Preparing for the NBA's Victor Wembanyama revolution

ByBrian Windhorst and Jonathan Givony ESPN logo
Monday, February 20, 2023

PARIS -- IT'S LATE MORNING on a gray winter day just outside the French capital, and Victor Wembanyama hasn't been awake very long. This makes several people in his life quite happy.

The small arena located a little over 2 miles from the Arc de Triomphe that Wembanyama is calling his basketball home is mostly dark, transformed into a set for a photo shoot, complete with complicated lighting arrays and cameras at all angles.

His team, the Metropolitans 92, will have to delay practice until the shoot is over. The team was on the brink of dissolving last year, and its future beyond this season is in doubt. It might not even be able to play in this same gym next year because a pro volleyball team is likely taking over the dates.

There's a police officer examining the front row of seats and taking notes, a protective detail doing advance work for a government official planning to attend the next game. Also expected for the contest are representatives from nearly a dozen NBA teams, including three general managers.

It's another day in the unique journey that's unfolding for Wembanyama, a captivating one-off talent in the midst of a one-off season with an NBA preparation strategy never before seen for a European teenager. The French star is the most anticipated basketball prospect in 20 years and a lock to be taken with the top pick in this summer's draft (June 22, ESPN).

He is surrounded by the anticipation of his NBA arrival with fans, celebrities, media and potential sponsors straining to get his attention -- all while Wembanyama and those around him are taking a careful and thoughtful approach to give him the best chance of success once he gets there.

In the meantime, though, Wembanyama is supposed to be getting plenty of sleep. The athletic trainer hired this season specifically to care for him, Guillaume Alquier, waits for text messages every morning to get a report on how long the player slept. They don't rely on technology to track it; Alquier records it manually.

Alquier wants Wembanyama to get 10 hours a day but will live with eight or nine. Jeremy Medjana, Wembanyama's veteran Paris-based agent, also wants sleep updates and, frankly, would prefer at least 11 hours. Medjana manages his schedule diligently to clear time in the afternoons for naps.

Wembanyama, though, is in the moment during this session. He is studying the cameras, looking over the shoulder of the photographer at a laptop to instantly study how the photos turn out. Even playfully smacking the movie clapboard being used before video cameras start rolling; he has never used one before and loves the novelty.

As he waits for the camera to set between bursts of photos, he playfully shoots layups at a nearby hoop, his fingertips coming shockingly close to the rim as he is standing on the floor. The roster indicates he is 7-foot-4, but in shoes, he is actually 7-foot-5, with a wingspan of 8 feet. And it's possible he isn't done growing.

"I've never done something this big," he said, referring to the scale of the day's operation.

There will be many more sessions like this coming. Wembanyama is experiencing a real moment, fueled by the brilliant two games he had in October just outside Las Vegas, an exhibition that was set up to showcase him and fellow top prospect Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite in another remarkable one-off.

Wembanyama had 37 points in that first game, drilling seven 3-pointers in a display that mesmerized even the already impressed scouts who had been tracking him. He played differently in the second game, attacking the interior and relying on his remarkable combination of size and touch to score 36 points when the Ignite adjusted to his 3-point shooting.

The talent evaluators, plus the fans who were seeing him for the first time, were awed. Within days, the NBA purchased the rights to his team's games to stream them on the league's platforms.

More: How to watch Victor Wembanyama's games

His parents, Elodie and Felix, watched quietly from the darkness behind the cameras. They'd come to see the scene. They're extremely supportive and protective, but they don't hover. Wembanyama has been independent for a while, moving out of his suburban home in Le Chesnay, a community that abuts the Palace of Versailles, to come to nearby Paris and focus on a basketball career when he was just 14.

But mom and dad are still worried this is all a little too much. That the demands of the media, the fans and the leagues collectively steal time he needs to focus on development, health and well-being. The stress and stakes of October's games in the United States also made them uncomfortable.

"I didn't even think about the risk; my parents probably did. But that ain't my role," Wembanyama said with a smile. "It's not my way of thinking. Anything that I do, that I step into, I'm sure that I'll succeed."

From an awareness and business standpoint, the effects of that week in Nevada are incalculable. Wembanyama's recognition and the desire for companies to be associated with him have exploded. In 2003, when he was 18,LeBron James' tremendous performance on a hyped game televised on ESPN helped fuel a shoe bidding war that likely earned him tens of millions of dollars. Wembanyama, who turned 19 on Jan. 4, might have done the same a generation later.

Brands are throwing themselves at Wembanyama, trying to establish partnerships before he gets to the league. There is no way of knowing how much those games against the Ignite will ultimately have earned him, though his agents think it could eventually approach $100 million.

But it's less than it could be because Wembanyama is turning most of the brands down at the moment.

