By Hocine LOUKKAF on 10/12/2022
We are often caught in the moment, considering exceptional what can disappear so quickly. Yet, two days have been enough for Victor Wembanyama, aka Wemby, to turn from draft curiosity to GOAT potential, as what happened in Vegas was just the epitom of what we have seen from Wembanyama for years, a 18yo prospect who is far from having reached his potential but has added something to his game every year until now.
After his 37pts on 7/11 3pt in his first US-based game, he has led his team to a win last night, although Scoot Henderson only played a few minutes, with 36pts 11rbds 4as and 4bl, displaying his athleticism, grace and his unblockable fade-away jumper. A performance maybe more impressive skill-wise than his 22pt-8bl-8rbd game in WC U19 against Chet Holmgren more than a year ago.
So, let’s get back to our actual matter, and try to do the impossible, compare players from different eras, with different rules to respect (introduction of the 3pt line in the 80s), in a basketball world that has become worldwide and driven by the social medias.
I’m going to distinguish three eras starting backward from now, the internet era, with Lebron James as its first superstar almost twenty years from now, what I would call the modern era, with the arrival of Magic and Larry Bird in the NBA, and then the historic era with all the incredible players that paved the way to the stars we all know. Let’s evaluate the level of the best prospects entering their draft, not when they are 15, not when they are three years into their NBA career. Age will also matter as an 18yo Olajuwon is not comparable to the 1st pick of the 1984 NBA Draft. For each era, I’m goin to select five prospects and see how Wemby fares against them.
Picks : Lebron James, Greg Oden, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson.
Honorable mention : Kevin Durant
I will start with the last prospect going back to the past. Zion has that special mix of athleticism and strength that makes him some kind of unicorn. Yet, he had a lot of things to improve skill-wise, starting with his shot but also lacked killer-instinct on defense. Doncic was in a class of himself, as his 16pts 4.8rbds and 4.3as for Real Madrid in Euroleague (that he won) helped him become the youngest Euroleague MVP winner. Yet, Doncic never had the physical tools and thus the defensive potential to be as impactful on both ends of the floor. With 14pts 10rbds and 4.7bl, Davis seemed to have this mix of length and shooting which is so tantalizing, but truth is he hit 3/20 from three during his lone college season at Kentucky. Oden led Ohio State to NCAA championship game but Durantula (25.8pts 11.1rbds 1.9bl at Texas) and his shooting being selected 2nd may be the point where shooting became more important than physical dominance. Last but not least, Lebron, the best prospect entering the draft due to his versatility and incredible physical tools, the one everybody is mentioning to find a comparison for Victor.
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal
O’Neal is one of the most dominant big men ever but has one weakness that followed him through his career, FT shooting (53% his senior year), and somehow, even if basketball is a team sport, he couldn’t get past the second round of the NCAA tournament despite his physical tools. Of course, he was older than Wemby entering the draft but he might be as good protecting the rim coming June albeit with a far better array of offensive weapons, and of course shooting, than the Big Aristotle. Olajuwon (16.8pts 13.5rbds 5.6bl) was also a surefire first pick and a terrific defensive player, so much that until now, nobody would dare criticizing the Rockets for picking him over Jordan, an obvious choice at the moment. Yet, like O’Neal and Duncan, he was a pure big man who struggled shooting it from the foul line in college (52.6% his senior season). Sampson may be the closest physically to Victor, an incredibly agile 7-4 center, but at a time where 3pt shooting didn’t exist. Sampson was dominant from the get-go in college (14.9pts 11.2rbds 4.6bl his freshman year) and while he didn’t have the handles Wemby is showcasing, he could handle the ball and shoot from mid-range, maybe well enough to develop a reliable 3pt shot in our era. Finally, Bird and Johnson had this mix of size, winning mentality and versatility that make them two of the best collegiate players ever, yet they were nowhere near the defensive juggernaut Wemby is and could be in June.
Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton
That must be the most difficult group of players to compare with Wemby, both for historical reasons (no 3pt line, lot of different rules) and because it may include the most singular prospects. People tends to forget how good Walton was, compiling 88-1 (two NCAA titles) for UCLA including 21.1pts and 15.5rbds on 64% FG and 70% FT his first season. When you know that his first recorded assist average, his senior year, was 5.5, it also says a lot about how good a passer Walton was. Then comes another UCLA beast, Abdul Jabbar (26.4pts 15.5rbds over his three college years, three NCAA titles), the one who made the NCAA change the rules and forbid the dunk, and thus created the most unblockable basketball move, the sky hook. Abdul Jabbar may be the best physical and athletic comparison for Victor, a 7ft2 agile player who ran like a deer and bullied his opponents inside. Big O was also a beast of his own, almost tallying triple-double seasons in college while averaging 34pts 15rbds and 7as for his college career but without the defensive potential of Wemby, which may have prevented him from winning a championship in college. Finally, the two players, with Kareem, that make this debate so interesting, Wilt Chamberlain and his best nemesis, Bill Russell. While Chamberlain was probably the most impressive physical specimen and performer (29.9pts 18.9rbds over two years), Russell was the best basketball player and winner he could be, averaging over 20pts and 20rbds in college while winning two NCAA titles, including 26pts 27rbds 20bl (blocks were not officially recorded) in his final college game.
After reviewing all these great prospects and traveling through basketball history, I would put Wembanyama in a very small group of prospects that would include Lebron, Sampson and all five members of the historic era except Robertson (for those questioning Walton, imagine a 7ft center with top notch passing and almost perfect hands, or check his 44pt-game on 21/22 FG against Memphis in the 1973 championship game). I wouldn’t dare telling right now Wembanyama is better than Wilt, Bill or Kareem when they entered the draft. Kareem could arguably be considered the best NBA prospect ever, because of his offensive arsenal and the fact that he played at time where basketball was more organized and they were more big men than at the time Wilt and Russell played. As Wembanyama chose a path, by signing with Mets 92, that won’t lead to the prestige of a Euroleague title or a college championship, he still has eight months in front of him to impress us, but also to tighten everything from his handles, to his defense and shooting, while building a body solid enough to endure the 82 games of an NBA season and the toughness of the big men who will test him every night in the league. Let’s pray he remains healthy as long as possible and enjoy his road to the 2023 NBA Draft.
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