Meet Victor Wembanyama, the 7-4 French Cheat Code Coming to Shake Up the NBA

“Aw, man, my arms are really bigger than my body!”

Paris. Early September. Sunday morning. 

The speedlights are flashing nonstop inside a photo studio in the 11th district. Victor Wembanyama acts surprised. He is looking at a picture of himself with his arms stretched out holding a ball in both hands. A vision of the present and the future. Even he can’t believe what he sees. The 18-year-old recently measured 7-4 barefoot, and with an 8-foot wingspan—which would comfortably be the longest wingspan in the NBA right now.

After almost every shutter click, Wembanyama wants to see how he looks. The color. The attitude. The pose. Maybe he can do better. Let’s do it again. No vanity there. Just a desire to fully understand the process. He always wants to understand the process. At one point during the photo shoot, he starts to juggle three basketballs at once, effortlessly. It shouldn’t look so easy. 

“My dad [Félix] taught me when I was 7 [years old],” Victor says casually. Wembanyama smiles. He is having fun. “That photo shoot is really a nice experience,” he says. “Photography is an art,” he says, “and I’m also an artist.”

The force awakens. Victor Wembanyama is the latest SLAM 240 cover star.

Back in 2018, Bouna Ndiaye of Comsport had the same impression the very first time he saw Victor. “He was 14,’’ remembers Ndiaye, who also represents French NBA players like Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum. “Normally, I don’t watch players when they are that young. Even though I have known his parents for years—[Victor’s mom] Elodie [De Fautereau] was coaching my son when he was 5—they never talked to me about their son. That’s not who they are. I first heard about him when he was 12. I waited until he was 14 at a tournament in Créteil, [and] I saw an artist [in him]. He just played the game with ease—no-look pass, a creator, no pressure whatsoever, no position, three-pointers—he was everywhere. It was such a joy to watch.” 

Ndiaye had finally discovered what his associate Jérémy Medjana—thanks to his scouting network—knew for a long time: Victor Wembanyama is a once in a generation type of talent. “I asked Victor what type of player he wanted to be,” recalls Ndiaye. “He replied, ‘I want to be me, Victor Wembanyama.’ I loved it…It means he knows who he is. Victor likes life as much as he likes basketball. He likes to draw, he likes good food, he is cultured. That’s really important to me, you can’t only be focused on basketball—it’s unhealthy.” 

Mens sana in corpore sano.

Chances are, you have seen highlights of Victor Wembanyama. The battle with Chet Holmgren during the FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal game in 2019. The 2-on-2 with his friend Maxime Raynaud [now a sophomore at Stanford—Ed.], both 16 years old at the time, when they went toe to toe against Rudy Gobert and Real Madrid center Vincent Poirier. The fluid turnaround jumper, the handle, the stepbacks, the blocks, the dunks. You have likely seen plenty of clips circulating on social media in recent months. And so even though the clips are out there, and we’re less than nine months away from the NBA draft, Wembanyama remains a man of mystery. 

“I think I’m really a complex person, but people are gonna discover more and more about me through the years. But I like to keep the mystery alive. I don’t want to give too much of myself, that’s what makes things rare, you know? Exclusive.” 

His interviews are indeed a rarity. At 18, he has mastered the subtle art of filtering his answers if the question is too personal. A picture of Kobe dunking can be seen on his phone’s home screen. Mamba mentality, for sure. His parents shy away from the spotlight. His mom was a professional basketball player. She introduced him to the game. “She’s more like me,” Victor says. “We really look alike, and she’s kind of eccentric sometimes.”

His dad, Félix Wembanyama, was a former triple jumper. He taught Victor the proper running technique. “Dad gave me the passion for knowing subjects in depth,” he says, “being a real technician of sports, of whatever I do.” His sister Eve is also a professional basketball player, and his younger brother Oscar plays for the ASVEL U18 club team. But the list of athletes in the family doesn’t stop there. His grandfather, Michel De Fautereau, played in the ’60s in the French first division for Paris University Club. Grandpa was a rugged 6-7 dunking center. Last but not least, his grandma, Marie Christine, was also a baller. For years, she drove her husband to the game and picked him up after. The dedication for sports runs deep in Victor’s family. 

Wembanyama grew up not far from Paris, in a small town named Le Chesnay. Little Victor spent his early childhood following his mom around the gym with whichever youth basketball team she coached at the time. “I mean, I had the choice and I still have the choice to play or not play basketball, but basketball has always been around,” Wembanyama says. “I can’t avoid it in my family.” 

He was 7 when he started to play at Entente Le Chesnay Versailles. At 10, he entered the JSF Nanterre youth system. Nanterre became his home away from home. The foundation. Their coaches allowed Victor to be himself. 

“He was 13 years old, about 6-6, when he joined our U15 team. Very polite, smart kid,’’ recounts Bryan George, video assistant for the French National Team and ASVEL, and a former youth coach at Nanterre. “He adapted really quickly. Victor was never afraid to speak his mind and talk to adults. His first game with the U15, I put him in, and on his very first play, he ran corner to corner, he got the ball on the move, stopped on a dime in front of the three-point line and shot it. The fluidity, the confidence, the audacity. For a player his size, so tall, playing like a 2, I was like, Is he crazy? What the hell is he doing? And then the ball went in. A big swish. Everybody in the gym was smiling, you can tell people were thinking, Who is that guy? That monster? But in a good way. It was legendary. At that time, Victor was far from dominating—he was prone to mistakes, turnovers, bad plays, and yet one play was enough to make him a legend.” 

