Very little has gone according to plan for the Portland Trail Blazers in recent memory. Though, in six days’ time, during Tuesday night’s 2023 NBA Draft Lottery, an opportunity to amend many of those misfortunes will present itself. On that day, the Blazers, owners of the fifth-highest odds at the No. 1 pick, will know where they stand in the incredibly-coveted Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
It’ll be a lottery in every sense of the word. Mutually agreed to be the most highly-touted prospect since 2003 — when a man by the name of LeBron James approached the NBA stratosphere — Wembanyama’s archetype has drawn similarities to that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among many others.
As we begin our 2023 NBA Draft Profiles, we’re going to look at the player at the top of the list. Here’s how Wembanyama’s numbers stack up:
- Height: 7’4”
- WT: 230
- Wingspan: 8’0”
- Shooting Hand: Right
- Position: C
- Age: 19
- Projected draft range: 1
- PTS: 21.8 | Per 36: 24.3
- AST: 2.4 | Per 36: 2.7
- REB: 10.3 | Per 36: 11.5
- BLK: 3.1 | Per 36: 3.5
- FG%: 46.7
- 3P%: 29.2
- FT%: 83.6
No. 1 picks are seldom created equally, a lesson the Blazers have learned all too well. But at 7-foot-4 (depending on the source, he’s listed at anything from 7-foot-2 to 7-foot-5) with a 8-foot wingspan to match, the French big-slash-forward-slash-unicorn-slash-alien is said to be the type capable of altering a franchise’s trajectory forever. Which begs the most enticing question of all: how would he fit in the black-and-red threads as a Trail Blazer?
In short: very good. It’s difficult to find a place to start when evaluating a player with this amount of generational upside. But, since Portland has been offense first, defense last, why not follow suit?
Under the impression that the Blazers’ fortunes were about to change for the better in 2022-23, Damian Lillard joked in October that he was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with playing against Wembanyama and his 7-foot-4 frame. Wouldn’t it be the greatest of ironies if Lillard were able to play with him, in one of his final efforts in bringing a championship to the Pacific Northwest?
Within that thinking, it’s incredibly enticing to theorize on how Wembanyama’s role in Portland’s offensive structure would look. Only the Dallas Mavericks scored more points per possession than the Blazers did with pick-and-roll ball handlers (0.99), and they paired that with the eighth-most screen assists of any team this past season (758).
Given how impactful this is within Portland’s offense, it helps that Wembanyama is already elite in this area of his game. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that defenders would have their hands full, picking between poisons including letting him roll to the basket or allowing, say, Lillard (or Simons or Sharpe) to pull-up. To highlight a few examples:
The weaknesses within Wembanyama’s game — analysts tend to agree that most of them are fixable with experience — are that he lacks polish as a playmaker and can be susceptible in traps or in situations where he has to make quick decisions. Even so, consensus is that the 19-year-old has improved even in this area, compared to where he was in years past. Think about how often we’ve seen, say, Lillard and Nurkic run this type of play in a short roll with a looming 4-on-3 situation.
It may take time to perfect these nuances of his game, but he’s already proving capable of it in spurts. The turnovers (82) compared to the assists (78) ratio during the 2022-23 season are often the next talking point in that thinking. It isn’t necessarily uncommon for bigs to not only struggle, but eventually grow in this area.
In one of his recent interviews, Wembanyama talked about the desire to “acquire Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strength” and Kevin Durant’s skills. These are the types of players his size allows him to be compared to. On both accounts, it’s a work in progress. There isn’t much pause publicly about Wembanyama’s potential in regards to becoming an elite 3-point shooter, though as it’s currently constructed, he took 161 3-pointers for the Metropolitans 92 this season, hitting 29.8 percent of them.
Some of that has to do with the ambitious shot selection and the amount of freedom he gets to try different things under Vincent Collet and the coaching staff. But when you’ve got a 7-foot-4 player capable of handling the ball like this or trying shots such as the one below, it’s safe to say he’s earned some of that freedom:
Thinking about Chauncey Billups’ coaching style, one that isn’t always analytically-focused, there would be ample opportunity for the Blazers to play inside-out through his post-ups and finally yield efficient results from it. Despite weighing in at “just” 238 pounds, these punch actions, often followed by his fadeaways, were one of the key staples of his game. Shaquille O’Neal has gone as far as to say that Wembanyama has the opportunity to be the “greatest big man of all-time” if he so pleases to. This part of his game could be what hinges on that argument.
Those who’ve watched him most closely often talk about him sometimes letting defenders off the hook as a contested, “tough-shot maker,” but a sequence like this — showcasing the motor and willingness to never give up on a play — puts into perspective just why any minor shortcoming is worth putting on the backburner for the time being.
Victor Wembanyama just did a putback dunk on his own missed three-pointer. Never seen anything like this man before. My lord. pic.twitter.com/WTNMTkvYzb— Global Scouting (@GlobalScouting_) April 2, 2023
The comparisons to players such as Antetokounmpo, Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon showcase themselves. With Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, he led the league in defensive statistical impact (DSI), corralling in 3.1 blocks per game in the process.
In that very first video, Spinella outlines some of Wembanyama’s premier defensive traits, even the ones that don’t show up on the box score. With enough athleticism to defend some guards out of the perimeter and the range and wingspan to recover in the event of a blow-by, the French phenom, needless to say, has the potential to fix many of the problems that have doomed the Blazers’ defense year-after-year.
In recent memory, the Blazers have fielded frontcourt players who weren’t playable in certain matchups because of their inability to cover ground outside of the paint. In this sense, Wembanyama is almost Anthony Davis-like, in that he can do a bit of both.
Not that his fit needs excessive commentary, but: only the Spurs allowed more shot attempts from within five feet (33.9) than the Blazers did (33.8). And Portland wasn’t particularly successful in defending that when they got there. The reasons for that vary, from scheme to defensive lapses by the backcourt players, etc.
But, having Wembanyama softens that blow. He’s able to hedge-and-recover, drop, or play at the level of a screen, all the while using that 8-foot reach to keep tabs on rollers. And, in a perfect world, perhaps Portland’s front office made the moves necessary to run a more aggressive, athletic style with more size in 2023-24, hopefully with Wembanyama included.
Two minutes of Victor Wembanyama being absolutely absurd on defense pic.twitter.com/mP6CFdW7Le— The Box and One (@TheBoxAndOne_) December 23, 2022
It’s a mixture of competitive fire and size that the Blazers just really had at any point in recent memory. Wembanyama’s off-the-court story and focus level is just as enticing. There are of course some concerns with durability; he’s missed time with a bone contusion in his shoulder, a Psoas muscle injury — a long muscle attached to the vertebrae — that caused him to miss Playoff time, and a stress fracture to his fibula in 2020, among minor dings.
There isn’t much reason to overthink the situation, à la the 2007 or 1984 NBA Draft. Portland has talked in detail about getting bigger and becoming serious about putting together a roster fitting Lillard’s timeline and championship hopes; it’s still somewhat unclear how Jerami Grant’s situation will turn out, with the Jun. 30 deadline approaching, or how the futures of players like Jusuf Nurkić or Anfernee Simons will shake out. But, having Wembanyama affords far more positive questions than negative ones, and gives them at least a two-headed monster of Wembanyama and Shaedon Sharpe to build around in the near future (imagine the nightly SportsCenter highlights!).
The ping pong balls are very much out of the Blazers’ control at this point in time, but consequences really don’t get much bigger than adding a player with Wembanyama’s potential. As every franchise with a sliver of a chance is likely saying at this very moment: next Tuesday simply cannot come soon enough.