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How good will Victor Wembanyama be?
The odds are that he'll be a superstar.
Tonight is opening night of the NBA season — my favorite sports league — so I’m going to take one last opportunity to pitch my season previews:
These took a long time to put together — they’re partially paywalled, but there’s a lot of content there that I think is potentially worth it if you’re an NBA fan.
Today, however, I’m going to expand upon a section from the Western Conference preview on the San Antonio Spurs’ spectacular rookie Victor Wembanyama and run it free for everyone.
When I began drawing up my NBA W-L projections a few weeks ago, I imagined the Spurs as being one of my “under” picks, mostly just because I thought it would be smart to fade Victor Wembanyama making a big impact in his first year. Basically I thought that this space alien of a player would need a year to make an earthly transition. But, man, look at these numbers from his four preseason games. Wemby only played 21 minutes per game in the preseason, so I’ve extrapolated these out to 32 minutes per game, about what he’s expected to play in the regular season.
29.6 points per 32 minutes
Yes, it was the preseason — but this is a player who had already been playing against serious professional competition in Europe. Yes, the outside shooting touch and the overall efficiency aren’t going to be there right away, and maybe not the court vision. But this looks like a player who is ready to be a disruptive force from Day 1.
At the very least, the preseason is another data point that Wembanyama belongs in a “special” class of rookies. Who else is in that class?
Basically I’m looking for players who were:
Extremely hyped as potential game-changing prospects. “Typical” #1 overall pick hype isn’t enough.
Played their rookie NBA seasons at age 18, 19 or 20. Wembanyama is an “old” 19, meaning that he was just a couple of months removed from being eligible for last year’s draft, so I don’t mind including 20-year-olds. But that’s the cutoff. Players who were of legal drinking age in their rookie seasons — like Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon — were just at an entirely different maturity level.
For borderline cases, tiebreakers will be based on other similarities with Wembanyama, such as having played in Europe or having the same body type.
There are four comparables that jump out as fairly obvious: LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis. I don’t feel much need to further justify these. I’ve listed them in that order because it corresponds to how much pre-draft hype they had in my recollection. Wembanyama probably belongs a little ahead of Williamson on the list — but behind LeBron and Shaq. LeBron’s high school games were literally nationally televised events and O’Neal was regarded as a guaranteed superstar. (I’m still mad at my parents for not letting us stick around for the second game of the NCAA regionals in Knoxville, Tennessee to see Shaq play.1)
A perhaps slightly less obvious comparison is Magic Johnson — but it’s less obvious only because people my age are a little too young to remember Magic’s college days or his earliest years in the NBA. Magic (and Larry Bird) revolutionized and revitalized basketball and the hype surrounding Johnson in college was intense — he was the #1 overall pick after his sophomore season at a time when it wasn’t common for players to leave so early.
So far, all of these comparisons are pretty flattering — but it’s important when composing a list like this not to suffer from hindsight bias and only list the cases where the player turned out well. Ohio State’s Greg Oden, the first pick in 2007, was regarded as the next sure-thing great defensive center in the mold of David Robinson or even (gulp) Bill Russell. If someone like Anthony Davis belongs on the list, Oden does too. Unfortunately, he missed the 2007-08 NBA season with an injury — the stats listed below are from 2008-09 — and only played 105 career NBA games.
If we’re including Oden, I think it’s fair to also include his draft-mate Kevin Durant, the #2 overall pick in 2007. Yes, the body-type similarity to Wembanyama serves as a nice tiebreaker here. But even without that, Durant probably qualifies. Whether Oden or Durant would be chosen #1 was a significant controversy, and an interview with Durant at the time said point-blank that there were “tremendous expectations that you and Greg Oden will be all-time great players”. You don’t get players getting that sort of treatment every year.
Now that we’ve opened the door to non-#1 picks, there are some interesting places we can go — but first, I need to announce a subtraction from the original version of this list. Sorry, Dwight Howard, but you’re not in the same tier of hype as Wembanyama and these other players and I shouldn’t have included you. Instead, you were regarded as a typical, worthy #1 pick, but also as someone who needed a bit of an introduction to the American public.
