The San Antonio Spurs win the first draft pick. Will they choose Wembanyama?
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Nineteen-year-old French basketball player Victor Wembanyama is considered the best NBA prospect since LeBron James was drafted in 2003. And as you can hear in this video from ESPN, one lucky team earned the right to pick him in last night's draft lottery.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK A TATUM: The number one pick in the 2023...
PETER J HOLT: (Cheering).
TATUM: ...NBA draft goes to the San Antonio Spurs.
MARTÍNEZ: That's the Spurs' general manager you heard cheering there. So who exactly is Victor Wembanyama, and why is he so happy? For that answer, we're going to go to Will Leitch, contributing editor for New York Magazine. Will, when I watch video of Wembanyama, I still can't believe that someone that tall plays the way he does. Tell us why he's special.
WILL LEITCH: Yeah, he's 7-foot-5, which is kind of almost unprecedented in NBA history. But really what he is, is he is a center who plays like a point guard. He is a mix of sort of Magic Johnson, Steph Curry and Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with all that kind of comes with that - just a player with those kind of skills. On defense, he changes the game just almost geometrically with the way he can defend. But the thing that really changes him is that he is an incredible offensive player who has court vision. He really is a combination of everything that every team in the NBA wants, as you could probably tell by the whoop that the guy gave when he learned his team was getting him.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, if you were putting them together in a video game, you'd take the best of everyone. And that's him. At least that's what it seems like. OK, so he sounds perfect, Will. But if you had to nitpick, if you had to do it, what would it be?
LEITCH: Well, he is only 19 years old, which is worth keeping in mind. Now, he has dominated the French league, but scouts - they think everything about him is great except for his frame and his size. Like, all the things that make him great are actually things in the long term are the red flags. Because he's such an unprecedented player, we've never seen anything like him. His frame is actually pretty light, and so he's going to have to put some weight on. He only plays one game a week in the French league. He'll have to play more of that with the NBA with bigger, stronger guys.
But the biggest thing really is just players this tall in NBA history tend to not play that many games. Yet we think of Yao Ming as one of these greatest players of all time, and he is a Hall of Famer. He only played roughly 800 or so games in the NBA. That is not very many. If you want someone like Wembanyama to be the center of your franchise for many years, you want him - to be able to count on him. And listen, he may be able to be so - we've just literally never seen anyone that looks like him before. So that raises the only real red flags are kind of sustainability and his ability to stay on the court.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, the Spurs, I mean, look like they're going to take him. I can't imagine that they're not. But how much of a difference could he make?
LEITCH: After that whoop, they better take him, I'll put it that way. Certainly, yeah, he changes the entire - he would change any team in the NBA. But the Spurs are a particularly fascinating one because they, of course, have a history of this. They had one bad season in the '90s, finished, got the first overall pick and picked Tim Duncan and won multiple championships. They're almost kind of blessed, almost like the Green Bay Packers in football getting Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers after that.
They will - this changes their entire franchise, not just on the court, but - you know, Gregg Popovich, a Hall of Fame coach and one of the most well-known personalities in the NBA, was widely thought to potentially be retiring in the next couple of years. Put it this way - not a lot of people in the NBA get someone like him, like Wembanyama, and say, oh, no, I'm ready to leave. They will build everything around him. He instantly becomes the most famous person in the city of San Antonio, probably for several years moving forward.
MARTÍNEZ: And the thing is, if he doesn't work out - right? - he's such the overall consensus number one pick that who could blame the Spurs if he doesn't work out?
LEITCH: Certainly. You know, we've seen debates in the past.
LEITCH: You think of Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant, or even LeBron James had a little bit of debate back in the day. There is no debate here. There are other good players in this draft, from Scoot Henderson - he's very good. But generally speaking, you have to take Wembanyama.
MARTÍNEZ: That's Will Leitch, contributing editor for New York Magazine. Will, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.