PARIS — Bodies were spilling onto the floor. Cameras were flashing as bright as the stars in the building. The NBA was back in Paris.
However, that wasn’t the cause of the pandemonium.
Ten minutes before the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls were set to tip-off in Paris, basketball’s next prodigy walked out onto the floor — draped in a rugged denim top, slick black pants, a cream man purse and a pair of size 20.5 white kicks that looked like two miniature dogs. Victor Wembanyama is his name, and unless Earth freezes over between now and June, he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.
The 19-year-old’s walk to his courtside seat should have taken less than a minute. It took all 10. Everyone wanted to shake Wembanyama’s hand, they all wanted a photo. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who couldn’t even utter the French Prince’s name publicly when asked during his availability before the game, got a practice handshake in before the real one in June. Ahmad Rashad worked up a sweat wiggling his way through the maze of awestruck bodies. Magic Johnson dapped him up. Tony Parker, the king of French basketball, had a chat with him. Pistons legend and Hall of Famer Ben Wallace, who, funny enough, is Wembanyama’s father’s favorite player, went over and said hello.
—NBA (@NBA) January 19, 2023
Many others. A-listers. B-listers. Anyone who was anyone met the young man who, in just a few months, will formally be the talk of the NBA.
Where Wembanyama ends up, though, is the mystery 30 teams want solved yesterday. As of now, no team has a better chance than the Pistons, the Wembanyama team sat and watched once the shy and reserved young man was done shaking hands and kissing babies.
Detroit fell to Chicago, 126-108, and dropped to 12-36 on the season. The Pistons are an organization that is very much rebuilding and has a handful of teenagers and 20-somethings who ooze potential. The one most dripping with stardom is 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, who is out for the season and sat on the Pistons’ bench dressed to impress. The injuries Detroit has endured this season make it tough to see the vision night in and night out. It’s been a rollercoaster year, which is predictable with so much young talent and the lack of a true star. Cunningham’s absence is the primary culprit. Maybe Detroit’s season looks a little different if health is in Cunningham favor. Maybe that star the Pistons desperately need would have arrived this year.
It’s possible, however, that while Cunningham’s absence is unfortunate for so many reasons, it’s a blessing in disguise for Detroit. What if that ends up being the reason Wembanyama becomes the latest French product to end up in De-twah? A Cunningham-Wembanyama foundation would make the Pistons as intriguing of an up-and-coming product in recent memory. Sprinkle in the continued development of rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, the progress of Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Livers and Killian Hayes, and a boatload of cap space next summer, and Detroit is setup for success for the next decade-plus if Wembanyama and Cunningham are what we think they are.
Detroit’s decision-makers hope Wembanyama is the sparkling prize at the end of a losing season. Owner Tom Gores sat just a few chairs away from Wembanyama during Thursday’s game. General manager Troy Weaver was right next to Gores. Coincidence? Probably, but maybe not.
Wembanyama, for maybe the last time, was able to be a fan as the sport’s greatest league performed right in front of him. He took his phone out on several occasions to snap videos. He clapped when cool stuff happened. Wembanyama was as invested in the theater as the tens of thousands of people who were able to take NBA basketball live for the first time in a few years. His long legs di lui nearly tripped a referee. Wembanyama, on this night, for brief moments here and there, was able to be what he is: a kid.
It won’t be long, though, before that innocence will be stripped from Wembanyama. The anticipation surrounding him is only rivaled by LeBron James in recent memory. The NBA is showing some of his games with Metropolitans 92 this season. The league has never done this with a prospect. It’s unprecedented. The pressure people are putting on Wembanyama almost makes you feel bad for him. James is a rare breed. Very few are able to live up to the hype of that extreme. The world appears to believe that Wembanyama will be the next to do so, but, man, he’s 19. Let’s pump the brakes just a little bit.
Wembanyama has all the tools to be, as the kids like to say, “HIM.” He’s every bit 7-foot-2. He was the tallest person in the building by a baguette. Wembanyama made Nikola Vučević look like Muggsy Bogues when he was standing in his vicinity of him. He made Andre Drummond look like Earl Boykins. Wembanyama carries the ballhandling skills of a wing, and he’s got a sweet shooting stroke. Wembanyama walked out of an underground basketball lab and into our dreams.
See, it’s easy to slap these ridiculous expectations on Wembanyama. If health is in his favor of him, it’s hard to envision him not meeting them.
The NBA’s night in Paris allowed Wembanyama to scout his future potential team. It also gave members of the Pistons the opportunity to see this unicorn they’ve heard about in the flesh.
If Wembanyama ends up in Detroit on draft night, we’ll all remember this one night in Paris.
Tracking Victor Wembanyama’s path to the 2023 NBA Draft
(Top photo of Adam Silver and Victor Wembanyama: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)