"What we're trying to do, first of all, is make Victor rare," said Bouna Ndiaye, Wembanyama's Dallas-based agent who has represented numerous French stars, including Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier.

"We don't want him all over the place. We don't want to have 20 partners. That doesn't make him a known basketball player. Victor says, 'You want to be the best.' When you want to be the best, you have to focus on basketball. And Victor is rejecting some rich, million-dollar deals right now because he wants to focus on basketball."

That means actually playing basketball. This is why Wembanyama waved off the wave of suggestions that he shut himself down and spend six to eight months only focusing on draft preparation and eliminating the risk of injury.

"A lot of people called me -- NBA people, agents, people in the industry -- and they said, 'What are you guys doing?'" Medjana said. "They wanted to know why we took the risk of this guy coming and [maybe] playing poorly when he's already guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick, essentially. His parents were not the only ones that were concerned, I guess. But look at him now."

Wembanyama doesn't yet know James, even though both are within the Nike stable. And Wembanyama hasn't directly sought advice from the league's all-time leading scorer, who, even two decades removed, might be the only one to have dealt with such growing expectations and thirst from sponsors before reaching the NBA.

But as it turns out, Wembanyama is already following the advice James would give him about how he is approaching putting basketball before business.

"The most important thing [for him] is stay true to the game," James said about Wembanyama. "And that's one thing for me. I always tell myself, 'I'm going to commit to the game. I'm going to train. I'm going to prepare myself physically, mentally, spiritually, to give to the game if you want to be great.'

"The second thing is don't forget to have fun because it becomes a business. It becomes a business right away. And he's going through it right now, and it's going to get even -- I don't want to say worse, but it gets even more demanding on you on the business side."

Wembanyama has been heavily praised by players, from James to Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo to newly acquired Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant. Wembanyama has had to curtail his time out in public, where he has become one of France's most recognizable athletes. His precious home games have become events with a wide variety of big names sitting courtside and angling for meetings. Travis Scott. Kylian Mbappe. Michael Douglas even came to two games and invited Wembanyama to a set where he was filming a movie about Benjamin Franklin.

When Wembanyama attended the Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons game in Paris in January, a meeting was arranged with Magic Johnson because Wembanyama long admired the five-time NBA champion's passing brilliance.

This will go on into the spring. It is accepted Wembanyama doesn't have to take another dribble and he will be picked first. But shutting down is not under consideration.

"Victor, if he doesn't play basketball, he's not going to be happy," Medjana said. "What makes him happy, it's to play that game. It's not about the money; he's going to make money. He wants to play."

THE SHOW ON game nights starts early.

Wembanyama is often one of the first players on the floor, where he goes through an extensive body activation routine. It's not quite Stephen Curry-esque, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Alquier puts him through the paces, which includes juggling tennis balls and going through other fast-twitch muscle and hand-eye coordination warmups.

Before a January game against current French champion ASVEL, the Lyon-based team that Wembanyama played with last season before coming back to Paris, an NBA team president is in the midst of a conversation with a scout when he sees Wembanyama start the routine. He breaks off the conversation, declaring, "I want to watch this."

Another NBA general manager, who has flown over with a small crew of staffers to gather intel on the player he'll take if his franchise wins the lottery, positions himself on the arena's second level overlooking the bench area and records Wembanyama's routine on his iPhone.

If there's one thing Alquier cares more about than Wembanyama's sleep, it's his feet. Protecting the feet is vital for big men in the NBA, and there's perhaps few others on the planet with the type of long, arched and narrow Size 21 feet that Wembanyama has.

"We have unbelievable experience working on how to avoid stress [injuries], how to avoid them with those long feet," said Ndiaye, who has represented numerous French 7-footers during his career. "This is something that you have to work on. And we have been setting up a special program on Victor, on his feet these past three years. ... We have been working very specifically on his body to make him safer, and with a different approach."

Since he was 15, Wembanyama has been working to align his knees and learn how to land to soften the load. But his out-of-the-box techniques these days draw a crowd.

With shoes and socks off sitting on the floor, Alquier has him crawl on his fingertips and toes in an effort to strengthen his core. Then there is the big toe: Alquier spends a lot of time working on the big toes.

He will put bands around each of Wembanyama's big toes and stretch them to create resistance. Wembanyama grimaces as he goes through the drill, pushing back to create tension.

"We do it to improve the stability of the body and to help warm up the legs," Alquier said. "You have a big pressure with the big toe, to push during the spring."

On off days, following his team practices and after he naps, Wembanyama spends two hours every evening with Alquier. Wembanyama uses weights but not for the direct purpose of slapping on pounds. Adding weight is a sensitive topic with Wembanyama and his advisers.