However, there is a #1 overall pick that I overlooked. I don’t think this is just my bias from growing up in Michigan during the Fab Five days, but Chris Webber was a very big deal and had a mystique about coming into the league given everything from his style of play to his infamous timeout call. He also entered the NBA just one year after Shaq, and was regarded a player who would similarly make an instant impact. If you’re on the fence about this one, here’s the proof he belongs: the Golden State Warriors traded the #3 overall pick, which became Penny Hardaway, and three future unprotected #1s for the rights to draft Webber. That wouldn’t happen for a typical, Dwight Howard-ish #1.
Finally, we’ll get into what will probably be the most controversial inclusions: the most hyped very young European imports. Luka Doncic was a polarizing prospect. On the one hand, some draft nerds were literally saying he was the best prospect of all-time. Certainly he was regarded as one of the most NBA-ready. On the other hand, Luka fell to the #3 overall pick in the draft and even then was traded from Atlanta to Dallas. Still, I think I’d rather have a polarizing player like that on this list than a “safe” choice like Howard or Karl-Anthony Towns, who everybody thought was a solid #1 but nobody was comparing to the best prospects of all time.
If we’re including Luka, there’s one more name we need to consider. It’s one that’s really going to require you to overcome your hindsight bias. This is going to be difficult, especially if you’re a Detroit Pistons fan. I’m afraid to say it.
Milicic was the #2 overall pick in a draft that contained LeBron, so it’s no sin for him to not be #1 — he was chosen over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. In fact, the subtext of magazine covers like this one — “He’s No. 2” — is that Darko was a second potentially transformative player that you needed to know about, even if he wasn’t as famous as LeBron.
And while I wouldn’t quite say that there was a controversy about who should go #1, the fact that this was considered a reasonable question to ask tells you something. The scouting report type hype over Milicic was also very high, with ESPN’s Chad Ford saying Milicic had delivered the “best workout I've ever seen”. It wasn’t just the scouting reports, though: Milicic also had compiled impressive statistics as a 17-year-old playing professionally in Serbia, if not as impressive as Doncic or Wembanyama at the same age.
However, Darko’s NBA career was probably doomed from the start when the Pistons — who won the NBA championship in 2004 — played him a total of only 159 minutes in his rookie season. Milicic was very bad in the minutes he did play, according to what RAPTOR can gather, but that’s probably what you’d expect from a player who was just 18 as a rookie, was treated poorly by his coach, and could never get into any sort of rhythm.
So that’s the list of 10 players. Here’s what they did in their first season according to historical RAPTOR data:
This is encouraging. Eight out of the ten players — everybody but Milcic and Durant — were above league-average as rookies, and we can probably start to discount the Darko comp pretty heavily based on Wembanyama’s preseason. Even Oden was actually pretty good on a per-minute basis; he just couldn’t stay healthy. But much more excitingly, two of the comparables — Shaq and Magic — were All-Stars as rookies. Magic even won an NBA title!
The long-term future looks pretty good, too. Fully 30% of the comps (LeBron, Magic, Shaq) are on The Athletic’s list of the top 10 NBA players of all time, with Durant within sniffing distance of it. Webber and Davis are also in the Athletic’s all-time top 75, and Doncic is a very good bet to get there. So to be strictly empirical about it, we might say that Wembanyama has a ~70% chance of being an all-time great player, including a ~40% chance of being really, really great. Meanwhile, he has a ~10-20% chance2 of being a bust, most likely because of injuries. Then maybe there’s a Zion Williamson-like zone of being good when he plays, but unable to stay on the court.
There are few sure things in sports, and Wembanyama isn’t one of them, but draft picks with this much hype usually do live up to it.
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As I said, I think we can almost throw out that Darko comp, but I guess let’s wait for Wembanyama to play a few regular season games.