Here to shake things up.
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
The NBA season is now two weeks old, and, for a league that lives in constant anxiety that its regular season is going to be perceived as inconsequential, a lot has happened. The Celtics look like the best team in the sport. The Knicks appear to be getting another one of those years where Julius Randle torpedoes everything by not particularly giving a shit. And someone punched Draymond Green in the groin, inspiring a video that, with any luck, will be played during his eventual Hall of Fame induction. The NBA even introduced its much ballyhooed In-Season Tournament, a not-terrible idea that was almost immediately derailed by the curious decision to play the games on courts located in the third circle of hell:
But if there’s one thing that these few weeks have made clear, it’s that when we look back at the 2023-24 season, we’re most likely just going to remember it for this:
The arrival of Victor Wembanyama, the seven-foot-four 19-year-old rookie for the San Antonio Spurs, has been widely anticipated for years, to the point that multiple NBA teams spent last season actively trying to lose in order to draft him. His ability to shoot, dribble, and pass, along with court vision and maturity that belies his age, are basically unprecedented for a player of his dimensions — and his dimensions are themselves unprecedented: He’s able to guard the lane and block three-point shots, a hydra-kraken combination that had scouts salivating over his potential.
But what we’ve learned in these first few weeks is that potential aside, Wembanyama may already be one of the best players on Earth right now. And the ramifications of that are downright mind-boggling.
The breakthrough game was a road win over the Phoenix Suns last week, in which Wembanyama scored 38 points en route to a surprising win. But what was impressive was not so much what happened in the box score as what Wembanyama did in the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 116 with four minutes left, Wembanyama took the game over, scoring ten of the next 12 points in jaw-droppingly dominant fashion. He looked like you or I would look like if we played a basketball game against 2-year-olds. (Except he missed fewer shots than we would have, and presumably gasped for air a lot less.) And he did this against the Suns, a team that’s trying to win a championship this year behind Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, two of the best, most experienced players in the NBA and surefire future Hall of Famers. He made them look like jobbers — old, slow and, more than anything else, small. Durant, in particular, has built his career on being bigger than almost everyone else, a sharpshooter who’s also seven feet tall. But, standing next to Wembanyama, he looked like a kid:
“He’s different,” Durant said after the game. “When he raised up and shot the ball, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be close to this.’ … He’s gonna be a problem, man.”
Five games into Wembanyama’s career, and Kevin Durant — one of the best NBA players of all time — was in absolute awe of him. NBA observers have spent the whole week with their mouths agape. Tom Ziller, of the indispensable Good Morning It’s Basketball newsletter, wrote, “What we’re seeing is unlike anything the league has experienced in the specifics, and is extremely rare in the generalities of a rookie big man changing the game by his mere presence.” Longtime NBA reporter Tom Haberstroh noted that Wembanyama scored more points in his first five games than any rookie since Michael Jordan, and “the thing about Wembanyama is that he’s improving at warp speed.”
That last part is the most amazing aspect of this. Wembanyama is already one of the ten best players in basketball at the age of 19. And this is likely as bad a player as he is ever going to be. When Jordan was 19, he was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. When LeBron James was 19, he was the third-best player on a terrible Cleveland Cavaliers team. When Larry Bird was 19, he was collecting garbage cans in French Lick, Indiana. Wembanyama is already dominating the best basketball players in the world. And he’s still just figuring all this out.
To watch a Spurs game is to see the game essentially broken. Wembanyama’s length — he has an eight-foot wingspan, which means he can almost dunk with his right hand while his left hand is still touching the ground — makes shooting over him nearly impossible. In a league that has grown to focus mostly on three-point shooting, he changes the geometry of the sport. Watch how he blocks a three-pointer that no one in the history of basketball has ever even thought about being able to block before:
And this isn’t even accounting for what he can do on offense, where he plays like a sharpshooting point guard who also has the advantage of being seven-foot-four. He doesn’t even have a set position because he is built to play all positions — essentially simultaneously. There has simply never been anyone like him, something we all suspected heading into the season but are still only starting to understand the real ramifications of now that he’s wrecking the best players in the world every night.
What we’ve already seen is less like Jordan or LeBron, actually, and more like Babe Ruth — a guy who redefines what’s possible in the sport for generations to come. The year before Ruth showed up, only two players had ever hit more than 20 homers in a season; Ruth hit 54, and then 59, and within five years, other players were regularly hitting 30 or 40. If you’re looking for a more recent comparison, how about competitive hot-dog eating? In 2000, the all-time record for hot dogs eaten at the Nathan’s annual contest on Coney Island was 25. In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi arrived and ate 50; from then on, the sport leveled up, evolving into competitors regularly getting into the 60s, with Joey Chestnut setting the record in 2021 with 76. Sometimes it takes someone pointing a new way forward to change a sport forever. As Giannis Antetokounmpo — quite the physical specimen himself — put it when he first caught sight of Wembanyama: “I’ve never seen this before in my life … I believe in 2045, everybody is going to look like Victor.”
These are things that Giannis, and so many others, said before Wembanyama arrived in the States. To have watched him these first two weeks is to see something we have never seen before. And he’s only going to get better. We are going to be talking about Wembanyama for the rest of our lives. This is the year it all started. Turn on the next Spurs game so you’ll be able to say you remember when.