France lost to the U.S. by five points in the Tokyo Olympic men’s basketball final. Could Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-3 18-year-old favored to be the 2023 NBA Draft No. 1 pick, help Les Bleus reverse that result at the 2024 Paris Games?
“Wembamania” is sweeping France, and everyone is trying to get a look at the “alien,” as LeBron James described his talent, likely to become an NBA star.
Even 85-year-old former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who called Wembanyama’s French club team’s president to ask for a ticket.
His wingspan is nearly 8 feet, and he can nearly grab the rim — 10 feet in the air — without jumping.
“My goal,” Wembanyama told The Associated Press, “is to be like something you’ve never seen.”
Vincent Collet, who coaches Wembanyama’s club team Metropolitans 92 near Paris and the French national team, said the hype is normal and great for the French game.
“It’s something you can’t really control, and it’s because of what happened two weeks ago in the U.S.,” he said, referring to Metropolitans 92’s two exhibition games against G League teams outside Las Vegas. “In general it’s a good thing for basketball, for our club and for the game. It shines a light on basketball, it attracts people.”
Collet thinks that Wembanyama has enough mental strength to cope with the demands of the NBA, despite his young age.
“There’s what the Americans call ‘skills’ — an ability that is out of the ordinary. But remember that he’s only 18 1/2. In basketball at the highest level, there are many things to deal with,” Collet said. “But he has an uncommon capacity for learning. You don’t need to keep teaching him as he learns very quickly. That’s a great asset, along with all the others he has. It’s very valuable, believe me, as it’s very rare.”
Victor’s father, Felix, was a triple jumper, but did not compete at the Olympics. Victor’s mother, Elodie de Fautereau, played pro basketball and also coached.
It was hard to ignore basketball growing up: sister Eve — who is 20 — is a pro with Monaco in the second-tier LF2 league.
Younger brother Oscar is 15, won a national junior title with Nanterre and, just like his brother, then moved to l’ASVEL — which is owned by Parker.
Wembanyama is considered a near-certainty to be the first top-five NBA Draft pick from France.
The most notable French NBA player was soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tony Parker, who was drafted in 2001, one year after not being on the French team at the 2000 Olympics that lost in the final 85-75 to the U.S. Parker was 18 at the time of the Sydney Games.
The most notable French Olympic basketball player was, like Wembanyama, a 7-footer. That’s Frederic Weis, arguably the most well known French Olympian across all sports to Americans after he was posterized by Vince Carter in group play at the Sydney Games.
Like Wembanyama will be, Weis was drafted in the first round the year before the Olympics. He was taken 15th overall by the New York Knicks in 1999, but never played an NBA regular season game, choosing to stay in France.
Come the Paris Games, Wembanyama will be 20 1/2 years old — one year older than soccer star Kylian Mbappé was when he starred for France in its 2018 World Cup win. Both prodigies grew up in the suburbs of Paris, where Wembanyama could take the baton from judo great Teddy Riner as France’s new Olympic star in 2024.
The hype surrounding Wembanyama is growing. National news channel France 2 aired a report on him after his jaw-dropping performances outside Vegas.
“It’s normal, no problem. At PSG people always talk about Mbappe,” Collet said. “We all enjoyed that time in Las Vegas, which would never have happened if Victor wasn’t in the team. He’s a good teammate, and you can’t look for problems that aren’t there.”
Metropolitans president Alain Weisz, the head coach when Parker made his senior French national team debut two months after the Sydney Games, said tickets for last Friday’s game sold out in two hours. The game at Le Mans the previous Saturday — Wembanyama’s first after his Las Vegas bonanza — saw that modest club sell all 6,000 tickets for the first time.
“What the lad’s doing is unheard of,” Weisz told France Info radio. “It’s not just young people here or rappers who identity with Victor. Even Lionel Jospin called me for a ticket. What happened in the United States created an interest level what was unimaginable.”
The club has already sold twice as many jerseys as last season in one month of competition — 85% with Wembanyama’s name. An average of six scouts come to each game and one from the Sacramento Kings even spent two days watching him train before attending the Le Mans game.
“Victor’s determination is extraordinary,” Weisz said. “He reminds me a lot of Tony Parker.”
Wemby, as he is already affectionately called, was lethal in Las Vegas. He finished two exhibition games with 73 points, nine 3-pointers, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots and an army of fans dreaming of what he might do in the NBA.
After the Vegas showcase, Wembanyama was named to the French roster for 2023 FIBA World Cup qualifiers taking place next month. They would mark his senior national team debut.
“We’ll try to help him as much as possible to stay focused because there’s a lot at stake. We need to help him in the best way possible,” Collet said. “He will have to get used to (the hype) because it’s not going to get any less.”
Wembanyama could be just what France’s national team needs to overtake the U.S. men’s basketball team, which won the last four Olympic titles. If the U.S. has any weakness, it is height. Anthony Davis, who skipped the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone U.S. center to make an All-NBA team in the last five seasons.
A wild card is Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid, who is Cameroonian. In the spring, French media reported that Embiid started the process to become eligible to represent France in international basketball, quoting national team general manager Boris Diaw.
Then Embiid said last month that he gained U.S. citizenship.
Embiid, who has never played in a major international tournament, could choose to represent Cameroon in Olympic qualifying. Cameroon has never qualified for an Olympic basketball tournament. Or he could look to the U.S. or France, his decision having a significant impact on the 2024 Olympic men’s tournament.
In announcing his U.S. citizenship last month, Embiid said it was way too early to think about his international status.
France’s national team is already led by yet another 7-footer, three-time NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert. Adding Embiid and Wembanyama could give Les Bleus a triple tower frontcourt.
France’s Olympic team last year had five NBA players to the U.S.’ 12: Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Frank Ntilikina and Gobert.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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