PARIS (AP) — It was a maze of people, all crammed into about a three-foot-wide space separating the courtside seats at Accor Arena in Paris from the playing floor. Everyone wanted pretty much the same thing, a look at a French teenager who is the talk of the basketball world. They held up their phones for pictures as he walked down the sideline, outstretched their hands for greetings, most of them talking or shouting at once.
Victor Wembanyama seemed unfazed.
His 7-foot-3 frame just glided through the group with ease as he looked over the top of everyone and made his way to his seat. He found his chair, sat down, surveyed the scene for a moment and kept chatting with his family, almost oblivious to the spectacle that was happening around him, smiling and laughing and enjoying it all.
This is life now for the 19-year-old, the best player in France, the presumed No. 1 pick in the NBA draft later this year, the leading scorer and rebounder in his homeland’s top pro league, the All-Star Game MVP of that league, someone a few months away from signing a rookie NBA contract that will pay him more than $50 million over his first four seasons and landing endorsement deals that may make his basketball paychecks seem like pocket change.
“Victor,” Detroit Pistons guard and fellow French player Killian Hayes said, “is a gold nugget.”
Wembanyama’s averages of 21.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game all lead the French league. His team, Metropolitans 92 of Boulogne-Levallois, is 14-4 and sitting in second place about halfway through the season.
Everywhere he goes, the arenas are jammed, to the point where his club has moved a home game in May from its own 4,000-seat court to the Accor Arena where the Pistons and Chicago Bulls played before a crowd of 15,885 on Thursday night with Victor Wembanyama there as a fan.
“You know me,” Victor Wembanyama said. “As long as we’re winning, I’m happy.”
He truly tries to keep it that simple. The people around him — his basketball team, his agents and advisors, and his family — are trying to do whatever they can to allow Wembanyama to enjoy his season. Interviews aren’t part of his daily routine right now, even though the media requests from all over the globe are a constant and will only ramp up as the NBA draft lottery, combine and draft near.
Yet his drawing power is unmistakable.
Case in point: At the game Thursday, Wembanyama wasn’t seeking out the stars. The stars who were there — Formula One drivers, former NBA players, even Magic Johnson — sought him out.
“I had the chance to meet and talk to the best player in the world and this year’s number one pick in the NBA draft Victor Wembanyama!” Johnson tweeted, adding a couple of photos that showed his 6-foot-9 self just being overshadowed by the towering teen.
Officially, NBA teams can’t talk about Victor Wembanyama yet, since he’s just a draft prospect. There hasn’t been a draft with such a small amount of mystery surrounding the No. 1 pick since LeBron James entered the league in 2003. The question isn’t who goes No. 1, but who picks No. 1, something that will be settled by the order of how the ping-pong balls fall at the draft lottery on May 16.
The draft is June 22, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will come onto the stage, say a brief welcome, then announce which team has the No. 1 pick and how it has five minutes to make its selection. He shook Wembanyama’s hand for the first time Thursday night in a private hello; he’ll shake it again with the world watching when he announces the No. 1 draft pick, too.
Until that night comes, Silver is trying to not do anything that will add to the pressure Victor Wembanyama is, or soon will be, facing.
“Everything I hear has been enormously positive,” Silver told The Associated Press in Paris on Thursday. “Not just about his size, his strength, his agility, his skill on the court, but I’m told he’s a wonderful young man and that he’s very bright, he’s very engaged, humble at the same time.
“I just want to be fair to him,” Silver added. “You know, I don’t think it should be my role to anoint him as the next great one. I’ll let others do that. But I know the league is excited to have him. And the fact that he’s French, and the interest he will generate in this country but also in Europe is not lost on me. And so, all positive so far.”
There have been no signs that Wembanyama isn’t enjoying all the buzz, all the hype. At a road game in Dijon earlier this week, the home team ran out to a quick double-digit lead over Metropolitans 92 and a sellout crowd was screaming and stomping. Wembanyama didn’t react much; he went to the bench for a break, cheered on teammates as they trimmed the deficit, then returned to the floor and made three 3-pointers in a relatively short span to silence the building and help set the tone for what became another win.
He just went about his business, just as he did when trying to find his seat Thursday. He’ll be the center of attention wherever he goes for a long time, and few have any doubt that he can handle what comes his way.
“The sky’s the limit, for sure,” said Joakim Noah, a two-time NBA All-Star from France. “He has a lot of potential. But the journey still has to be written.”
By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer
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Photo: © Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports