Sports

I Watched the NBA’s Best Prospect Since LeBron James Play Live in France. Wow.

There was one moment that scared his coach, though.

French power forward Victor Wembanyama (R) fighting for the ball with Blois' U.S. power forward Tyren Johnson during a basketball game.
Out of the way! Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

There are no sure things in basketball, but the jump ball to start the Metropolitans game on Friday night was pretty close. The 6-foot-8 Senegalese forward Mbaye Ndiaye leapt, but the ball was tapped easily away by the long, slender fingers of Victor Wembanyama. The 7-foot-3 teenager has many superlative physical characteristics, but we could begin with his hands. When he waits for an opposing player to take his free throws, they hang so far from his shoulders and sway so loosely at the end of his skinny arms that they look like the dangling branches of a weeping willow. They are big enough to move a basketball around the way you or I might handle a grapefruit. His wingspan is 8 feet.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever been close enough to a professional basketball game to be impressed by the size of someone’s hands, but consider two things. First, Wemby, as he’s known around here, is very, very large. The NBA has seen only two dozen taller players, only seven of whom have thrived, and only two of whom (Kristaps Porzingis and Boban Marjanovic) are playing right now. Second, Wembanyama plays for the Metropolitans 92 in a municipal stadium in the suburbs of Paris that fits 2,800 people. Everyone is close enough to see Wemby’s hands. They’re close enough to see Wemby ask questions of his teammates, mutter in frustration, and grin. He does that a lot. He seems to be having a good time preparing to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft.

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Everyone else in the Marcel-Cerdan Sports Palace was grinning too. After Wemby’s exhibition games in Las Vegas lit up the NBA, drawing praise from the league’s biggest stars, the Mets sold out this game in a couple of hours. The crowd was giddy; the lines for ham and butter on a baguette were long. Some people had driven for hours to be here. Before the game, I chatted with a coach for the youth squad of the opposing team, Blois, from the Loire Valley, who wanted to make sure he could get back inside for the main event if he went out for dinner. When I asked about seeing Wemby, he was complimentary but cool, as if to say, You Americans are a little late. Like many people around French professional basketball, the coach had watched him grow up (literally, in this instance) at previous clubs and for the French youth national teams. But after the game, when Wembanyama made the rounds for high-fives, the coach was right there on the baseline to ask for a selfie.

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As for the game itself: The Mets won 113 to 88; Wembanyama went seven for 10 from the field for 17 points, with seven rebounds, six assists, and five blocks. In just 27 minutes. “Compared to the usual, he was restrained,” observed Alain Weisz, the club’s president of basketball operations. “He was restrained because he didn’t force it. The match didn’t make him really force it because we were up.”

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That characterization made sense in the first half, when some of the Metropolitans’ other talents—the American college stars Aaron Henry (Michigan State) and Tremont Waters (LSU)—were more dominant. Wembanyama was playing his role: a pick-and-roll here, a dunk there. He seemed to be figuring some things out—perimeter defense, for example. One of his blocked shots was reckless and sent him tumbling. With his height and reach, it must feel as if you can get a hand on virtually any shot around you.

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In the second half, though, Wembanyama took over. He jumped for an alley-oop, caught the ball too far from the rim, and slung it out to a teammate for a 3-pointer without hitting the ground. In the span of a few minutes in the fourth quarter, he drilled a bank shot, hit a 3, whistled in two laser passes (one blind) from the top of the key, and drove for a graceful fadeaway layup. The crowd roared with delight. This was a restrained performance only by the standards of his eye-popping stat lines in Las Vegas, where he scored 73 points in two games. A hasty highlight video rocketed around NBA Twitter within the hour.

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George Eddy, the American expatriate who is known to French fans as the country’s voice of basketball, had a front-row seat. He knows Wemby’s parents, onetime pro athletes themselves, and said he played HORSE with Wembanyama the year the latter turned pro, at 15. (Eddy won.) “Compared to last year, he’s not the same player at all. He wasn’t as muscular and as confident, he wasn’t trying these one-on-one dribbles moves and fadeaway 3’s—all of that is very recent,” he said after the game, as the stands cleared. “We were almost more blown away by the passes than by the blocks, because we’re used to those.”

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Vincent Collet, the Metropolitans coach, stopped by to say hello. “We saw it all tonight,” Eddy said. Collet agreed: “He played a complete game.” Eddy: “The one fault—he shouldn’t try that block again.” Collet agreed: “He’s going to hurt himself.”

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Learning to make the right decisions on the court is the reason Wembanyama is playing here in the first place, risking injury instead of spending the year hitting jumpers in the gym, waiting for the NBA draft and a big paycheck. After a league-winning season with Tony Parker’s ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne, which plays in the top French division with the Metropolitans 92 but qualified for the prestigious EuroLeague, Wembanyama is back in the suburbs of Paris, where he grew up. He’s playing 29 minutes a game instead of 18, and working under Collet, also the coach of the French national team, who has given him freedom and playing time that teenage players rarely enjoy. He’s focused on strength training and a diet to fill out his lanky frame. “He wanted what he missed at ASVEL,” agent Jérémy Medjana told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche. “Which is to say, a manager, to feel coached and involved in the project.”

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Also courtside was the former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, a serious basketball fan who has seen Wembanyama play before. “I’m not going to come to every game, but I’ll be back,” explained the 85-year-old socialist.* “First because it’s beautiful, and then because it’s rather extraordinary to watch this prodigious player realize his potential, make these changes. What strikes me is that he’s absolutely not timid, even though he’s very skinny and in front of some very powerful, muscular athletes. Either on defense or when he attacks. He goes for it. He’s got the love of the game. Look at him smile.”

The intimacy and excitement gave the game the feeling of a coming-out party, but it was also a farewell of sorts: If everything goes according to plan, Wembanyama’s days in France are numbered, and even watching him live on television will require staying up all night. His team is selling out road games too. Jospin says he’ll be back in a few weeks. If he can get a ticket.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2022: This article originally misstated Lionel Jospin’s age. He’s 85, not 84.

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