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HomeSportsBasketballInside the decade-long plan to bring Victor Wembanyama to NBA glory

Inside the decade-long plan to bring Victor Wembanyama to NBA glory

PARIS — IN A SMALL park in Rive Gauche, the Parisian district known for its art and culture, is one of the highest murals in Europe, an 88-foot old stairwell that has been turned into a colorful collection of squiggly figures designed to cheer up patients in the nearby children’s hospital.

Located just a mile southeast of the Eiffel Tower, Victor Wembanyama has enjoyed this little corner of the city since he was a child, a beacon of color and happiness in an area that is otherwise drab and melancholy. The mural’s artist, the late American pop art icon Keith Haring, picked it for this very reason, wanting to lift spirits. Haring was Wembanyama’s favorite artist as he was growing up and falling in love with art and basketball.

The title of the work is “Tower.” Wembanyama, a 7-foot-5 teenager who has been riding an international hype train over the past five years, understandably relates.

Basketball prospects and art are both subjective — beauty is often in the eye of the beholder — but the rarest are those where there’s universal agreement.

Wembanyama is the most anticipated prospect in a generation, making Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) an event with potentially historic consequences.

His games and practices in France are packed with NBA scouts and executives, even from teams with no hope of drafting him as the No. 1 pick in June. LeBron James called him “an alien.” Stephen Curry said he gave off “cheat-code-type vibes.” Giannis Antetokounmpo said, “I think he’s going to be one of the best to play this game.”

But as all this has been raging around him — the brands that are calling incessantly, wooing him with endorsement deals; the demand for his team’s tickets forcing games into larger venues; the exploding public and international profile — Wembanyama has remained steady. Getting here, those around him say, has been deliberate, focused and deeply considered. All of this is part of a plan years in the making.

Whichever NBA team wins the right to draft Wembanyama on Tuesday night won’t just be getting his talent, it will be getting someone with a vision of how he wants his emerging career to unfold.

“I was probably born with that will to do things differently and do things my way,” Wembanyama says. “I’m really glad I kept that willpower, to not [let] sometimes coaches put me in a box. That’s really an everyday fight.”

BURIED DEEP ON YouTube is a youth basketball game played at a recreation center in the western suburbs of Paris in 2012.

The raw footage is filled with gym echoes and erratic play, though the boys have clearly been well coached as they run backdoor cuts and execute inbounds plays. But then, six minutes into the highlight, the tallest player out there, two years younger than the rest, with feet so disproportionately big that he has to compensate by lifting his knees high just to run like the others, swipes a pass and takes off for a fastbreak.

He gets from 30-some feet into a layup in just two dribbles, picking the ball up outside the free throw line before taking two giant steps and scooping it into the basket.

Wembanyama was 8.

He grew up in Le Chesnay, a suburb in the shadow of the Palace of Versailles, about a 40-minute drive from Paris.

His mom, Elodie, is 6-foot-3 and had her own pro basketball career in France before becoming a coach who mostly taught the game to young children. His dad, Felix, a 6-foot-6 former competitive long jumper who worked with young track athletes, taught his own children proper running techniques. Height has run in the family for generations. Wembanyama’s great-great-grandfather, who was Congolese, stood taller than 7 feet.

“His mother, she’s a basketball addict. She was always in the gym and training all these kids every day,” says Bouna Ndiaye, Wembanyama’s Dallas-based agent who has known his family since before he was born.

“Victor was basically training his body just living there. When he was going up the stairs his father was telling him how to finish his climb. And with his size, I think, his parents have been very important in his development.”

He’s a middle child. His older sister, Eve, is 6-foot-1 and a professional basketball player in France, where she has also played on the national team. His younger brother, Oscar, is 6-foot-6 and also plays basketball.

Elodie prided herself on giving her children natural and organic food, and proclaims she has never made the same dish for them twice. “She may have overstated that one,” Victor says with a smile.

Wembanyama loved drawing, particularly sketching with pencils. He loved to read, especially fantasy novels. But when he would dream of his future, his thoughts always went one direction.

“I’ve always wanted to be a pro basketball player, but when did I realize it?” Wembanyama pauses. His eyes turn upward. “Probably when I was 11 or 12, because it was the first glimpse I got of the professional expectations.”

