NEW YORK — Victor Wembanyama said hello, but it felt like, “Hello, world” — as in the moment another sport changed when an athlete who looked nothing like his predecessors or peers signaled a seismic shift in it.
That was once Tiger Woods in his initial Nike commercial. Wembanyama, in the flesh, in America, one day before assuredly becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, started to take stock of everything around him.
He confidently walked to the podium inside a hotel ballroom for his standalone media session Wednesday morning, while the other green room draftees were shuffled together in a separate ballroom — waiting for his availability to end so they could have a slice of time.
“Whoa, he’s tall as f***,” one unnamed prospect was overheard saying of Wembanyama. “I didn’t think he was that big.”
All the footage for the 7-foot-4 phenom can barely do him justice. His height stands out but he’s no string bean, despite his 220-pound listing. Wembanyama carries a presence that indicates an awareness of not just his size but also what he signifies, potentially: a new day in a changing, morphing NBA.
He’s almost like a created player in a video game — explosive off the bounce, with handles and a jump shot that looks sound. He also can protect the rim and has an aptitude that suggests it won’t be as rough of a transition to the NBA as other foreign players, even those who’ve turned out to be great.
But before he steps on stage to reach down to shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand as the San Antonio Spurs’ next big centerpiece, following in the footsteps of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, he had to take a slice of New York life.
He rode the crowded New York subway, then went to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch in Tuesday evening’s baseball game. For a 19-year-old, he certainly feels comfortable in his own skin even though he’s in a very foreign place.
“That was so much fun,” Wembanyama said. “I just know I love the city. I’m probably gonna try to sneak out tonight at some point because I really want to see the city, walk to Times Square and stuff. I really haven’t seen the city yet.”
He said there were a lot of people outside his midtown hotel, as was the case when the flight he was on landed in Newark — plenty of folks asking for autographs and pictures. But he seems aware that comes with the territory.
Even though he’ll follow Robinson and Duncan, drafted No. 1 10 years apart as generational talents, Wembanyama isn’t hesitant to step into the spotlight. Robinson and Duncan shunned the personal spotlight, preferring to blend in with teammates.
Wembanyama certainly has a big-picture view of the team game, but he isn’t running from attention. He stumped for his Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 teammate, Bilal Coulibaly, to move up draft boards — even claiming Coulibaly’s listed height and weight are accurate compared to the way those numbers are fudged for other prospects coming into the draft.
“We don’t do that in France,” he joked about Coulibaly’s dimensions. “Being a teammate with him again would be great.”
There’s speculation the Spurs are trying to move back up into the first round to draft Coulibaly.
It’s hard to be 7-4 and feel comfortable, but Wembanyama seems to understand his pedigree and the expectations — displaying both a seriousness and lightness to his approach.
“I’m trying to be the best. All dimensions in the job of being a basketball player, NBA player,” Wembanyama said. “I want to be the best at the media, the press conference stuff. I don’t like to do things halfway, so I’m trying to enjoy it.”
That sound that felt like an earthquake upon that quote was a roar from Park Avenue, where the league headquarters are located. Having a star who understands the responsibility and wants to step into all aspects of his potential greatness is something the NBA can build around as it prepares for a post-LeBron James league.
The expectations are so high, especially in the wake of Zion Williamson — the last Next Big Thing before his attendance on the floor was trumped by his appearance in the gossip blogs and other places — it can swallow someone whole.
It’s been suggested and then presented to Wembanyama that a career akin to Kevin Durant and Hakeem Olajuwon would be a disappointment. Durant is a two-time Finals MVP and 2014 MVP. Olajuwon is a two-time Finals MVP and 1994 MVP, with both being on the very short list of greatest players of all time.
“I don’t let all this stuff get to my head,” Wembanyama said. “I have such high expectations for myself, I’m immune to all this stuff, I really don’t care.”
The assertion that a top-20 career would be somehow underwhelming feels ridiculous to be said and repeated. But it certainly speaks to the way the league has been preparing for Wembanyama to hit the NBA streets for some time.
The games for his French team, Metropolitans 92, were televised on NBA TV and on the NBA app. It’s a good chance more people saw Wembanyama than the average top-five college prospect, even though college basketball games are far more readily available to watch than games in a time zone six-plus hours ahead.
For his own part, Wembanyama said he’s been prepping to be here since he was 12 years old, which doesn’t put him in a dissimilar spot as most prep stars who’ve been poked and prodded from that age with the hope they’ll get here.
But he doesn’t carry the weariness of having been in the meat grinder so many young players have, and he didn’t back down in playing for his team even with the NBA so very close on the horizon.
“It’s not that difficult. This year was really special,” Wembanyama said. “I’ve never had these kind of responsibilities as a basketball player. I had to push a lot of guys up and make them as good as possible. I had neither the time nor the energy to think about stuff on the side.
“I’ve always been the youngest guy, like way younger than everyone. When I was 15, I played against guys who were like 21. Only this year I had the opportunity to learn this kind of responsibility. It’s been the best thing in my career so far.”
To this point, there haven’t been any missteps, no regrets as he’s on the doorstep of a new phase in his life — nothing he’d wish to redo.
“I’ve always had this ambition. So if I had the chance to talk to my younger self, I wouldn’t say anything,” Wembanyama said. “Because I don’t want to disturb what I did to get here. I’d do it exactly the same.”
Hello, world. Here comes Victor.
Source: Yahoo Sports