Victor Wembanyama not just winning over NBA GMs, fans in France falling for him
PARIS — Victor Wembanyama scored his team’s first points after just 54 seconds, then pumped his arms when he assisted on the last score of Friday night’s game with a pass that traveled nearly the length of the court.
“Wembamania” is sweeping France and everyone is trying to get a look at the 18-year-old prodigy widely expected to become an NBA star.
Even 85-year-old former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who called the club’s president to ask for a ticket. The Socialist Party politician watched as Wembanyama scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting for Paris-based Metropolitans 92 in a 113-88 win against Blois. He went 2 for 3 from 3-point range and had seven rebounds and five blocks.
Grinning after a slick alley-oop and dunk late in the game, the 7-foot-3 Wembanyama then drew the roar of the night when he made a deep 3. Those few minutes of effortless-looking yet ruthless play were worth the entrance fee for the crowd of roughly 4,000.
He even did a little improvised coaching on court, tapping his head as if to say “think” to a teammate. Before the game started, he twice tapped the undersoles his of giant shoes.
Wembanyama drew a huge cheer when he sprinted like an Olympian - his angular running style making his arms look like pistons - to get back and block a shot near the end of the first quarter.
NBA great LeBron James described Wembanyama’s athleticism by saying “no one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid.”
Wembanyama did let frustration get to him at times on Friday, dropping his head when he missed one block. He looked annoyed with the officials - raising his hands as if to say, “Oh, come on!” - when a Blois player appeared to trip him.
He had only five points in the first half, without trying a 3, but made five blocks. After hitting a 3-pointer 40 seconds into the third quarter, he then launched himself into the air to catch a pass and throw the ball off-balance back to captain Lahaou Konate, clenching his fist when Konate’s shot went in.
He jumped up from his seat and slapped a towel in appreciation when another teammate made a deep 3-pointer in the third period, before he turned entertainer again.
The crowd was small compared to what awaits Wembanyama in the NBA. When his name was read as part of the starting five, huge cheers broke out around the compact arena.
He is considered the likely top pick in the 2023 NBA draft and is a near-certainty to be the first top-five draft pick from France.
He’ll be 19 1/2 years old - almost exactly the same age soccer star Kylian Mbappe was when he starred for France in its 2018 World Cup win. Both prodigies grew up in the suburbs of Paris, where Wembanyama could take the baton from judo great Teddy Riner as France’s new Olympic star at the 2024 Games.
The hype surrounding Wembanyama is growing and national news channel France 2 aired a report on him after his jaw-dropping performances in two exhibition games in Las Vegas.
Metropolitans president Alain Weisz, who launched four-time NBA champion Tony Parker’s international career with France, said tickets for Friday’s game were made available 10 days ago and sold out in two hours. The game at Le Mans last Saturday - Wembanyama’s first after his Las Vegas bonanza - saw that modest club sell all 6,000 tickets for the first time.
“What the lad’s doing is unheard of,” Weisz told France Info radio. “It’s not just young people here or rappers who identity with Victor. Even Lionel Jospin called me for a ticket. What happened in the United States created an interest level what was unimaginable.”
Jospin served as France’s Prime Minister from 1997 to 2002.
The club has already sold twice as many jerseys as last season in one month of competition - 85% with Wembanyama’s name. An average of six scouts come to each game and one from the Sacramento Kings even spent two days watching him train before attending the Le Mans game.
“Victor’s determination is extraordinary,” Weisz said. “He reminds me a lot of Tony Parker.”
Wembanyama looks like the ultimate perfectionist.
One hour before Friday’s game, he muttered in annoyance at himself for missing a couple of close-range shots during warmups.
Wemby, as he is already affectionately called, was lethal in Las Vegas. He finished two exhibition games with 73 points, nine 3-pointers, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots and an army of fans dreaming of what he might do in the NBA.
He’s coached at Metropolitans 92 by Vincent Collet - France’s longtime national team coach who lead the team to a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics.