CHICAGO — Tariq Abdul-Wahad made French basketball history by becoming the first countryman to get drafted into the NBA when the Sacramento Kings selected him in 1997. Since the former San Jose State star opened the NBA door for France, the likes of 2007 NBA Finals MVP and four-time champion Tony Parker, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and NBA champions Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf, among many others, have stepped through.
The next Frenchman expected to duck his head into that door is Victor Wembanyama, a generational talent projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft. With Wembanyama watching from Paris, the San Antonio Spurs earned the coveted opportunity to select the heralded prospect after being awarded the No. 1 overall pick during the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday.
“It’s huge for France,” Gobert told Andscape. “Being drafted No. 1 is cool, obviously. I know he doesn’t care about that. But for him it’s about really being the best basketball player he can be. For the country of France, it’s a lot to be proud of.”
Wembanyama is viewed as the most intriguing prospect to enter the league since LeBron James in 2003. The Paris Metropolitans 92 center is 7-foot-5 with an 8-foot wingspan and a 9-7 standing reach. He’s athletic, has versatile offensive skills, can shoot from 3-point range and has intimidating shot-blocking ability.
“The interesting thing with him is we’ve never seen a guy like him before,” said New York Knicks guard Evan Fournier, who, like Wembanyama, is from suburban Paris. “So, we don’t really know how he’s going to translate to the NBA. We all are going to have to wait to see. But he’s going to have a great career.”
Wembanyama was telling people close to him that he wanted to play for the Spurs. Parker became a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer in San Antonio. Diaw, the president of Metropolitans 92, won a title with the Spurs in 2014. The Spurs have been the NBA’s best at developing international players such as Parker, Diaw and Hall of Famers Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
“If the Spurs pick him, it would be a great place for him to develop his potential,” Diaw said.
Spurs general manager Brian Wright was so nervous about the draft lottery that he didn’t eat all day and he nearly fainted when he got the Wembanyama news.
“We’ve had some great French players come through,” Wright said. “And what they’ve meant to basketball in that country, and obviously, what Victor could mean to basketball in that country and basketball globally and around the world is exciting. But having that connectivity is great for our organization. I think would be great for him to get assimilated and acclimated to what we do and just being a part of the, the faculty of the community.”
Wembanyama has several NBA mentors with French ties, but none he is closer to in relationship and height than the 7-1 Gobert. Gobert told Andscape he has spoken to Wembanyama regularly since meeting him when he was 13 years old in France. Gobert and Wembanyama share an agent, Bouna Ndiaye and a trainer in Dallas, Tim Martin.
Gobert attended one of the two games where the 19-year-old dominated against the G League Ignite in Henderson, Nevada, in October 2022. The reality of Wembanyama’s height was on display as he dwarfed Gobert by several inches in photos.
Considering that Wembanyama has been a pro player since 2019, Gobert believes he will be mature beyond his years when he comes to the NBA.
“My advice to him is just to have fun,” Gobert said. “Take care of himself. Take care of his body. But he’s probably one of the most professional 19-year-olds that I’ve seen. He’s doing things that a lot of guys start doing when they get in their 30s. It just shows how the level of dedication that he has. He is not just relying on just his talent. He really wants to be the best he can be. I know he is going to be great because he has the right approach already.”
If there is a worry for Wembanyama in the NBA, it’s his very thin build.
During the FIBA World Cup 2023, European Qualifiers, 7-2, 261-pound center Ondrej Balvin of the Czech Republic backed Wembanyama down on the block and turned on dunked on him with ease. One NBA scout, however, told Andscape that Wembanyama has a frame that has the ability to gain the right muscle strength. Wembanyama has been working with his strength coach while playing for Metropolitans 92 this season.
Gobert can relate to Wembanyama’s need to gain strength, as he had the same issue when he entered the NBA 10 years ago.
“I knew I needed to get stronger going in,” Gobert said. “For him, he already knows that. We have a similar approach in terms of the work we put in our body and understanding that playing in the NBA against 7-footers, there is a lot of work you need to put in that a lot of people don’t see off the court. Obviously, the talent that he has is something that we have never seen. I think he is ready.”
Most NBA players from France are also proud of having either African, Afro-Caribbean or African American ancestry.
Wembanyama’s great-great-grandfather was Congolese and stood taller than 7 feet. Diaw has Senegalese roots while New York Knicks guard Evan Fournier’s family is of Algerian descent. Parker is the son of an African American from Chicago. Former NBA swingman Mickaël Piétrus is originally from Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that is a part of France. Along with Gobert, Pietrus noted that former NBA players Abdul-Wahad, Turiaf, Rodrigue Beaubois, Mickaël Gelabale and Jérôme Moiso are also Frenchmen with roots in the Caribbean.
“Because of its colonial history, France has a very diverse population,” Pietrus said. “So, you have all these kids that are second or third generation of families coming from different African countries like Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and other former French colonies. This is extra talent in the mix for French basketball. Then you have the French Caribbean islands Guadeloupe and Martinique, or French Guyana that produced myself. So, France, for sure, benefits from that diversity that brings a certain type [of] players that fit what the NBA likes.
“Now you have Africa itself, who has unlimited talent in so many sports including basketball. I believe with the effort of the NBA in Africa, the development of the NBA’s Basketball Africa League, it’s going to allow more and more talents from Africa to reach the NBA.”
Said Abdul-Wahad: “Wembanyama is the natural continuation of the influence of the African and Caribbean diaspora coming out of French basketball. Don’t let the European-French basketball establishment fool you. The fact that these young brothers and sisters make the American adventure theirs, whether in high school, college or the pros is a prime example of Afro excellence coming out of Europe. Wemby is the spear of this movement now.”
Soccer has long been king in France and that isn’t changing. While the Metropolitans 92 have received more attention with Wembanyama, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club starring soccer legends Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe is revered in France in a way that the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Yankees are in America. Fournier acknowledged that Wembanyama may not yet be a household name in the “small soccer country.”
There will be an opportunity for Wembanyama, however, to endear himself with France as he is expected to play for his country in the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
And as Wembanyama’s star rises, Pietrus and Gobert believe more French kids will turn their attention to basketball.
“To have the No. 1 pick will mean so much for French basketball. First of all, it’s going to be a great inspiration for all young players here,” Pietrus said. “Besides that, in a country where soccer is king, all of a sudden having the top pick in the NBA draft will help basketball exposure next to soccer. The impact will be huge, the media here will love that story.”
Said Gobert: “We’ve paved the way for younger guys coming in to ask themselves, ‘Why not me? I have the opportunity to be one of the best if not the best player in the world.’ We want kids from France to be able to tell themselves that.”