Boris Diaw was passing through Paris in late September and thought of going to a basketball game. There was a young player playing that I had heard rumors about for years.
It was the first home game of the season for the Metropolitans 92, the French League side led by teenage star Victor Wenbanyama. At the Marcel Cerdan Sports Palace in Levallois near Paris, NBA scouts sat courtside as fans trickled into the stands. A person wearing a bee costume, the mascot of the Mets, ran short while giving high fives.
Diaw grew up in Paris and played 14 years in the NBA, including more than four seasons in San Antonio, alongside Tony Parker, considered by many to be the greatest French NBA player of all time. But that September day, before scouts and celebrities saw Wenbanyama overwhelm the Las Vegas showcase, and even before the demand to see him became so overwhelming that the team was overwhelmed. I felt like I had never seen so much excitement about a French player. He had to move the match to a larger arena.
Enthusiasm is intense. So is the pressure.
“I mean, it’s tough for him,” Diaw said. “I hope he can actually get away from that and focus on his career, playing, practicing and having fun.”
Wenbanyama has been hailed as the most assured NBA prospect since LeBron James and is a near certainty to be the No. 1 pick in June’s draft. But the pressure of being the first pick in the NBA Draft can crush high school prodigies, college stars and even international stars. Teams competing for the top pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery should also consider that.
But Wenbanyama’s history, and the way he’s handled the last eight months as the hype around him intensifies, suggests he’s thrived under pressure as well. When the stakes are highest, that’s when he’s at his best.
“It’s just something that has always been in me,” Wenbanyama said one October night in Las Vegas between a series of exhibition games designed as an introduction to America. “It could be basketball, or it could just be a card game. Under pressure, I was able to perform twice as much.”
One lucky NBA team will count on it. The Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs posted the worst three regular-season records this year, each doing the best they could. 14 percent chance — Win the top pick among 14 lottery teams on Tuesday.
’10 days left to know the future team’ Wenbanyama wrote in french on twitter “It’s really crazy.”
The draft lottery brings Wenbanyama one step closer to starting the NBA career he’s dreamed of since he was 14 — and, to be fair, it was only five years ago. At 19, he’s already become an NBA dream. He could change everything.
Wenbanyama could be what James is to Cleveland or Patrick Ewing to the Knicks for this year’s No. 1 pick. He could take the franchise to lasting success and add hundreds of millions of dollars to its value. That’s why Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta ended an interview with local TV in February with the extra line: “Pray for Victor.”
“Expected as a savior”
In many team sports, one player cannot change the route of a wayward franchise. Basketball is different. How James, the 2003 No. 1 overall pick, brought the obscure Cleveland Cavaliers into contention for the championship, and how Ewing led the Knicks to 13 consecutive playoff appearances, including two NBA Finals appearances. Think about how it led to the acquisition of rights. Or how Shaquille O’Neal, the original pick in 1992, turned the fledgling Orlando Magic into a playoff team before leading the Lakers to a third straight title with Kobe Bryant.
James has been named to the All-Star team 19 times, won the League Most Valuable Player award four times, and was named the NBA Finals MVP four times. He won at least one championship in each of the three franchises he played in, including his first title with the Cavaliers.
A few years ago, Nike released an ad looking back at James’ career. It all started when 18-year-old James was asked at a press conference how much pressure he felt to perform immediately.
“There’s no pressure,” James said. “No pressure at all. He’s been feeling pressure since he was 10.”
He later added a bit of a caveat, saying, “My obsession hasn’t started yet.”
The weight of carrying the hopes of a franchise on its back can be daunting, especially when it doesn’t work out.
In 2007, when the Portland Trail Blazers had the first pick in the draft, the league-wide consensus was that the two best players were center Greg Oden and forward Kevin Durant.
“They even had billboards all over town,” said Jim Taylor, a long-time head of public relations for the Trail Blazers. “Blow your horn once for Oden and twice for Durant.”
Portland drafted Oden first overall, while the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Durant second overall. Taylor flew home with Oden, who, he believes, must have had no idea what was waiting for him. A gleeful press conference followed by a rally full of fans.
The Trail Blazers and many of their fans saw Auden’s addition as the start of a dynasty, along with 2007 NBA Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and All-Rookie First Team freshman LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland’s last win was in 1977, and Hall of Famer Bill Walton was the big man who got it there.