Wembanyama has a slight build, officially listed at 230 pounds, and it's already a discussion point for scouts who have watched him closely. For some, it will be an automatic reaction to insist he needs more bulk once he arrives in the NBA. But it will not be a priority, and it is a nonnegotiable item for the Wembanyama camp.

It was backed up strongly after Wembanyama spent 10 days training in Germany last year with Holger Geschwindner, known for his decades of work with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. Geschwindner begged the French teen to ignore the coming calls for him to add too much weight because it might risk his career.

"The weight will come over time, you know, but the focus on weight is -- it's a mistake," Ndiaye said. "I'm 100 percent sure on that. If you put too much weight too quickly on Victor's body -- it's not going to last. For sure. He will be injury-prone."

Wembanyama has been eating five times a day for five years to help his muscles keep up with his bones. The plan is for him to gain strength but not necessarily gain a great deal of weight immediately.

"I don't see myself becoming, like, a really, really big guy," Wembanyama said.

Frame isn't the only thing NBA executives have been paying attention to. When they started to vet Wembanyama, they wondered why he would leave ASVEL, a team owned by San Antonio Spurs great Tony Parker that plays in the EuroLeague, the most competitive league in the world after the NBA. The last superstar European teen, Luka Doncic, had wanted to dominate Europe first and did so, winning the EuroLeague title and MVP with Real Madrid in 2018.

The answer: Wembanyama didn't have a great experience there last season. He had three different injuries that made it hard for him to get steady playing time. And a more demanding schedule meant less time for practice, development and recovery. Under pressure to compete for the continental title as well as the French league crown, there was less tolerance for a teenager's mistakes.

"With our team, you know, you have veteran guys, so just the flow and the mix of the team, it's different," said ASVEL guard David Lighty, a former star atOhio Statewho has played in France for more than a decade. "For him to come to Paris was actually a better fit for him to get him ready for the next level in the NBA and really the role that he would play."

This is a gentle way of saying that at ASVEL, the team would not revolve around Wembanyama's preparation for the NBA. With the Mets, as they are known locally, that is the No. 1 mission. It's not veiled.

The Mets are stocked with younger players and Americans in their first year competing overseas. This was not done to increase the team's chances of winning; it is, instead, a formula that might lead to losing. But it did make it feasible to practice more regularly and more vigorously -- which is easier with young players than veterans -- in an effort to help Wembanyama get more quality reps.

Also, Vincent Collet was able to be Wembanyama's coach. Collet is one of the most respected French coaches in history, a five-time coach of the year in the French league and the national team coach for the past 14 years. Last year, with the team losing funding and in danger of being demoted to a lower division, Collet resigned as Mets coach to focus on coaching the national team -- until he heard from Ndiaye and Medjana that Wembanyama might want to play for him. Resignation canceled.

Contrary to a lot of the styles he has cultivated during his career, Collet is coaching Wembanyama differently than he had future NBA first-rounders in the past such as Batum, Alexis Ajinca and Frank Ntilikina. Collet allows for more mistakes, lets Wembanyama get away with more bad shots and is nurturing in a way he might not be if he were simply trying to win another league title.

Wembanyama likes to shoot jumpers. One-legged jumpers, spot-up jumpers -- and he averages four pull-up jumpers a game, which is not something normal for such a massive person. By Collet's own admission, if the rangy and super-talented Batum had tried this 15 years ago, the coach would've pulled him out of the game.

That freedom is something Wembanyama -- a player who now understands the power his talent has afforded him -- has come to prefer.

In 2019, when he was 15, Wembanyama had a lackluster outing in Spain at a showcase event, one of his first in front of major international scouts. He was being played out of his preferred position and wasn't a focal point of the offense. His effort and focus waned badly.

"I had literally zero responsibility. I never had the ball, even at practice. The coach played me at center," Wembanyama recalled. "I was really frustrated even coming to the game. I knew it wasn't going to go well. So it didn't go well."

That is not a concern with his current team, as everything is set up to make him comfortable. Not just to keep him happy or even to help the Mets win but because Collet knows his primary job is to get Wembanyama ready for the NBA.

"Often there is a problem with the very talented players; they can sometimes rely only on their skills and their higher ability to do moves, and that's sometimes his problem," Collet said. "OK, so opponents start to push him more to use his body. It's sometimes difficult for him to even catch the ball. When it happens, he mustn't go outside. He has to fight to find a way to get the ball where it's the most efficient."

This is what Collet works on with Wembanyama before and after practices and in film sessions. Yes, it is to help the team. But it is also for when he is in the NBA in a year and playing against the biggest, strongest and fastest players in the world.

It is one thing to be able to play for a great coach. But it is another when that coach, still very much in his prime at age 59, is willing to focus on building everything around improving a player he will say goodbye to at the end of the season.

