Unicorn? Alien? The many ways in which Victor Wembanyama is unlike any NBA prospect we’ve ever seen

The hype train has officially left the station. Did you see Victor Wembanyama? Did you see his baseline shimmy fadeaways? The high-flying flushes beckoning for a poster? The playmaking, the 3-pointers off the dribble — all at a listed 7-foot-3, with reason to believe the 18-year-old stands even larger.

“Everybody has been a unicorn for the last two years, but he's more like an alien,” LeBron James said Wednesday night from NBA preseason inside Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, just north of the Henderson, Nevada, floor Wembayama set ablaze. “I've never seen … no one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor.”

Wembanyama followed James’ comments with a second dazzling performance in exhibition play against G League Ignite on Thursday. NBA personnel have salivated over Wembanyama’s potential for some time, but these two games at The Dollar Loan Center somehow exceeded the towering expectations that grow with each step of his size 20.5 Nikes.

“This was like watching Jesus walk on water,” one international scout told Yahoo Sports.

There have been few, true moments when prospects cement themselves atop scouting boards. When their name gets etched in Sharpie, and then you throw away the Sharpie, from then until June — all around the league.

For Zion Williamson, it was the instant his own massive sneaker exploded in late February 2019. Sure, Williamson had stolen hearts and scouting minds well before the final weeks of the regular season. But when Duke’s Hercules showed his first sign of human weakness, there was little hesitation among NBA evaluators on where Williamson stood in that draft class’ hierarchy. There were calls for him to shut down his freshman season right then and there. Because if any team was bad enough, and then lucky enough, to draw that year’s top choice, it would have been foolish to choose otherwise. The perception of missing on a can't-miss talent can sting a reputation more than tales of a draft-night steal can blow wind into an executive’s sails. Nobody has forgotten the Kings passed on Luka Doncic, and Sacramento hired a different front office not long after.

HENDERSON, NEVADA - OCTOBER 06: Victor Wembanyama #1 of Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 dunks the ball during warm-up before an exhibition game against G League Ignite at The Dollar Loan Center on October 06, 2022 in Henderson, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Victor Wembanyama dunks during warmups before an exhibition game against G League Ignite at The Dollar Loan Center on Oct. 6, 2022, in Henderson, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

Wembanyama appears as can’t-miss, as sure of a bet, as any prospect can be for the No. 1 pick. Several front office figures in Las Vegas said Wembanyama would still be their war room vote even if he — knock on wood — were to face injury between now and when Adam Silver takes the podium this summer. Not even season-ending surgery could change their minds. “There would have to be something absolutely devastating in his medical,” one executive told Yahoo Sports.

James dubbed Wembanyama’s combination of size and elite skill as “generational-type talent.” It just seems that simple and obvious. This was no grainy tape against uncertain competition. Over 200 scouts received credentials for this pair of games with Metropolitans 92. And Wembanyama, all he did was leave the impression he’s capable of drawing All-Star consideration from the first minute he logs in the league.

One team staffer said Wembanyama’s stateside showcase will even make for an easier pitch to team ownership, whenever an unsuspecting front office inevitably stumbles below preseason expectations, and finds itself deciding between a play-in tournament push or a 14 percent chance at such a rare franchise pillar.

“I’m sure there will be some brainstorming conversations happening behind closed doors,” an Eastern Conference scout said.

Does Victor Wembanyama have a comp?

Coming up with the perfect comparison for Wembanyama’s game has now become something of a sport in itself. Is he Kevin Durant crossed with Rudy Gobert? But he also has the mid-range artillery of Kobe Bryant? And the seeds of a developing passing gene?

“Even when I was like 9, 10, 11, I’ve always been shooting threes and handling the ball,” Wembanyama said. “I didn’t look up to players for me to do that. But I inspired myself in doing whatever I wanted to do. I can take something from any player that does anything well. It was really about what I want to do on the court.”

Those words can read with a hint of arrogance, but in his tone in real time, it was laced with sincere contemplation. Any problem, even the concepts of basketball themselves, can be solved.

Sixers coaches have always gushed over Joel Embiid’s attention to detail and a knack for mastering moves in one day that can take other players a full week to feel comfortable with the footwork. When Wembanyama talks about this craft on hardwood, his explanations drip with the perspective of a humbled novice, trying nothing but to sharpen his toolkit like the masters before him. So when he meets a fellow titan like Embiid on the court, he will win.

“In his mind, he wants to be the best player in the world,” said Gobert, a fellow native of France who has the same agent as Wembanyama, Bouna Ndiaye. “He’s going to get there.”

Watch and listen, and you can see Wembanyama’s mind at work. During the second showcase game in Henderson, he swatted an Ignite guard’s attempt from the left block and then flashed a boyish smirk. The ball sailed out of bounds as his face twisted, almost with intrigue. An opponent that small actually dared to chance a floater past his hawking, 8-foot reach. Wembanyama tallied nine blocks over the two games against Ignite.

