Why Nic Batum knew a 14-year-old Victor Wembanyama was 'the next one' and their deep French connections
After a two-game exhibition set against the G League Ignite in Las Vegas last week, Victor Wembanyama, the consensus No. 1 pick of the 2023 NBA draft out of France, has taken the basketball world by storm. Los Angeles Clippers veteran forward Nicolas Batum, one of the leaders of the French men’s basketball national team for over a decade, has been monitoring Wembanyama for four years now.
In a Q&A with Yahoo Sports, Batum provided insight on what to expect from the 18-year-old once he touches an NBA court and he relished in proving a certain reporter right.
Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes: First, let me start off by saying you were right. You told me about this kid named Victor Wembanyama from France about three years ago.
Nicolas Batum: “I know. I tried to warn you. I told you before anybody knew about him.”
Haynes: I know. You said he was going to be the future of the NBA. He was so young at the time that I guess I just dismissed you.
Batum: “The first time I remember seeing him in late June of 2018, he was 14 years old. I heard about him a little bit before that, but had never seen him live. I had a practice with the French national team in Paris and he was practicing after us. I saw him walking in and I’m like, ‘This is the big kid I heard about a couple weeks ago?’ And one of the coaches said, ‘Yeah. He’s the new kid. He’s supposed to be great and he’s really tall.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not tall; he’s different.’ I saw him joking around with his friends and just being young. I saw him pick up the basketball and he started dribbling. I was shocked how he could handle the ball at that size. Then our coaches said it’s time for us to get on the bus and I’m like, ‘Go. Go. I’m staying. I’m going to check this kid out. Give me 15 minutes.’
“After watching him, I talked to Tony Parker because we’re part owners of [French basketball team] ASVEL Basket. I said to Tony, ‘Yo, I got the next one. I just saw the next one. I like everybody else, but this kid is insane. He’s gonna be crazy good.’ I’ve been following the kid since he was 14 years old, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet his family a couple of times. He’s special.”
Haynes: When you say he’s next, what do you mean exactly?
Batum: “I’m not saying he’s next for French basketball; he’s next for basketball. As for French basketball, you had me, [Evan] Fournier, [Rudy] Gobert. But when I say next, I’m talking about the world of basketball. The buzz for him is similar to when Luka [Doncic] came in four years ago. It’s kind of the same hype.”
Haynes: What’s your role in his development and what is your relationship with him?
Batum: “It’s different. I mentor some guys. I talked to him. I’ve seen him this summer a couple times and when I’m walking out of the arena, he’s entering for his practice. So I get a chance to see him almost every day. But, I don’t need to mentor him. He knows what he has to do. He’s got this. The way he talks, the way he acts, the way he trains, he doesn’t need us telling him anything. But if he needs us for veteran leadership, yes, we’re here for him. But I don’t think I’m not going to bother him. He’s that good on and off the court. He knows who he is and what he can become. He’s putting in the work. Some people in France say he’s too young, and I have to tell them, no he’s not, he’s different.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before, and we won’t see anything after that. He’s one of a kind. I don’t think we will ever see anyone else that’s a 7-foot-4 player waving people off, crossing them over and hitting a fadeaway. The league is going to be in trouble for the next 15 years. I hope he’s going to be the only player like this, because if there’s more, my God, I’m retiring.”
Haynes: You mention that we’ve never seen anyone like him before. Is there anyone you can attempt to compare him to?
Batum: “Well, he defends like Rudy, he shoots and has the size of Kristaps Porziņģis, but he can run and play like Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. And I told you that three years ago, right? Was I lying?”
Haynes: You did say that. You just threw me off with those comparisons at the time. My bad. I should have listened.
Batum: “Yes, you should have.”
Haynes: Why do you feel he doesn’t need advice from you or Tony Parker?
Batum: “We’re there if he needs us. But he’s not an ordinary 18-year-old. He’s got a 25-year-old mindset.”
Haynes: What does Wembanyama need to do from now until he hears his name called at the 2023 NBA draft?
Batum: “He just needs to get his body ready. He’s still young physically. Mentally, he’s there. I know the workout program he’s on. I know his coach. His coach is the coach I had on the French national team before I was drafted. So, he’s in great hands. He just needs to get his body ready for the big show because people are waiting for him. He has big expectations. Getting stronger is key. He already got stronger this summer. He’s 7-foot-4. Big guys take time to develop. [Projected No. 2 2023 draft prospect Scoot] Henderson is ready right now. You put him on a team tomorrow and he’s going to be good right away. His body is ready because he’s 6-foot-4. That kid is great, by the way. Oh my God. I didn’t know him before. I was shocked. But for Vic, the upside is amazing. He’s 7-foot-4. He might not be done growing. He might end up at 7-foot-7. Who knows?”
Haynes: Wembanyama played a season for the team you are part owner of. How was it negotiating with your own agent [Bouna Ndiaye] to sign the youngster?
Batum: “It was a funny recruiting process because we have the same agent. It was funny to talk to my agent about signing one of his guys. It was insane. Crazy. I told him during the process, I said, ‘Bouna, you and I have never done business together against each other. I don’t like this. I want to be back on your team, that’s for sure.’ But Bouna did a great job for me. We got Victor for a year.”