"He's not used to coaching these types of teams because we're kind of special, you know?" Wembanyama said. "He's like a bible of basketball ... he doesn't give me too much freedom, so that also allows me to think about myself and think about how I could do things better for my teammates. I've been a million times wrong, a million mistakes in games this season already, but I feel like we're only getting better as a team. And we talk a lot. We talk a lot. And he always explains, you know, things calmly to me, even when he's angry."

But what has happened is Wembanyama has become the league's best player. He leads the Pro A League, as it's known, in points (22.2 per game), rebounds (9.5) and blocks (3.1) and is among the leaders in numerous other categories. The Mets, to genuine surprise considering the makeup of the team, are contenders.

Teams are trying different strategies on Wembanyama. They've double-teamed him, even when he doesn't have the ball. They've stopped trying to put centers on him and instead assign strong forwards as his primary defender, hoping to use strength to nullify his height.

It's an odd feeling for some of his teammates; this is not how teams in Europe typically operate. The mission still is to win, but developing and protecting Wembanyama is often a top priority, and everyone knows it's only for this season.

"Victor has been the elephant in the room the whole time. But we've learned to adapt to it and understand it," said Mets starting point guard and second-leading scorer Tremont Waters, who is playing his first year in France after spending the past three seasons on two-way contracts with three NBA teams.

"I know what I'm capable of doing, but as his point guard, I know what the team needs. He has all eyes on him. Whenever he feels free, we get him the ball and let him play. ... Basketball is about entertainment at the end of the day, and the people are coming to see Victor."

This Wembanyama-centric approach goes beyond his team. The league's finals coincide with the NBA draft, where Wembanyama will be the star of the show, and there has already been some discussion about changing the finals schedule in the event the Mets reach the championship round to accommodate a trip to New York.

"I've always played up in my life, so I've always been the young guy on the older team that you expect to defend hard and pass the ball," Wembanyama said. "So I got that status, of a good French league player; I didn't have this much opportunity to do this."

ONE AFTERNOON SHORTLY after his 19th birthday, Wembanyama and Medjana meet for lunch at an Italian restaurant in the leafy and quiet neighborhood along the River Seine where Wembanyama is living.

Truffles are in season, and Victor loves it, ordering a pizza and pasta dish with them featured. His appetite is strong, and so he reaches over to sample Medjana's carpaccio, too. They turn to the topic of the draft lottery, the night in mid-May when his future NBA team will be decided.

This is a subject that doesn't come up much between the two; Wembanyama has watched very few full NBA games this season. He studies some of its stars, especially Durant and the way he uses his footwork to get his 7-foot frame into advantageous positions to score. And, of course, he watches the league standings.

"Let's just say I've been following along, but it's easier to watch teams at the top of the standings," Wembanyama says between bites. "It's a little hard to look down."

He doesn't allow himself to project where he'll end up, he said. But when Medjana pulls up the standings on his phone, Wembanyama knows the bottom-dwelling teams that are in contention for him without looking. They go through them without comment: San Antonio, Detroit, Charlotte, Houston.

As he twirls linguine around his fork, Wembanyama says flatly: "There is no wrong team."

"I am not worried; there is no bad organization," he said. "I never tell myself I don't like to go there."

And the conversation is over.

There is some pressure building now. As he works on his daily routine -- sleep, eat, film, practice, eat, sleep, eat, workout, stretch, eat and sleep again -- to prep for his American arrival, his team has thoughts of trophies coming first.

The amount of scouts and information gathering around Wembanyama is growing as teams deploy small armies to France to learn as much as they can about him. The interview requests keep coming in, most of them turned down. There's the documentary he is producing. Corporations want pitch meetings to get him to promote their products. And he is learning as much as he can before he makes the jump everyone outside his small circle can't stop thinking about.

When he has an extra few minutes, he tries to read. In hotel rooms during down time, he draws, something he has loved since he was a child. When he came to Dallas last summer for three weeks of workouts in his first trip to America, one of the first things he requested was a trip to buy drawing tools and supplies.

"Sometimes [I draw] for five minutes, sometimes for two hours," Wembanyama said. "If I was another person, I think I would've loved going to college [in the U.S.]."

It's not just a front; his teammates and coaches confirm that when they board buses and trains for road games, he spends more time with his book than his phone. He likes classical music and has studied art. Spending time with him during these momentous days, this mindset is clear: He is embracing what is coming and enjoying what is here.

"Basketball didn't change for me; it's more the outside. More responsibilities, more -- expectations. ... But it's still the same game, and I'm still having as much fun," Wembanyama said.

"The only thing I can tell you is I love winning, and I hate losing. I want to build something that eventually is going to be remembered. But it's more about building every day, adding a little piece to the building every day."

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