Victor Wembanyama: How ‘Wembymania’ gripped France due to the most exciting draft prospect since LeBron James


It’s not often a player who has yet to play in the NBA that the established stars of the sport gush about unanimously.

“He’s like a player created by (NBA) 2K, every point guard who wants to be seven feet tall. Cheat code type vibes,” said four-time NBA champion Steph Curry, while Kevin Durant added, “The league is really in trouble when he comes in.

But if you’ve seen anything from seven-foot-four French teenager Victor Wembanyama, you might understand why the 19-year-old caught the basketball world’s attention with his performances in the French professional league and is the widely presumed No. 1 overall in this year’s NBA Draft.

He will find out his likely destination after Tuesday’s draw, which will see each team find out which position they select in the June draft.

For more than a year, the teams have tried to increase their chances of being able to acquire Wembanyama. Stars were traded, contributing players were released; all in an effort to have a worse regular season in order to increase their chances at the first pick.

The Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs all have a 14% chance of being the No. 1 pick and therefore completely change the outlook for their franchise, with Wembanyama leading the way.

With NBA champions, MVPs and All-Stars – LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Curry and Durant to name a few – all expressing their excitement at Wembanyama’s arrival in the United States, the analysts compare his arrival in the league to that of James in 2003.

There have been few players whose journey to the top of basketball has been so followed; in numbers released by the NBA, Wembanyama is No. 8 on its list of the 10 most-viewed players on social media this season – despite not even being in the league yet.

‘Wembymania’ is booming, something copyright Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff saw first hand.

Krasnoff, author of the upcoming book “Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA,” told CNN Sport that she and her students recently attended a Metropolitans 92 game – Wembanyama’s team – which was packed, something she had to reassure them was not a regular occurrence.

“It wowed my American students who are used to seeing NBA games. They were really thrilled with it. And I keep explaining to them that having a sold-out crowd of 15,000 people for a game regular French professional basketball is not normal at all,” she said.

“It’s normal when the NBA comes to town. But it’s once a year. It wasn’t normal at all. I’ve been to Mets 92 games for the past few years. I was there the year where Boris Diaw came back and played and I was in their stadium and it was maybe half full, maybe, being very generous the crowd kind of watched the game, they were in it, but not at that point. I mean, just a vast, vast change.

Gaizka Iroz/AFP/Getty Images

Wembanyama poses with his supporters after the FIBA ​​Basketball World Cup 2023 match between France and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A career in sports was always likely for Wembanyama.

His father was a high jumper, his mother was a former basketball player who is now a coach, and both of his siblings – older sister Eve and younger brother Oscar – are basketball players.

Even his grandfather, Michel De Fautereau, played for the Paris University Club in the 1960s in the French top flight.

When he was young, Wembanyama tried many sports, including judo and football, as well as basketball.

But his first step in the career in which he finally blossomed came by chance.

The coach of the Nanterre 92 basketball club, Michaël Allard, happened to attend an under-11 match in which Wembanyama was playing.

Allard’s attention was caught by an assistant coach on the bench – or so he thought. The assistant coach was actually an 11-year-old Wembanyama and when he realized his mistake, he called the technical director of the French club’s under-11 program to inform them of this prospect that he had discovered.

Wembanyama was immediately recruited by Nanterre where he rose through the youth ranks and learned the game by diving headfirst into the sport.

On top of that, Wembanyama’s physical growth has only added to the intrigue surrounding him. He grew to seven feet and four inches tall, potentially making him one of the tallest players in the NBA, with an eight foot wingspan.

However, it was his combination of size and skill with the ball that made him such an intriguing talent.

Most players of his size turn into a prototypical NBA center: good at blocking shots, rebounding machines, known for defense and threat near the basket – just take Wembanyama’s compatriot Rudy Gobert, For example.

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Wembanyama (right) poses with Gobert after an exhibition match in 2022.

But Wembanyama is different. He became the elite in ball handling, dribbling, passing, jumping shots and three-point distance. Add it all up to over seven feet tall and it’s no wonder he’s been touted as the most exciting player to enter the league in 20 years.

In fact, James described Wembanyama as an “alien” and a “generational talent”, while two-time MVP Antetokounmpo said the NBA had “never seen someone like this before”.

Clips on social media of Wembanyama performing remarkable feats of athleticism or skill with the ball have gone viral this season, ranging from crazy blocks or dunks to impressive dribbling, followed by a difficult three-pointer at long scope.

And the French basketball system where he was trained helped develop his unique talent, Krasnoff says.

“I think generally speaking the French system is designed to detect and start providing the means for talented young players to train while pursuing their university studies at the same time,” Krasnoff told CNN.

“So unlike the American system where sport is integrated into the school system, in France, like in many other parts of the world, this is not the case. But professional clubs, for example, have this program where they take promising young players into their youth academy system where they can train in a dedicated way with coaches, with medical support.

In this concentrated environment, away from the distractions and bright lights that often accompany college basketball in the United States, Wembanyama was able to develop into the multi-faceted player many predict will dominate the NBA upon his arrival.

He led the league in goals, rebounds and blocks in his final season in French basketball, while carrying the burden of being almost a one-man marketing campaign for the league.

Krasnoff remembers going to games across the country that were sold out — when they usually wouldn’t have been — just to catch a glimpse of Wembanyama.

Wembanyama’s arrival in the NBA could have a transformative effect on a franchise. But more than that, Krasnoff says the hope is that it will have a revolutionary effect on basketball culture in France; a country with a long history with the game, despite being a “closed sport”.

“Certainly (her writing) will probably continue to fuel the popularity of the NBA in France. It’s always been kind of a given,” she said. French basketball, at least as far as Wembanyama is concerned.

“Five years ago, when I told people that I work on French basketball and why there are so many French people in the NBA, people looked at me like I was a five-headed alien. In the last six months, that has totally changed.

“The French press calls him a unicorn. It’s fair and I think everyone recognizes that’s not normally how it’s going to be, but hopefully it will spark more awareness and attention, especially ahead of Paris 2024, where basketball is recognized, in addition to athletics and swimming. , perhaps one of the main Olympic sports disciplines.

Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Wembanyama celebrates during a match against Nanterre.

Wembanyama’s lone appearance on American soil has only added to the fascination surrounding his ability, as he played in two exhibition games last season against development team G League Ignite and scored 36 and 36 respectively. 37 dots.

There are fears that Wembanyama’s slender frame could lead to injuries down the line, as many players of his size have already suffered from lower limb injuries.

Most notably, Yao Ming – after an illustrious career with the Houston Rockets – was forced to retire at the age of 31 with foot and ankle injuries. And more recently, Chet Holmgren — drafted last year by the Oklahoma City Thunder — missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury. But these injury issues are unlikely to deter a team from going with the Frenchman with the No.1 pick.

The probable destination of Wembanyama will be discovered on May 16 where several teams hope to have the chance to be able to draft him.

Thanks to the power of “Wembymania” and the excitement surrounding it, the upcoming season is proving to be one of the most compelling years in NBA history.

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