Rising Stars and Rising Questions: the challenge of NBA stardom
2/10/38. No, that is not the GTA 6 release date, but rather, the stat line of the highly anticipated rookie, Victor Wembanyama (aka Wemby) in only his fourth NBA game (AST/REB/PTS). Anyone who lives above ground with access to the internet has likely heard about Wemby, either known for his once-in-a-lifetime basketball talent, or his unfortunate incident with Britney Spears’ security. The Frenchman is an unreal 7 foot 5 inches tall, with an 8 foot wingspan but possesses the inhuman ability to glide across the court with ease, and, even more inhumanly, make LeBron James look like Kevin Hart. Labelled a “generational talent” with “one of the highest-ceiling prospects most scouts have ever seen”, Wemby has enjoyed comparisons to LeBron, that “anything less than the Hall of Fame is a bust.” Often nicknamed a 7”5 Kevin Durant (as if a 6”11 KD wasn’t scary enough!), all comparisons fall short of truly conveying his talent and mastery of the game at his size with his co-ordination, balance, and prowess at all areas of the floor.
However, Wemby is not alone in this category of exceptional rookies. He is accompanied by his fellow rookie, the similarly built 7”2 Chet Holmgren who, after a year out to injury, is back, bearded, and better. Indeed, there is an argument that if not for the otherworldly talent of the Frenchman, Chet (who is averaging 3/7/17, on better shooting percentages AND 6 less field goal attempts per game) would be enjoying the spotlight, the comparison to generational talents, and the undisputed license to dress as Slenderman for Halloween.
One would wonder whether they are in the same league when compared with their fellow rookies in the 2023 Draft Class. With Brandon Miller and Ausar Thompson the only other rookies averaging double figures, and only 10 of the other 35 rookies above 5 points per game, a draft class that is already sub-par in comparison with recent years is now paling in dreadful mediocrity. Yet points are not the only problem. The highly-rated third pick Scoot Henderson has had a disappointing start to the season, causing many to question whether it was sensible for the Front Office to draft a Point Guard, ousting their generational talent in future HoFer Damian Lilliard from the Trailblazers after the 11 years he spent not “running from the grind” (better known as losing). Shooting a scarily low 9.5% from 3 point range, to complement an underwhelming overall field goal percentage of 34%, Scoot Henderson’s time on the floor has led to a net 46 point deficit for the Trailblaizers through 6 games – the definition of dragging the team down. Similarly, the fifth overall pick Ausar Thompson has had his own woes: hitting only 3 of his 19 attempted 3 pointers, and carrying his own net 49 point deficit through 6 games for the Detroit Pistons.
This is the narrative that the NBA media channels have been running with. Harsh? Certainly. Whilst underperforming, it is important to note that this is to be expected by rookies. These are young men, the same age (or, unbelievably younger) than many of us, who have been thrust onto the main stage, given millions of dollars to play a game they love with the constant impending knowledge that all watching (over 1 billion in its peak) are judging – indeed, I am guilty of the same. It is only expected that they will take time to settle into a league where they are playing alongside the same athletes they have grown up modelling their game around, watching them intently, and in the case of Jabari Smith Jr, watching them beat his dad! That experience is of course the purpose of the Summer League, and thus, it is understandable that, with a year to prepare in the highest French league, and with time passing since his drafting in 2022, Wemby and Chet respectively are performing at a much higher level than the rest of the draft class.
Overall, it must be noted that for these rookies, their time has only just begun, and their careers are far from over. With advancements in medical treatment, the unbearable trend of load management, and changes in the game towards a less physical playstyle, these players are likely not even 10% of the way through their career and will continue to improve year upon year. It is not uncommon to see such improvement, and it can definitely be expected, especially with the recent blossoming of Tyrese Maxey, Alperen Şengün, Desmond Bane and even Austin Reaves from just average rookies to the next generation of stars in the league. Even the greatest shooter of all time Steph Curry went from 17 points-per-game at age 20, to averaging 32 at age 32, earning the scoring title for the 2020-21 season. Exceptional careers for Scoot, Thomson and the rest of their class are certainly attainable, though only time can tell.
Image Description: A basket ball about to enter the basket at an NBA game.
Image Credit: Gobierno CDMX via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 1.0)