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We Undersold How Good Victor Wembanyama Would Be As A Rookie

victor wembanyama
Getty Image/Merle Cooper

At this point, it’s rare to see something that feels truly new in the NBA. For every player that’s entered the league with the “unicorn” tag, someone has followed close in line to make their skillset feel less unique.

Victor Wembanyama, though, feels different. He was dubbed a generational prospect — the best since LeBron James — and that somehow undersold him. The Spurs put training wheels on him through the first third of the season, allowing him to grow more comfortable with life in the NBA. But since the calendar flipped to 2024, he has been unleashed as the centerpiece of everything when on the court (while still held under 30 minutes per game on average) and manages to do things almost every single night that leaves people shaking their head in disbelief.

When I asked Jayson Tatum what separates good players from great players during our conversation over All-Star weekend, he explained that consistency allows you to take a leap into the league’s upper echelon. The NBA is full of the best basketball players to ever walk the planet and they’re all capable of a big night at any given time, but the great ones are able to give you that night after night.

I’ve thought about that a lot as we’ve watched Wembanyama spread his wings over the past couple months. It’s not just that he’s capable of doling out the league’s first 5×5 since 2019, it’s that he threatens to do so on a terrifyingly regular basis. It’s not that he’s capable of a triple double with blocks (the first since 2021), it’s that he has 17 games with five or more blocks this season. This includes five of the last six, with that sixth game featuring only four blocks.

Since the start of January, Wembanyama is averaging 23.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.7 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game in just 27.9 minutes a night. In that stretch, he’s had one truly bad game (15 points, one rebound in 22 minutes against Orlando) and a couple middling ones over the course of 27 outings. The rest, with pretty much every team focusing their efforts on him, have been sensational. That is the mark of a special player, and something we rarely see from a guy at this age on a team that is as rough around the edges as the Spurs.

On Sunday night in a win over the Pacers, Wembanyama put up another rather hysterical stat line with 31 points (11-for-17 shooting, 3-for-4 from three), 12 rebounds, six assists, and six blocks in 31 minutes of action. He did all of these things in this game:

1. Used his comical reach to throw down a poster dunk on Jalen Smith.

2. Used that same comical reach to get an absurd block on Obi Toppin.

3. Flashed the passing skills with a pair of silly looks to teammates — a no-look off of some outrageous handles for a man his size, then a wrap-around pass taking advantage of his preposterously long arms.

4. Hit back-to-back ridiculously smooth looking three-pointers off the dribble in the third quarter to end a Pacers run.

5. Capped it all off by flipping the ball in for an and-1 that helped seal the win.

You can put together a compilation like this from just about every Wembanyama game over the last two months, which just isn’t normal. It’s not only that he is capable of doing things no one else can thanks to his combination of length, quickness, handle, shooting skill, and fluidity. It’s that he’s already putting his otherworldly tools together to do those things every night, rather than just showing flashes and glimpses of potential here and there.

What’s maybe most terrifying about Wembanyama is, as my colleague Bill DiFilippo noted to me on Sunday, this should be the worst he will be at basketball for more than a decade. Right now, we’re watching a young man who’s scratching the surface of his potential while playing at an extremely high level, and doing so with very little in the way of a trustworthy supporting cast. The Spurs are the worst three-point shooting team in the league and only have one truly competent point guard on the roster in Tre Jones (who, it must be said, has been done an excellent job since entering the team’s starting lineup at the start of January, which, uncoincidentally, is when Wembanyama started to really break out). That raises the degree of difficulty significantly for Wembanyama on offense, but he’s still managing to put up big nights on a regular basis.

He’s starting to grow increasingly comfortable shooting the ball from deep (36.6 percent since the start of January) and is clearly building confidence in his scoring and creation ability every night. The big question everyone had for him was how he’d handle physical bigs given his thin frame, but he’s already proven to be adept at absorbing contact and using his length to still get the ball up to the rim even when he gets bodied away from it. On the other end, he is already one of the best defenders in the NBA without any question, and has room to grow as he learns some of the tricks of the trade and gets more reps to learn tendencies.

Nothing about Wembanyama and his skillset makes sense, but that’s also what makes him such a fascinating player. He’s everything he was supposed to be and somehow more as a rookie, and could very well fulfill on the promise of being the best player in the NBA sooner rather than later. That will require the Spurs to return to the top of the Western Conference, and while that feels a long way away right now, we’re already seeing that things can move very quickly with Wemby.