It was then when Wembanyama met a man by the name of Karim Boubekri. Boubekri grew up a huge fan of Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas and his dribbling, so when Boubekri became a coach, and was developing strategies and lessons to impart, he was taken by two seemingly opposite ends of the basketball spectrum: “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the Hall of Fame former Jazz guard who revolutionized the game with his ball skills and VHS instructional videos in the 1980s, and the AND1 Mixtape Tour stars of the early 2000s.

“I can only imagine being a 17- or 18-year-old playing against professionals. You’re literally playing against guys who could be your dad. I think it definitely prepared him for the next level.”

David Lighty, a former star at Ohio State who was a teammate of Wembanyama’s at ASVEL

“Players want to express themselves offensively, that’s what they prefer,” Boubekri says. “And for them to be able to express themselves offensively, you have to make sure that the ball is not a constraint.”

Bouberki’s use of nontraditional techniques filtered down to his young prodigy. Wembanyama learned to handle the ball working with soccer goaltender gloves to help with feel and dexterity. Wembanyama learned that, despite his height, he had to dribble the ball low so he could control it and make it harder for it to be taken from him.

Wembanyama loved it all, devouring the egalitarian instruction: Not being treated differently because of his size opened up a world to him that traditional coaches might not have shown him.

“I probably didn’t know who Pete Maravich was at that time, but I know Karim made everyone do the same drills,” Wembanyama says. “He didn’t expect me to be worse than any other players just because I was taller. It helped for development. It helped us challenge ourselves.”

The coaches would soon learn that Wembanyama had a serious work ethic about such things. When he was 12, he played in a well-known junior tournament with 15-year-olds in Lille, the northern part of the country. Despite being younger, he was one of the best players in the event, and he led his team to the cup over a team from Moscow.

“It was my first time playing in front of people, and I really loved the experience,” Wembanyama says. “But I’ve got maybe one regret. I didn’t end up being the MVP, even though my team won, and I think I deserved it.”

It was time to move on from the Maravich tapes.

NANTERRE 92 IS A nearly 100-year-old family-operated basketball club located a few miles from Paris’ city center. The club is renowned for its incredible rise, advancing from the very bottom of the French basketball infrastructure up 11 divisions in a 24-year span. It culminated in an improbable top division title in 2013. All with the same coach and led by the well-respected Donnadieu family. The story was made into a movie in France.

There is a spartan headquarters, where the handful of cups and trophies that Wembnayama helped them win over his years there are treated with special reverence. A few blocks away is a basic three-story dormitory, where teenagers from its training program are housed in narrow rooms with miniature kitchens and shared bathrooms.

It’s like a basketball Hogwarts, the teenagers living, studying and playing together. On the green doors of each room are placards commemorating eventual pros that called each room home during their formative years. Wembanyama’s name is affixed to his old quarters, where the club had to special order an extra-long bed for him to sleep in.

There were a number of teams who offered similar accommodations and roles for the growing Wembanyama, both inside and outside of France. It included Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, where Wembanyama visited and played one summer, and INSEP, France’s elite academy that has produced stars such as Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Evan Fournier.

Wembanyama, though, had connected with the coaches he’d had at Nanterre when he was playing for their youth teams. It was away from home but not far. And there was the recent and improbable title that had given the team so much momentum.

The club retains the same facilities and charm to this day, which helps explain why he chose the little engine that could and later played a role in his eventual departure.

So at age 14, Wembanyama left home and moved in, a giant step toward his goal of becoming a professional.

“I was so much prepared for that. Especially at that age, you know? It’s almost like you want to leave your house,” he says. “Of course, and then you start realizing that what you left was precious.”

More important than all of that was that Nanterre was committed to letting Wembanyama shape his game in the way he preferred. He wanted to play all over the court, to learn all the positions, and the Nanterre coaches would let him.

“Victor’s coaches at Nanterre, they all understood that you have to let him play his game,” says Jeremey Medjana, a Paris-based agent who began working with Wembanyama when he was 15. “Don’t pull him around the basket and ask him to play just back to the basket because you’re going to kill the kid. Victor is a complete player, you have to let him play.”

While he attended a high school nearby during the day, he was kept under the watchful eye of coaches from Nanterre, who had an office at the school where his five meals a day were kept in a special refrigerator. For a while, Nanterre officials charted that Wembanyama was growing about a centimeter a month.

“What’s funny is that I tried to protect him while getting a little bit too involved in his life,” says Michael Bur, who coached Wembanyama as a teenager, including when he officially turned pro at age 15. “At 14, he was very absent-minded like all teenagers. He forgot his shoes, he forgot his schedule. But on the other hand, in terms of work and the rigor that we put in place little by little, he already had the work ethic in him.”