George talks about Victor doing magic with the ball while asserting his cockiness, his audacity, his vision, his will to break stereotypes and not be contained in the paint. Mature beyond his age, Victor was going to do it his way: playing the point, blocking shots, crossing over players and raining threes. The Wembanyama mentality. “I want to become the kind of player you have never seen,” Victor confidently proclaims. 

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In the summer of 2021, Bouna Ndiaye decided to send Wembanyama to the basketball academy of Holger Geschwindner, the mentor of Dirk Nowitzki. Geschwindner sees basketball as an art form, and it was all but written for Victor to learn new things from another artist. Wembanyama’s eyes light up while talking about his 10-day stay in Wurzburg, Germany. 

“At first, I thought I didn’t spend enough time with him to gain anything, but after a few days, I started thinking about it and I realized that it’s not about the moves he taught me. The way he shows it is really weird, but it’s not about doing exactly what he tells me, it’s more about gaining what you can gain from the philosophy of why he shoots like that, why his knees are like that, why his arms are on the side instead of being in the middle. It’s more about the whole body philosophy of how to shoot the ball, it’s more mental than anything, it’s about balance,” Victor recalls.

Master Holger “Yoda” Geschwindner had found the perfect padawan in Victor—a big Star Wars aficionado himself—humble enough to listen and understand. Impressed, the German coach called Ndiaye and just had one thing to say: “Victor doesn’t need any damn coach.” Holger also told his agent to stop the weightlifting and let Victor’s body mature in time. Victor was 17 and still growing. 

The NBA is excited but still has some doubts regarding Wembanyama. His body fascinates and at the same time worries The Association. They see the length, the speed, the coordination, the athleticism, the jumping ability, the agility, the talent and the shooting ability. But then there are the doubters and his alleged weaknesses. His thin frame—he weighs 215 pounds—is a common one you hear. Truth to be told, Wembanyama has had some minor injuries (fibula stress fractures, scapula contusion) in the past few years, the most recent one affecting his psoas muscle. But minor is the key word there. Victor and his team wanted to find the perfect way to strengthen his body. Ndiaye went to see orthopedic surgeon Tarek Souryal, the former head team physician for the Mavericks, for advice on how to best help Victor’s body get stronger and avoid injury. 

“You need to rest,” Ndiaye recalls Souryal telling him. “Go easy on the flights, the travel. Rest. That’s why we decided to leave ASVEL [the team owned by Tony Parker] this summer and pick up Levallois, who plays only one game a week. It [gives] Victor time to work on his core [with his physical trainer Guillaume Alquier] and build up his body before going to the NBA.”

This past summer, for the first time in his life, Victor went to the US to train in Dallas for six weeks with Melvin Sanders, a former NBA player who specializes in athlete movement and biomechanics. “Victor’s body has an ability to adapt really fast,” Sanders says. “His body changed a lot, he got stronger, he was moving better when he left…I have never seen a body like him, and I played basketball for a long time.”

In Dallas, Wembanyama also worked out at SMU’s campus with coach Tim Martin.

“He is a curious player,’’ says Martin. “He wants to know why you are doing that move, when you are going to do it, how to comprehend the techniques and be able to apply them during the game. His ability to process information is very unique. Victor has a beautiful basketball mind.” 

Victor feels the need, on purpose, to add that he ended up working out with Tyrese Maxey and Myles Turner, too. And rumor has it that he made quite an impression. 

Our shoot with Victor is just about three weeks before he is set to play in the United States for the very first time. It’s a highly-anticipated debut. The Frenchman of the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 and Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite team are set to headline a pair of preseason games in early October at The Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, NV. The stakes are high. 

“The whole NBA will be in the arena,’’ says one NBA executive. “They want to see the unicorn.” Another executive jokes, “Everybody is so ready to tank.” But there’s a grain of truth in this joke. Victor arrives in the US after already posting huge numbers with his new team. In his first friendly games with The Mets in September, Wembanyama went into Super Saiyan mode, scoring 34 points against the Turkish team Darussafaka and another 34 points just 48 hours later against the Israeli champ Hapoel Holon. He then went on to post 23 points, 10 boards and 3 blocks in his first Betclic Elite Game of the 2022-23 season.

“He just wants to be the best,” says one of his agents, Jérémy Medjana. “And yet he always plays with joy.”

“Those stats are scary,’’ adds Giovan Oniangue, a forward for the French team Pau Orthez. “They mean he plays freely in his head, the whole team gives him the ball—68 points in two games? Where is the limit? I’m really happy for him because there is nothing better than playing with confidence.”

“He is not a teenager,’’ says Alain Weisz, the Mets’ Director of Basketball Operations and former coach of the French national team. “A teenager is not like that, you have to reassure him, and Victor is the one reassuring you! I’ve seen Tony [Parker] and Dirk at the same age. I have never seen anything like him. He is so fast, so agile, so different. Victor edicts his own rules.”

The Metropolitans 92 are built around Wembanyama, a teenager. A first in France. A mix of young players, veterans and experienced but still young American players—among them former Boston Celtic Tremont Waters—make up the roster. The cherry on the cake is Vincent Collet, the French national head coach, also the coach of the Mets 92.  

“I came here specifically for this, to have the opportunity to have a team built around me,’’ says Wembanyama.

“It’s hard to empower young French basketball players in French basketball. I was always playing with players sometimes two or three years older than me growing up. So, I have never been the man. It’s my third year as a pro, it’s time to take my responsibilities.” 

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Portraits by Kevin Couliau.