner in front of the South stand (i.e. me). Wemby swats the shot away inches after its release. Hugo Besson scores a three to end the half.
The shot clock sounds. Wemby comes on in the fourth quarter with 6:52 to go. The rest of the game speaks entirely to his skillset. Within moments of stepping on the court, he gets a high pass from Jones on a counter-offence and puts it down for an alley-oop. He is fouled in the process but misses the free throw.
He is then one-on-one versus Đorđe Gagić on the left wing. He shoots, is fouled, and gets the three points. Gagić makes pantomime faces at the refs, a portrait of comic disbelief. Wemby again misses the free throw; still, 96 points to Metro. Victor launches a pass to Traoré in the paint, who springboards to score two points. To call Wembanyama’s passes cannon-like is to overestimate the speed and accuracy of a cannon. On display at least three times in the game, his 8-foot wingspan and excellent court vision make him a lock for great passing plays. Again, in the fourth quarter, a “blink and you’ll miss it” behind the back pass from Wemby to Idrissa Ba secures the team two more points. The score is now: 107-87.
There’s a small preamble before what is quite potentially Metropolitans’ last play of the game— Wemby signals to Traoré that he wants the next ball. He gets the ball, drives, spins towards the basket off his right foot, and finger rolls it in. The entire Blois roster couldn’t have stopped it. It’s a scary moment. You get the sense that he could have been doing this for the entire game. He simply asked for the ball and created two points. It’s like a close-up magic trick: two points from nothing. Final score: Metro – 113; Blois – 88.
Before they exit the court, Victor and the team do a lap of the stands: high-fiving fans, signing jerseys, taking photos – this is French professional basketball.
17 PTS, 7 REB, 6 AST, 5 BLK
*(though a second quarter block was called a foul).
III. Tanking or To The Victor Goes The Spurs.
As you may already be aware, the number one overall draft pick in the NBA is determined by a lottery. The three teams with the worst win records from the previous season each have a 14% chance of getting the first pick (from the fourth worst team onwards, the chances progressively decrease). A rookie like Wemby is of immense value to any NBA owner, more valuable than the 2022-23 season. There are therefore at least a few teams eyeing up a tank, notably the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
Given the success of his US tour, there were calls for Wembanyama to cease playing in France before the draft so as not to risk injury. Dispelling the rumours Victor’s agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told ESPN, “NBA people are telling me to shut him down and we are not going to shut him down.”
Someone that tall needs to be experienced in person. When LeBron was drafted, I was almost two. The intervening years have been severely unremarkable. But the year-abroad Gods have brought me to Boulogne-Levallois in order to see him play out the remainder of the season for Metropolitans 92 in the LNB Pro A. Victor made Metropolitans look like a progressive modern basketball team on Friday. They have won four out of five games in the league (the last four games consecutively) and are undefeated at home. Metropolitans play their next home game on November 4th versus CSP Limoges.
Image Credit: Eoin Hanlon