It showed almost immediately. Early in his tenure with Nanterre, a troubling habit emerged, one his coaches struggled to break. When Wembanyama would shoot, he’d spread the fingers on his left hand, causing issues with the rotation.

Then suddenly one day, Bur noticed it had been resolved. The hand was closed and in perfect form every time, almost overnight. Bur, fascinated, asked his student what happened. Wembanyama told him he’d spent the previous few days putting small pieces of paper between his fingers so he’d learn to always keep them together.

“He doesn’t want to give back knowledge, he doesn’t want to learn just to learn,” Bur says. “He needs to understand what he is doing. He was a player who was always asking questions, even if it meant cutting me off 15 times during training, because he always wanted to know why.”

Wembanyama’s focus on what he wanted his future to be expanded beyond the court. As he played in events elsewhere in Europe, he started to believe English was the language of basketball.

“Knowing I would play in the NBA later, I was really interested in English,” Wembanyama says of his mindset as an early teen. “Basketball people speak English.”

He dearly wanted to be a basketball person.

“Victor was always focused on his goals. … I had to fight with him to get him out of the gym,” Medjana said. “After practice he was shooting the ball, and he could shoot for hours. And I remember with the dad and the mum saying, ‘Victor, now! We need to go!’ Every day, same story. It was like a battle to get him out of the gym.”

At first, Wembanyama was on Nanterre’s junior team, practicing before and after the senior team. The older players couldn’t help but notice the ultra tall kid with shocking ability to both dribble and shoot. The French national team would sometimes use Nanterre’s arena, Palais des Sports, as a practice base before international events, and that’s where the country’s top players began to understand, and intensify, the Wembanyama buzz.

In the spring of 2018, then-ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz saw Wembanyama for the first time in practice and took some video of him. Once a player got attention from Schmitz, who is now the assistant general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, the NBA world was usually soon to follow.

Eventually Wembanyama was invited to practice and then promoted to play with Nanterre’s senior team, and he held his own. He played for the first time in the 2019 EuroCup, where Nanterre was competing at the time, three months before his 16th birthday.

He was bumped around by older, stronger players, of course, but he answered back — and then some. His height gave him advantages when it came to challenging shots and rebounding. His ability to create space with his handles and make shots from the outside was impressive for anyone at his age regardless of size.

“I think he always knew that he was special. Every time there was an event where he was awaited, there was a lot of pressure … where he was awaited by all the NBA scouts and everyone was already talking about him, he always pushed his level,” Bur says. “He was very confident, but not arrogant.”

The intel on Wembanyama began to spread. NBA executives added him to their lists when they came over on trips. Media requests started coming to Nanterre for a player who wasn’t even playing much. Letters started arriving with self-addressed stamped envelopes inside, fans asking for Wembanyama’s autograph.

He felt the need to take the next step.

A YEAR LATER, Wembanyama made one of the biggest decisions of his life. After three years in Nanterre and with offers pouring in from across the globe, he decided to leave the comfortable confines of home and Paris.

“When we have this meeting, just him and me, and he announced his decision and it was a hard day,” says Frederic Donnadieu, Nanterre 92’s president, who had shepherded the young star for years, in part, because he had a son the same age. “He thought it was the best for him in this moment. But it’s a hard day. It was my birthday and that night I went out with my family, but it’s not a good night.”

Wembanyama had decided to play for ASVEL, a French League powerhouse then primarily owned by four-time NBA champ and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Parker and coached by Parker’s brother, T.J. They play in Lyon, a two-hour train ride from Paris.

ASVEL not only played in the French Pro A League, the country’s top league, but also in the continental Euroleague, the most competitive in the world outside of the NBA.

Wembanyama was the youngest player on a veteran-laden team that was built to compete for titles. His teammates weren’t sure what to think of the thin, lanky, baby-faced new player. Then came one of his first practices.

During a scrimmage, the ball was passed to the corner for a 3-pointer. Standing under the basket, defending the rim, Wembanyama leapt out and closed, covering the ground in what seemed like a flash. He blocked the shot, grabbed the ball and went to the other end for a dunk.

“We were kind of stunned. We’d heard about this stuff with him, and after that, everybody knew what he could do,” says David Lighty, a former star at Ohio State who was a teammate of Wembanyama’s at ASVEL. “I can only imagine being a 17- or 18-year-old playing against professionals. You’re literally playing against guys who could be your dad. I think it definitely prepared him for the next level.”

