Academy Award winner Michael Douglas loves basketball. He’s a big Miami fan, mainly because of his relationship with Heat President Pat Riley. He has followed the game for decades. He’s gone to a couple French league games in recent weeks for one reason: Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-3 French phenom who is already capturing the basketball world’s imagination and attention.
“I’ve seen Victor play twice in person and twice on television,” Douglas, who has been working near Paris playing the role of Benjamin Franklin, told The Associated Press. “And I went specifically to just see him play.”
As Douglas said in his famous role as Gordon Gekko, “I wanna know where he goes.”
So does everybody else. Finally, the answer is coming. On Tuesday night, Chicago plays host to the NBA draft lottery, an event where 14 ping-pong balls go into a hopper, and the numbers of the first four balls to pop out will be matched to a combination assigned to a team.
That team wins the No. 1 pick. Spoiler alert: They’ll use it to choose Wembanyama on June 22.
“Pray for Victor,” Houston owner Tilman Fertitta told Houston television station KPRC back in February at a Mardi Gras celebration, when the Rockets were in the second half of their dreadful season and with the team well on its way to the lottery at that point.
He didn’t say Wembanyama. He didn’t have to. Everybody knows what he meant.
The Rockets, San Antonio and Detroit all have the best chance of landing Wembanyama — 14% apiece, or about 7-1.
The odds decrease a bit as one goes down the line of the other lottery hopefuls: Charlotte (12.5%), Portland (10.5%), Orlando (9%), Indiana (6.8%), Washington (6.7%), Utah (4.5%), Dallas (3%), Chicago (1.8%), Oklahoma City (1.7%), Toronto (1%) and New Orleans (0.5%).
“I’m alive. I have ears and I can see TV and there’s a lottery. Yes, I’ve thought about it,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said on the day his team’s season ended in April. “Duh. Did you think I didn’t, that I live in a phone booth?”
NBA rules prohibit teams from discussing draft-eligible players publicly, until they’re announced as candidates for the draft. Key word there: publicly. They’ve all been talking among themselves about Wembanyama for a couple of years now, trying to find the new ways to describe a skyscraper of a teen who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend.
So have a ton of NBA players, even the game’s biggest stars. LeBron James famously called Wembanyama “an alien,” and Giannis Antetokounmpo — who said he enjoyed hearing that Wembanyama counts him among his favorite players — insisted that the kid should make immediate impact in the NBA.
“At the end of the day, as we know, NBA players also will want to make sure that when someone gets so much hype, that they let him know what it’s about,” NBA great and soon-to-be Basketball Hall of Famer Pau Gasol said. “He’s going to be challenged. But great players thrive off of challenge, right? So, I expect him to continue to progress and continue to get better and continue to show why people are so excited about him at this point.”
There are some other sure-fire lottery picks in this draft that should make teams better as well — among them, Alabama’s Brandon Miller, twin brothers Amen and Ausar Thompson of the Overtime Elite program, and Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite. It was announced Monday that Henderson will be mentored on and off the court by four-time NBA champion Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
“I have been watching Scoot and his family for a while now, and I am beyond impressed with what he has accomplished thus far, and excited to watch him take control of his future and grow,” Curry said while announcing the alliance with Henderson — whose team played against Wembanyama’s team last fall in a pair of exhibitions near Las Vegas, part of the buildup toward this draft.
Henderson exudes confidence, and believes he’s earned the right to be in the No. 1 conversation.
“I think I can make a big difference,” Henderson said.
Wembanyama won’t be at the lottery; his French team, Boulogne-Levallois, has a game Tuesday. It’ll be a little after 2 a.m. Wednesday in Paris when the results are announced.
It’ll be the start of a new chapter, as his current one is coming to a joyful end. The winding-down of his French career has been a celebration, and it’ll only continue.
Wembanyama’s pro career started with the French club Nanterre. His Metropolitans 92 team went to Nanterre last week and got an 82-72 victory — and it seemed like none of the home fans cared that their team lost. Wembanyama went into the stands after the game, hugging Nanterre fans and posing for pictures, before returning to the court and hugging team officials and others as tears welled in his eyes.
They are saying “au revoir.”
The NBA is about to say “bonjour.”
“I found Victor highly intelligent, he speaks English well, taught himself by English speaking television shows,” Douglas said. “He has a close-knit family and is very tight with his management team. He seems to have an inquisitive mind, interested in many things off the court.”
And as for what Douglas tells Wembanyama about what awaits, his answer was simple: Enjoy.
“The pressure of being No. 1 is a high-quality problem,” Douglas said. “Don’t let it overwhelm the joy of the moment. Victor is an impressive all-around young man.”
Let the journey begin.
Author: Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press
Photo Credit: © Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
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