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All eyes on ‘game-changer’ Wembanyama at NBA Draft

NEW YORK (AFP) – A new era for basketball gets under way tomorrow when French prodigy Victor Wembanyama is set to be chosen by the San Antonio Spurs with the top pick in the NBA Draft.

The annual ritual to allocate the top young talent entering the league is often accompanied by a swirl of intrigue over which player is likely to be selected number one overall.

But that guessing game will be notably absent at tomorrow’s event in Brooklyn, with San Antonio’s selection of the 19-year-old Wembanyama a mere formality.

The seven-foot-four-inch (2.24 metres) French teenager is widely regarded as a transformational talent, a once-in-a-generation player regarded as the most sought-after number one pick since LeBron James entered the league two decades ago.

Wild celebrations erupted among San Antonio’s fans last month when the Spurs won the NBA Draft Lottery to determine which team would own the number one pick.

Spurs staff also struggled in vain to keep a lid on their excitement, with chairman Peter J Holt admitting: “I might faint.”

San Antonio general manager Brian Wright sees Wembanyama, who will be formally unveiled by the team in Texas on Sunday, as a “unique talent”.

Victor Wembanyama before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium. PHOTO: AFP

“People talk about generational talent, and they only think on-court skill, but it’s bigger than that,” Wright told ESPN.

“You see him doing things that you wouldn’t even have guessed someone could do,” Wright added.

With his potentially dominant blend of size and skill, Wembanyama has already drawn a legion of admirers across the NBA before even setting foot in the league.

LeBron James said Wembanyama’s skillset makes him less a “unicorn” and “more like an alien”.

“No one has ever seen someone as tall as he is and as fluid and as graceful as he is on the floor,” James said after watching Wembanyama play a game for French club Metropolitans 92 in Nevada last year. “He’s for sure a generational talent.”

Wembanyama, meanwhile, has remained level-headed as the hype surrounding reaches stratospheric levels. The teenager arrived in New Jersey on Monday for draft week to be greeted by fans clad in Spurs jerseys requesting autographs.

“I don’t know how they knew what flight I was on,” Wembanyama said.

“But you know, it’s fun, it’s different, seeing that you can have such impact on people.”

If Wembanyama manages to live up to the hype, he could conceivably be one of the faces of the NBA for years to come, with the likes of stars such as James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant all well into the final phase of their playing careers.

“The league would love to have new stars that capture the imagination of America and the world,” said an NBA writer for the Bleacher Report website Eric Pincus. “Luka Doncic is a starting point, but the hope is Wembanyama will do the same.”

NBA officials, meanwhile, say there is already evidence of a “Wembanyama effect”, citing spikes on streaming platforms and social media. “Victor is an incredibly promising young player who seemingly has all the attributes of a true game-changer,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said. “We’ve already seen the enormous interest he has generated among NBA fans from streaming his games on the NBA app and featuring his highlights on NBA social media channels.”

Unsurprisingly, Wembanyama’s arrival in the NBA has sparked a commercial bonanza.

He is widely expected to sign a record-breaking, improved sponsorship deal with Nike that some analysts say could reach USD100 million.

Other lucrative endorsement deals are also expected to follow, although Wembanyama has indicated that his priority remains on-court success.