Playing in various competitions — ASVEL won two cups last season, including the French league title — the pressure to win was a stronger focus than developing Wembanyama, whose playing time was further limited by a couple of injuries. He ended up as a limited role player, averaging less than 20 minutes a game.

Regardless of the conventions or anyone’s opinion, Wembanyama and his support system had a path they wanted to follow. There wasn’t much interest in compromise.

“Victor will not be put in a box,” Ndiaye says. “People will have to adapt to him.”

After the season, Wembanyama decided to look for another opportunity, specifically one where his development was a team’s priority. He opted out of his contract to become a free agent. There was no shortage of teams willing to offer this sort of arrangement.

Interest quickly came from the G League, Australia and other European powers. But Wembanyama and his agents were working from their own yearslong blueprint.

He chose instead to play for a much less accomplished team in Paris, Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92. Mets 92, desperate to have a talent like Wembanyama come to the financially struggling club, allowed the young star to have input on the coach, his teammates and the staff.

The concept was to put Wembanyama through the rigors of a season as the centerpiece of a team and all the pressures that come with it. They created an environment that catered specifically to his growth, picking players and a style that would best suit him. Guards that would set him up, forwards that complemented him and a coach who would allow him to play through mistakes without worrying about the win-loss record.

It wasn’t a conventional route, but it appealed to Wembanyama’s longstanding desire to prepare himself for the NBA, not just to win trophies or awards.

Leaving ASVEL, and the guidance of Parker, confused some NBA teams that were monitoring Wembanyama. But the strategy worked. Wembanyama led the league in points, rebounds and blocks, and Mets 92 had the second-best regular-season record. They are challengers for this season’s national title, for which the playoffs start this week.

“The plan to exit was a very difficult choice,” Ndiaye says. “But the idea to prepare him for this type of attention, because if he’s No. 1 pick, if he comes to the NBA, it’s not going to be easy.

“People will try to go after him and beat him, and the pressure will be exactly the same pressure that he’s leaving now,” Ndiaye continues. “The thing that we have created with the Metropolitans and building all the team around him was to make him ready to come into the league.”

Wembanyama and his team chose Vincent Collet, the current French national team coach and five-time league champion, to coach him. The central mission of the season was to make it easier for the best player to say goodbye.

“I know a little bit about what is going to happen for him, and I try to prepare him to handle his situation and to manage all the expectations, which will be very high,” Collet says. “This means everybody’s going to wait for his performance, and he has to be ready for that. … For a young guy, it’s not so easy.”

That concept led to Mets 92 playing two games against the G-League Ignite last fall in Las Vegas, where the Wembanyama hype train exploded. He scored 36 and 37 points in the two games, showing off an intoxicating array of skills in front of an NBA audience. The idea wasn’t just to showcase him for American fans, which it absolutely did, but to give him a taste of the high-profile NBA life, from the media attention to the style of play to the five-star hotels.

During one of the games Wembanyama played in Vegas, his old teammates at ASVEL played a game back in France at about the same time. When the players came into the locker room after the game, their phones lit up with the news about what their former teammate had just done halfway across the world.

“I was like, ‘What are y’all talking about? You know, we just won.’ But they’re all like, ‘Do you see this stat line?'” Lighty says.

“Imagine Rudy Gobert being mixed with a little bit of Kevin Durant being mixed with a little bit of Dirk [Nowitzki]. Like, these are things that you do on your video games as a kid, you know, growing up, trying to make the perfect player to score 50 every game type of thing. So for Vic to have all those abilities in one and for him to have the mindset that he has, to want to be great and want to get better, is very unique and special.”

Wembanyama’s teammates, current and past, know the NBA hasn’t been far from his mind for a long time. There’s a long journey ahead as he moves to a new country and develops his body.

As with any draft pick, be it No. 1 or No. 30, there are no guarantees.

Wembanyama, who keeps an eye on the league and has spent quite a bit of time studying what he thinks is coming, knows there’s going to be pressure and serious expectations. But the closer the moment has gotten and the more his strategy over the past few years has rounded into focus, the more excited he gets about showing the world what he has spent his life preparing for.

“[Vegas] just confirmed the thoughts that I had about the NBA,” Wembanyama says. “I think it fits my game so well. I love playing these games. I feel like I got so much to express on the court. … So yeah, I’m excited, too. I know I’ve a lot to show.”

This story originally appeared on ESPN

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