When he met with the media, he asked follow-up questions to better understand what he was being asked. On occasion, he stopped mid-answer to slow those churning wheels before charting a better course for his answer. But not the correct course — the more genuine course. The more precise course. One that could best portray the grinding mechanics of his brain, all in near-perfect language that is not native to his tongue.

His hands are in constant, engaging motion as he speaks. It’s hard not to notice, considering there’s a photo on reddit of Wembanyama’s fingers stretching far past Michael Jordan’s palm print, he who famously palmed basketballs like grapefruits. All week, Wembanyama’s fingers rivaled the length of the news conference microphones he used to unspool each thought.

Using those massive mitts helped emphasize Wembanyama’s expression. Talking with adjoining hand movement has been proven to bridge communication gaps — particularly on abstract ideas. What a useful ability that will be, once he’s tasked with rallying an NBA franchise toward championships, despite its group of millionaires all paving their careers at the same diametric time.

In 2021, researchers from the Netherlands found that hand gestures can increase the interpretation of one’s words by 20 percent. Just a few twirls of the hand can generally lead speakers to being received as warm, agreeable and energetic — more necessary ingredients for the lifeblood of a contending organization. To withstand the trade requests and firings and injuries along the way.

A 2015 study found that the viral TED Talk speakers use an average of 465 hand gestures during their time on stage — nearly twice as many as the least popular presenters. Watch Wembanyama’s press availability following his debut game on American soil, and good luck trying to tally his endless hand activity, flicking wrist, or even a finger, roughly every second.

“What I love about him is that he’s very wise for his age. People don’t know that about him. I think he’s a very old soul,” Gobert said. “That’s what really impressed me when I met him when he was 13. When I started to talk to him, I saw the approach that he had. Regardless, people are going to look at the tools and the fact that of course he’s unique physically. And also the skillset. But I think what’s going to take him where he’s going to go is his mindset. He has a great mindset.”

Victor Wembanyama views the game differently

Wembanyama sports the blend of mentality that befits true superstars, true engines of winning franchises. Here is where the comparisons for Wembanyama’s makeup may matter most of all. Between the ears, he is projecting among the heedful likes of Tim Freaking Duncan.

In both games, Wembanyama overcame slow personal starts and led his club out of early deficits.

“At this age, players can sink after a tough first half,” said Metropolitans coach Vincent Collet, “and he did the contrary.”

When Wembanyama was asked about the mental fortitude that requires, he sounded quite reminiscent of another interminable international, a certain two-time MVP who powered Milwaukee to the championship and could threaten for another title run this season.

“It’s something you gotta work on. It’s easy to do when you’re stable in your mind, but it’s also easy to do the opposite and just get mad, get frustrated,” Wembanyama opined. “But I think it’s natural. I just want to do what’s best for my teammates.”

Then Wembanyama clicked his tongue. He squinted his eyes, shaking his head while some silly notion bubbled in his brain. Because he wasn’t even asked about his teammates. Not at all. He was merely asked how he stays composed under fire and scalding spotlight. But basketball is a five-layered prism to Wembanyama, no matter if he marks his side’s clear leading force. “I’m never gonna yell at a teammate if he just tries and misses,” Wembanyama went on, reciting some universal fact of morality. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Here’s Wembanyama sounding even more like Giannis Antetokounmpo, when explaining the challenges of his first 48-minute game: “It’s such a long time, so you’ve got time to do a lot of stuff. When I was subbed out, I was just focusing myself and telling myself, ‘You’ve got time. You’re gonna score points. We’re gonna make stops. We’re gonna score.’”

The Bucks have surrounded Antetokounmpo with a deep and complementary roster, but his delicate collection of attributes is the common denominator that brought Milwaukee one more trophy to its mantle, and the Bucks within earnest grasp of the title for the past half decade. He was not the top pick with Wembanyama’s headlining allure, but Antetokounmpo transformed into the homegrown icon, who stayed, largely because he wanted to be the one. The one to finally bring this team that took a chance on him, and the people who made his dream come true, all the way to glory.

“The intangibles make stars what they are,” said another Eastern Conference scout. “If you pull the curtain back and really study the stars of the NBA, there are very few, if any, that lack the work ethic, self motivation, discipline and confidence, among other traits, that have expedited their skill level, IQ, impact and consistency to the highest levels year after year. It’s the ones coming in the league who never had those intangibles that couldn’t survive and thrive.”

And here comes Victor Wembanyama. Far from trying to survive. Hardwired, with the very gifts necessary to climb this particular mountain top.

He can’t possibly know the machine that glugs behind the scenes of NBA basketball, but he’s entering the sludge with an advanced instruction manual. He has all the tools — and tools we never imagined existed. His head bills as generational as his skill.

If he’s indeed the alien James declared, then all of this, it was only his first landing.

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