Victor Wenbanyama has dreamed of this moment since he was 12, growing up in the suburbs of Paris. For a long time, he felt that he was different, that he could be great, and not just in basketball.
He’s spent the past few months, and even the last few days, exuding a cold sense of cool about his future. But when the moment finally came, he couldn’t help but burst into tears.
The San Antonio Spurs selected Wenbanyama first overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In doing so, he officially launched the NBA career of one of the most anticipated prospects in league history.
“It’s one of the best feelings in my life,” Wenbanyama, 19, said. “Probably the best night of my life. I’ve dreamed about this for a long time. A dream come true. It’s unbelievable.”
The Charlotte Hornets selected Alabama’s Brandon Miller with the second overall pick. The Portland Trail Blazers selected NBA G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson with the No. 3 pick. Next up were the Thompson twins of the Overtime Elite, a promising semi-pro league. Houston got Amen Thompson with the 4th pick, while Detroit picked Orser Thompson with the 5th pick.
Fourteen players from outside the United States were drafted first overall in the NBA Draft. Wenbanyama will be the first top international player to have never played high school or college basketball in the United States since Italian Andrea Bargnani, who was first drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
At over seven feet tall and with the agility and ball-handling skills of much smaller players, Wenbanyama is sometimes compared to NBA stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant. He’s admired those players for a long time, but he often said he didn’t want to be like anyone. He says, “I want it to be something that has never been seen before and will never be seen again.”
On Wednesday, the NBA took the unusual step of hosting an exclusive press conference for Wenbanyama before other prospects addressed the press in groups.
“Welcome to San Antonio,” said a Texas reporter during Wenbanyama’s press conference. With only one day left until the draft, the reporter quickly added, “Not yet.”
“Not yet,” he said.
Wenbanyama was expected to be the No. 1 pick in this draft before the 2022-23 season.
Wenbanyama watched with friends and family in France, where the Spurs won the draft lottery in May.
“We felt lucky that they got the nomination as a franchise that has that culture and experience of winning and succeeding and producing good players,” Wenbanyama said Wednesday. “I really can’t wait.”
The Spurs have a strong history with French players and first-round draft picks.
They selected French point guard Tony Parker in the late first round of the 2001 draft. He won four championships with the Spurs and was named Finals Most Valuable Player in 2007. Another French player, Boris Diaw, spent more than four seasons at Saint Saint. Antonio He was part of the 2014 championship team.
The Spurs also had great success getting the first pick in the draft. In 1987, the team used the #1 pick to acquire David Robinson. Robinson won the league MVP award in 1995, was named a 10-time All-Star, and won two championships with the Spurs. In 1997, San Antonio chose Tim Duncan as the #1 overall pick. Duncan won five championships after that and he won his MVP award twice, and in the Finals he was named MVP three times.
Joining a team with such a history may seem like a lot of pressure for a teenager like Wenbanyama, but he doesn’t seem upset about it.
At the draft night party at the Spurs arena, the crowd sang “Wenby” an hour before the draft began.
Each team was given five minutes to make a selection in the first round. The Spurs’ nominations were submitted early in the allotted time, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver waited until five minutes had passed before announcing the selection.
“It was the longest five minutes of my life,” Wenbanyama said.
His stomach started pounding and the family went quiet. They started looking at their watches.
And Silver finally called Wenbanyama’s name and a new chapter in his life began. He hugged his sister and brother and they both cried with joy. He hugged his parents and then his agent.
Later, backstage, someone handed him a Spurs jersey with his name on it.
“Someone knew this was happening somehow,” he joked.
In San Antonio, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was thrilled.
“He’s not LeBron or Tim or Kobe or anyone else,” Popovich told reporters on the scene. “He is Victor.”
Wenbanyama talked about striving to win a championship as soon as possible and the breakfast tacos he heard so much about.
Asked about comments from pundits on Wednesday, Wenbanyama said he would be disappointed if his career didn’t look like that of Durant or Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Mr. Wenbanyama coolly dismissed that premise.
“I have very high expectations of myself, so I’m not immune to all this stuff,” he said. “So I don’t really care.”
Wenbanyama grew up in Chesnay, west of Paris, but left home at the age of 14 to live in a dormitory in his childhood club, Nanterre, about 20 minutes away. He attended high school across the street. He’s been playing professionally in France since he was 15, often playing against or alongside players much older than himself. That meant he had little chance to lead the team.
Last season, however, he starred for Metropolitans 92, a French club based in the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret. Most of his games were broadcast on his NBA app.
“This year, for the first time, I had the opportunity to learn about this kind of responsibility,” Wenbanyama said. “It’s the best thing I’ve learned in my career so far.”
While the team had planned to prepare Wenbanyama physically and mentally for the NBA, Wenbanyama became deeply focused on the development of his teammates.
One day in April, he told his agent, Bouna Ndiai, that he needed a second athletic trainer because the first was overloaded. Ndiai assumed Wenbanyama meant a second trainer for him, and was ready to find one and pay for the second trainer to satisfy his clients. But Wenbanyama told him the trainer was for the whole team.
“He said to me, ‘Yes, but you don’t understand,'” Ndiai said. “‘My teammates need it because I believe in this team.'”
The club eventually agreed to hire another trainer.
Wenbanyama was named the best player in the French league, becoming the youngest ever to win that award and leading his team to a runner-up finish. They lost in the final last week.
He arrived in New York on Monday and was excited to experience a city he’d only seen in movies and TV.
He took the subway from Columbus Circle in Manhattan to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Tuesday. He jumped over the turnstile as he exited the station in honor of former French President Jacques Chirac. The person who jumped the turnstile on the Paris subway in 1980. Wenbanyama threw the ceremonial first pitch in the Yankees’ game against Seattle, and he laughed after the ball went wide.
Otherwise, it was difficult for Wenbanyama to simply go out and see the city.Expectations about what heights his career could reach were running high even before his formal welcome to the NBA on Thursday.
Wenbanyama was the first player to enter the green room at Barclays Center on Thursday night. About two and a half hours before he heard his name called, he briefly took the stage. A minute later, as he left the floor, he turned to look at the stage again.
“That’s when it started to feel a little more real,” Wenbanyama said after being elected. “It’s not quite real yet. At that moment, I started visualizing.”
In San Antonio, Spurs fans felt renewed hope after a losing season. They walked around shouting “gospurs go!” At one bar, fans were circling around a clipping of Wenbanyama’s head for a photo.
Wenbanyama said he has felt “so much love” from Spurs fans since San Antonio won the draft lottery last month.
“I think there’s a mural of me in the city center of San Antonio,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for a better welcome.”
Santur Nerkar Contributed to a report from San Antonio.