Here are two things that can be true simultaneously:
Victor Wembanyama is the unquestioned best prospect in the 2023 NBA Draft, the no-doubt-about-it No. 1 selection that the San Antonio Spurs have been ready to make since the pingpong balls bounced their way on lottery night and the most hyped player to enter the NBA since LeBron James in 2003.
It’s possible — and maybe even likely! — that Wembanyama will wind up being only the third-best rookie that the Spurs have drafted in the lottery era.
This is not intended as shade! Wembanyama very well may live up to every last one of the wildest dreams we could harbor for a 7-foot-4 teenager with an unprecedented package of handle, shot-making, size and sheer audacity, and he might even do it right off the bat. But as we all train our sights on the bold new horizons in production and dominance for which Big Vic is about to set sail, it’s worth acknowledging what’s come before — if only to consider some parameters for how much you’d have to achieve, and how quickly you’d have to achieve it, to reach the staggering expectations that have attended Wembanyama’s hotly anticipated arrival.
Run through just about any advanced statistical measurement of rookie productivity since the introduction of the draft lottery in 1985 — win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, value over replacement player, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating — and you’ll find Wembanyama’s San Antonio antecedents at or near the top of the list.
After delaying his entry into the NBA for two years to complete his active-duty obligation in the U.S. Navy, David Robinson stepped into the league and immediately established himself as one of the best centers in the game. “The Admiral” averaged 24.3 points — still the highest scoring mark of any rookie in the lottery era — to go with 12 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, two assists and 1.7 steals in 36.6 minutes per game. Forget about Rookie of the Year (which he won): Robinson earned All-Star, All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive Second Team honors, and finished sixth in MVP voting after helping shepherd a 35-win turnaround that transformed the Spurs from a Western Conference basement dweller into a 56-win squad that made the second round of the playoffs.
It made for a pretty good first impression:
History would repeat itself in Texas eight years later, when the Spurs were fortunate enough to parlay a slew of injuries — Robinson’s broken left foot, Sean Elliott’s right quadriceps tendinitis, Chuck Person’s back surgery, Charles Smith’s chronic knee pain — into a terrible season just as another prized collegiate big man entered the draft. Tim Duncan stepped into the league and — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — immediately established himself as one of the best big men in the game, averaging 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks in 39.3 minutes per game. Forget about Rookie of the Year (which he won): Duncan earned All-Star, All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive Second Team honors, and finished fifth in MVP voting after helping shepherd a 36-win turnaround that transformed the Spurs from a Western Conference basement dweller into a 56-win squad that made the second round of the playoffs.
It made for a pretty good first impression:
Wembanyama’s eminently capable of introducing himself with similar authority. For what it’s worth, he just put up remarkably similar stats for Metropolitans 92 in France’s LNB Pro A, averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, three blocks and 2.4 assists in 32.1 minutes per game this season and leading the league in points, rebounds and blocks en route to league MVP and a host of other honors. And the first impression he left on stateside audiences back in the fall, when he dominated G League Ignite in a pair of exhibition outings in Las Vegas, was awfully impressive in its own right:
Given how stratospheric the hype surrounding Wembanyama has been, though, you just hope that falling shy of constant jaw-dropping performances wouldn’t constitute a disappointment. Expecting a 19-year-old to step into today’s NBA and replicate the production Wembanyama posted in France on top-flight scoring efficiency while also anchoring a top-level defense feels preposterous. And yet: Even considering the possibility that he might not immediately enter the same rarefied air that Robinson and Duncan did feels almost like being a wet blanket. That’s how towering his tools and talent appear to be.
Rookies rarely drive winning. Rare rookies, on occasion, have — though they’ve typically entered environments well suited to allowing them to do so.
Duncan had Robinson. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes. Larry Bird had Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. Most other difference-making rookies over the past four decades who’ve helped their teams to immediate playoff runs — Chris Webber with the Warriors, Penny Hardaway in Orlando, Alonzo Mourning in Charlotte, Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, et al. — vaulted the ceilings of teams that already had significant talent in place.
Most of the very best freshmen of recent vintage, though — Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Johnson, LeBron, Yao Ming, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Luka Dončić, et al. — still wound up slumming it below .500 in their first go-round because their supporting casts weren’t up to their level and ready to climb the ladder. Given how wildly heralded Wembanyama is, though, would an inability to instantly elevate a Spurs team whose best player at the moment is probably either Keldon Johnson or Devin Vassell be considered a letdown?
It doesn’t seem like it should, especially in a West featuring a defending champion led by the best player in the world, a rejuvenated super-team in Phoenix, the LeBron-and-Anthony Davis war machine in LA and a slew of other squads with championship aspirations. But the introduction of a prospect whose most frequent points of comparison include Hall of Famers and extraterrestrials has a way of getting us to disregard history, logic and reason in favor of eagerly investing in the chance to see fantasy become reality.
The Spurs, ever focused on the most prudent path forward for the long haul, might puncture that particular balloon before it gets a chance to rise too high in the atmosphere; it’s possible that a carefully managed Wembanyama simply won’t play enough games or minutes to approach the kind of box scores or advanced numbers his predecessors tallied. From the sound of it, though, the team might have a fight on its hands getting the new face of the franchise to accept any governors on his game or gifts.
“Victor will not be put in a box,” Wembanyama’s Dallas-based agent, Bouna Ndiaye, recently told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Jonathan Givony. “People will have to adapt to him.”
Which might mean that our expectations — or perhaps our tendency to pump the brakes — will have to adapt, too.
“I’m trying to win a ring ASAP,” he said shortly after the Spurs won the lottery. “So get ready.”