Victor Wembanyama plays basketball in an unprecedented way. This is not a promise that he’ll have an unprecedented career. The fossil record is not encouraging when it comes to players with his physical specs—although his training, which gets as granular as big-toe prep, is more forward-thinking than his predecessors. Still, one preseason game provides convincing proof that he occupies space on a basketball court unlike any NBA player ever.
Wembanyama’s slenderman matchup Monday night against Chet Holmgren, drafted second overall in 2022 by the Oklahoma City Thunder, was as good as billed. They’ve both filled out enough that they’re mostly visible from a side profile. Less striking than Wemby’s box score—20 points, five rebounds, two steals, and four turnovers in 19 minutes—was the sheer visual spectacle of these defensive plays.
For example, check out this play (at the 30-second mark of the highlight reel above) in which Oklahoma City’s Jalen Williams takes Wemby off the dribble. This is a 7-foot-4 guy with his hips facing the exact opposite direction of a faster ball handler. In other words, he should be stringy barbecue.
One quick swiveling recovery step later, Wembanyama’s vaguely back in the play, but even this is looking dire—
—and two steps later, he’s facing the baseline again and swallowing the layup:
In the span of three steps, Victor Wembanyama—again, at 7-foot-4—has rotated his body 360 degrees while elevating high enough to knock away a point-blank layup attempt. Watch it in slow motion to appreciate the footwork, and in real time to appreciate just how fast it all happens.
While it’s extreme in degree of difficulty, that play still lies within the general job description for 7-footers. Rudy Gobert can wall up at the rim because with his hands up and without even jumping, he’s just three inches short of the hoop. What’s more shocking is seeing that type of wingspan weaponized in a different context, along the horizontal axis. Wembanyama, on the perimeter, flung out a tentacle to make an absurd steal; he’d get a transition dunk the other way.
Left foot a step inside the three-point line, right foot a hair outside the paint. If H.P. Lovecraft had been interested in help defense, he would’ve depicted something like the above. Wemby has gotten stronger through an incredible range of motion, and he can get comfortable in body positions that would’ve been instantly season-ending for the big men of yore. Now he’ll face the demands of an 82-game season; his 10-hour sleep regimen can’t hurt.
Wembanyama’s offensive tricks—pull-up threes, a spinning lefty scoop layup off the glass on his way down—were spectacular, too, though they feel more like flashes of a future repertoire than a reliable present-day toolkit. I doubt the defense will take long to develop. From the first day of the regular season, Wembanyama will be a disruptor who demands specific game planning. He can be in all the places a big guy shouldn’t be able to get to, in all the positions a big guy shouldn’t be able to access, shredding expectations for how a Wemby-shaped human should move.