“It’s a lot of pressure. There are no two ways to go about it,” Taylor said. “I can’t imagine being so young after playing college basketball for just one year and being expected to be the savior of the franchise and the next new face of the NBA.”
Auden missed the first season with a knee injury, and then three other players. The last time he appeared in his last NBA game was in 2014.
Among the first picks, he hits more than he misses, and 12 of the last 20 teams have been selected to the All-Star team, but expectations for Wenbanyama are higher than individual awards.
Wenbanyama has long felt destined for something great.
‘Born for this’
When Wenbanyama was 14 years old, he hoped not only to make it to the NBA, but to be the first pick in the draft and lead his team to a championship.
“This is the land of dreams, the land of the American dream, you know?” Wenbanyama’s agent Bouna Ndiai said. “‘I’m the best.’ They all want to be number one. Viktor, he has this attitude every day, he does his best to be unique, and yes, It’s very different from French culture, but I think it’s perfect for what he’s going for.”
Wenbanyama is 7ft 3in tall with an 8ft wingspan and would make a great center. But he also has guard-like agility and shooting touch. There is no one like him. That escalates his ceiling projection almost beyond reason.
But he has spent his life exceeding high expectations of himself and others.
“I don’t think it’s the right word for Victor to talk about pressure because I think he was born for it,” Ndiai said. “He was just born for this situation.”
An example of this goes back to the days when he played for the junior team of Nanterre, a club outside Paris where he played from the ages of 10 to 17.
Nanterre club president Frédéric Donadieu remembers going to see Wenbanyama play in the 2018 post-season tournament when he was 14 years old. He wanted to answer for himself the question of how Wenbanyama played under pressure. At the time, talking about the NBA was “taboo.”
“It’s a lot of pressure for young kids,” Donadieu said in French, noting that the gym was packed with fans and other French professional clubs that day. “With kids, sometimes they get injured. because it was.”
Donadhu has seen Wenbanyama’s mental strength many times, but even more so when he started playing professionally for Nanterre at the age of 16. At 17, Wenbanyama was named the league’s best blocker and young player of the year, Donadew said.
Wenbanyama’s affinity for pressure-filled moments is on display throughout this season’s Metropolitans 92.
In October, in a nationally televised two-game exhibition in Las Vegas, Wenbanyama faced the NBA’s G League Ignite team, which includes guard Scoot Henderson, a prospective No. 2 draft pick.
With scouts from every team in the NBA, Wenbanyama made a highlight in Game 1, scoring 37 points with seven 3-pointers and five blocked shots. But with Ignite winning, Wenbanyama was so upset by the loss that he barely noticed the NBA players sitting courtside watching him, he said.
I was asked about hitting a lot of three shots.
“At some point, it was just about taking over, because my team definitely needed a player to step up,” he added. ”
Two days later the teams met again. Wenbanyama had 36 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks this time. The Metropolitans 92 won 112-106.
“He has his own plans”
The Metropolitans 92 have achieved two goals this season. They want to win the game, but they also want Wenbanyama to be a dominant player for years to come.
“I think the most important thing is what you do to people to keep them growing and learning,” said Metropolitans 92 and France coach Vincent Collet in September. Told. “Whatever we do this season, the process isn’t over when the NBA starts next season. He’s a rookie. A talented rookie, but he’s still a rookie. He’s going to have a lot to learn.”
Team officials wanted to help Wenbanyama strengthen his fitness and body for the length of the NBA season without risking injury.
Wenbanyama’s agent, Ndiai, meets with Metropolitans 92 every few weeks to discuss his progress.
“The good thing is that you see something different every game,” Ndiai said last week. He continued: “He’s a lot stronger now. Early in the season when he was driving he would sometimes fall because of the physical defenders, but now he doesn’t move.”
Wenbanyama thinks about both his future and his present. He asks those who manage the schedule not to overload him so he can focus on the team’s game. He keeps telling people he thinks the league’s No. 2 Mets can win. That would end the championship round days before the NBA Draft.
In the months since the season began, Wenbanyama’s fame has grown. What hasn’t changed, though, is his commitment to keeping himself grounded. He can often be seen holding a book in his hand, whether on the team bus or meeting people after games.
He still enjoys doing things that allow him to reset so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed by his goals.
“Viktor is living his life,” Ndiai said with a laugh. “I lose contact with him after 9pm. He paints, reads books, listens to music and classical music, and has his own purpose.”
His next challenge is to achieve his wildest dreams.
Leontine Galois Contributed to the report.