Victor Wenbanyama and the Great Race to the Bottom
The French phenom is the most-hyped prospect since LeBron James, bringing with him a wave of tanking in the NBA we have not seen in years
Every year at the top of the NBA Draft, there are a couple of players that most scouts and draft analysts consider “can’t miss prospects”. Typically, they are usually right about half the time, as evaluating 19-year-old prospects is a game of chance. But now and then the draft offers a prospect that is what some would call generational. A prospect that is destined for stardom and on the path to being a Hall-of-Fame caliber of player. Prospects like Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson were labeled as generational talents.
The last generational talent that entered the draft was nearly 20 years ago when LeBron James was drafted with the #1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by his hometown Cavaliers. Often these players shatter a mold that has been in place for many years. In LeBron's case, he was a small forward with the skillset of a guard, a combination that was intoxicating for scouts and NBA general managers. This year, we have another generational prospect entering the fold and his name is Victor Wenbanyama. Wenbanyama is a genetic anomaly. A 7’4” center that is an adept shot blocker, with the skill to make outside shots and guard the perimeter. In a game predicated on spacing and length, he is every modern basketball mind's dream. As he continues to dazzle scouts with his seemingly endless skill set, we may see a race to the bottom as we have never seen before.
The Skill Set
It is easy for many old-school basketball fans to poke holes in the appeal of Wenbanyama. He is a towering 7’4” center that only weighs 200 pounds. As a point of reference, when Shaquille O’Neal came out in the draft, he was listed at 7’1” and 300 pounds. There is a natural Kevin Durant comparison to be made with Wenbanyama. After all, both are tall and lanky prospects with excellent perimeter-scoring games. The only difference is that Wenbanyama is 5 inches taller than Durant with a much better interior defensive game. He is the type of player you would imagine someone would create in a video game, which is what makes him so intriguing.
Consider the evolution of the center position in the modern NBA. There are two categories of centers today: do-it-all offensive weapons and rim-runners. The rim-running center fits more into the mold of the classic center, a player that dunks the ball and focuses on interior defense and rebounding. But the elite centers, the ones at the top of the position in the league are do-it-all centers. Players like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Karl Anthony-Towns. These players can score inside and out, have an entire offense run through them, and offer defensive versatility. Wenbanyama is built from this cloth and is viewed by many as the next evolution of the position.
Just from a theoretical perspective, Wenbanyama is a matchup nightmare. He will be taller than most centers and quicker than them. Wing players will be giving up nearly a foot of height and wingspan to him, yet he can handle it like a guard. He can get any shot that he wants with very little resistance because of his freakish athletic gifts. In 1985, when the Knicks won the draft lottery it was clear that Patrick Ewing was the prize. They called him the franchise, someone that could instantly turn the fortunes of a bad team. This is what teams at the bottom of the league, and potentially the middle of the league, see with Wenbanyama.
Race to the Bottom
It is often said that the worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. As a franchise, you either want to be contending for championships or be bad enough to be in the mix to win the draft lottery to acquire the player that will help your team become a championship contender. Consider both the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons. Both teams sat at the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season. But both franchises have reasons to be hopeful as they field exciting young players like Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero, Jaden Ivey, and Jalen Suggs this season. Merely a few years ago, both of these franchises were sneaking into the playoffs as 7 and 8 seeds only to be demolished by superior championship-contending teams.
Over the last few years, there have been changes made to the NBA Draft Lottery system to incentivize teams not to tank. Most notably, the worst record in the league has gone from a 25% chance of getting the top pick to a 15% chance. These odds often mean that losing a bunch of games and throwing away a season to get the 1st or 2nd rated prospect might not even pan out, meaning that an entire season was wasted. These wasted seasons can alienate fan bases and have negative repercussions on the viability of a franchise.
But with a prospect like Wenbanyama, I expect an alarming number of teams to simply take the risk because the reward is that worthwhile. There are some teams that most expect to be bad and immediately in the race for the number one pick such as Indiana, Orlando, Utah, and San Antonio. But what about teams like Charlotte, Washington, Sacramento, and Portland that might be on the outside looking in on the playoffs? At what point do they resign themselves to the fact that they are going nowhere and that they might as well try to get lucky in the lottery? This hasn’t been something that has happened in a few years, but Wenbanyama is a good enough prospect to warrant this sort of behavior from front offices.
The list of 7-foot-plus prospects that have been highly touted and didn’t work out in the league is long and vast. Usually, this isn’t due to a lack of ability as much as it is an unfortunate history of serious injuries. The Portland Trailblazers are legendary for a history of big men being hurt with players like Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden having their careers derailed and cut short due to injury. As a Knicks fan, I have seen the potential of a player like Kristaps Porzingis become a shell of his former self now on his third team. Other very tall players have broken down quickly in this league, such as Shawn Bradley, Gheorge Muresan, and Yao Ming. It is this legacy of injury that Victor Wenbanyama will be up against as he enters the league.
For the last decade, a player like Wenbanyama is a player that the league has been working towards as the new prototype. With the combination of length and versatility, he is the poster child of what teams want in a modern NBA focused on spacing. A player that can guard all positions and score from anywhere on the court. The other question for Wenbanyama is what kind of player he will become.
Consider two players that today seem vastly different: Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Durant is looked at as an elite scorer that is deadly with skill from any spot on the floor. Antetokounmpo is a freight train, a quick and strong player that can get to the basket whenever he wants. But when they both entered the league they didn’t look all that different. Both were tall and lanky wing players with a lot of questions but a ton of potential. This is the main question about Wenbanyama, will he morph into a strong player like Giannis or more of a finesse player like Durant?
Wenbanyama is ultimately the buried treasure that is the plot of every pirate movie. With him, there are a lot of possibilities and potential, but also a lot of avenues for failure in the pursuit of gold. I cannot fault teams for deciding to commit to acquiring a talent like Wenbanyama, but there is only one victor in this battle. The collateral damage of this is the teams that miss out and how far back will they set themselves back. Teams like San Antonio and Utah have put all their eggs in the tanking basket. It’s a lot to live up to, hopefully, Victor Wenbanyama will be up to the task.