French phenom is the best prospect since LeBron

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NEW YORK — The 2022 NBA draft was top-heavy with Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith, but none of them compare to what’s coming next year with the 7-foot-3 phenom out of France, Victor Wembanyama. Oklahoma City might have landed a great prospect in Holmgren, but the tanking will continue for one more year. The Thunder and multiple other teams are already eyeing the franchise-changing, generational talent Wembanyama for the 2023 NBA draft.

The 18-year-old point-forward plays like no one else in the world with his staggering size and frame he continues to grow into, along with his 7-foot-9 wingspan (some say it’s 7-foot-10). To see him take players off the dribble and step into 3-pointers from Stephen Curry range defies everything you would ever expect from a young player with his size. He’s most noticeable on the defensive end as a rim protector and effectively guarding wings off the pick-and-roll switch. Think Rudy Gobert mixed with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. That’s what Wembanyama is projected to be. If you think that comp is too outrageous, then how about a larger Giannis Antetokounmpo without any weaknesses.

Seriously. He’s that good.

Wembanyama is the most talked-about prospect among NBA scouts and executives since LeBron James in 2003 and is the runaway favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft by a mile. The French native will be the biggest and most talented import from overseas ever, trumping Luka Doncic and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

“Right now, it’s Wembanyama and everyone else for the 2023 draft,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “There’s always concern about someone so good so young, but it hasn’t gotten in the way of Wembanyama from getting better over the years. He’s the closest thing to a transcendent talent the draft has seen since probably Zion [Williamson], and even then the feelings throughout the league were much more mixed compared to where things stand right now with Wembanyama.”

Victor Wembanyama of LDLC Asvel Villeurbanne in action during the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague match between Real Madrid and LDLC Asvel Villeurbanne at Wizink Center on March 17, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.
Victor Wembanyama, the French teenager who could be the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, is already projected as the 2023 NBA draft’s No. 1 overall pick. (Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Who is Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft?

Wembanyama grew up in Le Chesnay, France, a suburb 15 miles outside of Paris. His mom, Elodie de Fautereau, played basketball at a high level and his father, Felix, was a professional high jumper and ran track. His older sister, Eve, also played basketball and won a gold medal with France at the 2017 U16 European Championship. As a child, Wembanyama played soccer and was an elite goalkeeper before giving it up to focus solely on basketball.

At just 14 years old, Wembanyama helped France’s JSF Nanterre U18 team become the French League runner-up, despite being three years younger than most of the players. Around this time, Wembanyama started to get noticed by other scouts around Europe. He was a lanky center who wasn’t afraid to shoot deep threes, attack the lane off the perimeter and played the game differently than anyone else. It was clear early on he was going to be a special player with his size and skill set. Despite pushes to move to Barcelona, a bigger basketball city, Wembanyama opted to stay in France and continue his development, eventually playing for ASVEL Villeurbanne in the EuroLeague and the U19 French national team.

Every NBA scout was tuned in last summer to watch 7-foot Holmgren, this year’s No. 2 overall pick, go head-to-head with Wembanyama in the FIBA U19 World Cup gold-medal game. Holmgren is known as one of the best rim protectors in America, but it was Wembanyama (a year younger than everyone on the court) who was incredible, recording eight (yes, EIGHT!) blocks in the game, adding 22 points in an MVP-caliber performance. Team USA barely edged France, 83-81, with Holmgren winning MVP honors and finishing with 10 points and five assists in 23 minutes. During the course of the tournament, Wembanyama set a record for blocked shots in FIBA World Cup history (40), averaging 5.7 per game. To put it in perspective, Holmgren recorded only 19 blocks in the same tournament.

“Never have I ever seen Chet Holmgren overshadowed physically like he was last year whenever the two met,” another NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “He practically can and does do all that Chet can, but is three inches taller, probably shoots it better from three, may have a better feel as a passer and has a much better frame to develop than Chet.”

The All-Tournament team was loaded with talent, including Jaden Ivey (No. 5 pick this year to the Detroit Pistons), Nikola Jovic (No. 27 pick to the Miami Heat), Zach Edey (Purdue junior center), Wembanyama and Holmgren.

Ivey and Holmgren were top-five picks in this draft, and Wembanyama would most definitely have been the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and arguably the No. 1 pick in the last three draft classes. He’s the best young prospect in the world, regardless of class.

What insiders say about Victor Wembanyama from upside to concerns

As expected, there have been growing pains in the EuroLeague, playing against grown men, but he’s held his own this past season. Wembanyama recorded his best game last month, posting 14 points, five rebounds, five blocks and two steals in 23 minutes in a win over Zalgiris. Head coach T.J. Parker is encouraged by his development and offers an insider’s look at what it’s like coaching the budding super star.

“First of all, he listens, and he wants to get better,” Parker said of Wembanyama after the win. “It’s not easy for him because he has that kind of body. He has to get stronger, and he works hard every day, but I trust him at the end of the game. Even at just 18 years old.”

Wembanyama does it all from blocking shots to scoring at all three levels offensively. A lot can change between now and June 2023, when he is eligible to be drafted, but all signs point to Wembanyama being the next big thing to hit the NBA. Injuries have been a slight concern after he suffered a small finger fracture in November and bone contusion in his right shoulder in December. When Wembanyama is healthy, he’s been unstoppable and is showing glimpses of why he’s the No. 1 2023 NBA prospect. Of course, there will be doubters and critics of his long, lanky frame, but Wembanyama’s ready to prove everyone wrong.

“I have no pressure, no fear. It’s just basketball, so I’m trying to have fun every time,” Wembanyama said. “You know, people have doubts, but I’m going to prove them wrong.”

Buckle up. Wembanyama, an 18-year-old from France, is a year away from changing the game of basketball and the way the center position is played. He’s also in good company with the teenage phenom dominating the G League, Scoot Henderson, and 6-foot-7 twins Amen and Ausar Thompson making noise in Overtime’s OTE league. All are projected top-five picks next year.

Let the tanking begin for the 2023 NBA draft.

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