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Victor Wembanyama, basketball’s next big thing, knows no bounds

Victor Wembanyama, 18, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft, scored 37 points in his first game in America. (Chris Unger/For The Washington Post)

HENDERSON, Nev. — The first of many signs that Victor Wembanyama is a singular proposition, a true one of one, came as soon as he approached the Dollar Loan Center’s makeshift security station next to the arena’s loading dock.

His basketball team, the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, had flown in from Paris so that Wembanyama, the consensus favorite to be the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, could play in a pair of nationally televised exhibitions attended by more than 200 team executives and scouts.

In preparation for Tuesday’s showcase game against the G League Ignite, a select NBA minor league team, the Metros players handed their backpacks to screeners as they stepped through a hulking gray metal detector that stood nearly 7 feet tall. But Wembanyama, who has reportedly been measured at 7-4 without shoes, had to hunch his shoulders and duck sharply to avoid a head-on collision.

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The building wasn’t prepared for its main attraction, and neither were its salivating occupants.

Wembanyama then made his way to the court, where he went through an extensive pregame stretching routine barefoot. As trainers flexed his hips, Wembanyama’s massive sneakers, long enough to look almost like snowshoes, waited for him nearby. A Metros staffer estimated that Wembanyama wears Nikes in size 55 in Europe, equivalent to a size 20.5 in the United States. For reference, Nike’s basketball sneakers are typically only available up to size 18 on its website, and its official sizing scale tops out at 22.

Standard measures don’t really apply to Wembanyama, an off-the-charts basketball prodigy who is among the most captivating prospects in the history of the sport. Without much effort, Wembanyama can jump and tap his head against the backboard. While warming up Tuesday, he casually threw down a windmill dunk with his toes just an inch or two off the hardwood.

Once the game began, the 18-year-old Wembanyama kept surprising the Ignite’s players by appearing from nowhere to block their shots. Wembanyama’s 8-foot wingspan ensures that he is rarely out of the action, even if he’s out of position. Whereas most centers usually need to sprint across the paint to contest layups, Wembanyama can often get the job done simply by stretching his arms to full extension.

When he was ready and waiting for Ignite drives, hilarity ensued. Wembanyama sent Scoot Henderson flying to the court with the force of one block, and he volleyball-spiked another shot so hard that it sailed over to the Metros’ bench, prompting teammate Ibrahima Fall Faye to break into a teeth-baring smile.

The NBA, of course, was built on tall players with long arms and leaping ability: 30 different 7-footers took the court last season alone, and giants such as Manute Bol (7-7) and Yao Ming (7-6) remain well-known long after they retired. Over the past decade, a wave of skilled big men, including Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis, were even dubbed “unicorns” for their rare ability to shoot and dribble despite their massive frames.

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But no player as big as Wembanyama has ever done what he can already do, and his performance on Tuesday was more fantastical than a mere unicorn.

Consider: This was his first game in the United States, and the first time he had played with NBA rules and in an NBA-standard 48-minute game. Consider also that the Metros were more than 5,400 miles from home and that their transatlantic journey had taken place in the middle of their French league season. Finally, consider that more than 100 media members had swarmed the Nevada desert from at least three continents, that Phoenix Suns stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker were seated courtside and that representatives from all 30 NBA teams were in attendance.

“In terms of recognition worldwide, this has got to be the biggest game I’ve played in my life,” Wembanyama predicted Monday.

None of that fazed Wembanyama, who finished with a game-high 37 points, seven three-pointers, four rebounds and five blocks in a 122-115 loss to the Ignite. How high did Wembanyama set the bar during his premiere? Danny Green is the only player in NBA history to record seven three-pointers and five blocks in the same game, and he needed three overtime periods to do it.

Henderson, a savvy 6-2 guard who is widely regarded as the second-best player in the 2023 class, made a point to attack Wembanyama early and often, finishing with 28 points, five rebounds and nine assists in an impressive showing of his own. Wembanyama responded by coolly biding his time before taking over in the third quarter with a flurry of three-pointers to cut into the Ignite’s double-digit lead.

Each shot was more preposterous, and graceful, than the last. Wembanyama created his own looks off the dribble, sidestepped into a fadeaway three in the corner and converted a four-point play from the top of the key. After one midrange jumper, he broke from his typical even-keeled demeanor to flash a glare and turn both palms upward in a Michael Jordan shrug.

Unlike many sky-scraping teenagers, Wembanyama doesn’t look like he’s trying to regain control of his body after a disorienting growth spurt. He moves fluidly and decisively, and he looks more comfortable sizing up defenders on the perimeter than he does fighting for post position.

“I’ve been playing this way for years,” Wembanyama said. “Even when I was 9, 10, 11, 15, I was always shooting threes and handling the ball. I didn’t look up to players for me to do that. I inspired myself with whatever I wanted to do.”

There are heavy doses of Kevin Durant in how Wembanyama sets up and uncorks his pure jump shots, but he’s far taller and far longer than the Brooklyn Nets superstar. Wembanyama’s rim protection recalls Rudy Gobert, except his fellow Frenchman rarely dares to dribble in traffic or pull up from deep.

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While Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren can roam from the rim to the arc, he can’t quite match Wembanyama’s physical dimensions. Anthony Davis was the most highly regarded big man prospect of the past 15 years, winning an NCAA title as a Kentucky freshman and going No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft. Yet Wembanyama is a much better outside shooter than Davis was at the same age, and he dwarfs the 6-10 Los Angeles Lakers forward.

“Ain’t nothing to compare it to,” G League Ignite Coach Jason Hart said. “Special talent.”

No one, not Wembanyama or the Metros coach, Vincent Collet, would pitch him as a perfect player. The venerable Collet, who has guided the French National Team to silver medals at the 2020 Olympics and 2022 EuroBasket, said that Wembanyama must get stronger physically, smarter with his decision-making and more efficient with his shot distribution.

Collet noted, though, that he had considered not coaching during the French league season because of the quick turnaround from EuroBasket. Ultimately, he decided that guiding the final step of Wembanyama’s journey to the NBA was a “very special” opportunity that would never come again. Collet’s next hope is that Wembanyama will play for France at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“He’s the best prospect we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He’s amazing, not only by his size but incredible skills. I’m impressed by how calm he is with all the buzz around him. He has a real impressive ability to listen.”

For now, but not for long, Wembanyama remains a fishbowl phenom, known to basketball die-hards around the world but not yet a household name. Tuesday’s exhibition played to a half-full crowd in a 5,500-seat minor league hockey arena, a far cry from the sellouts that LeBron James consistently drew as an Ohio teenager.

Fame and acclaim are coming, and Wembanyama appears ready for the storm, in part because he played his first pro game at age 15 and has years of experience handling media obligations. There were no obvious nerves when Wembanyama faced rooms full of cameras and recorders this week, and he lamented, in fluent English, that he would soon need to leave France behind because his “destiny is here in the States.”

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Then, with his sights set, Wembanyama laid out his next major milepost with the clarity of a young man who understands there is no one else quite like him.

“Of all the prospects I’ve heard about in our class, I think [Henderson] is my favorite one,” Wembanyama said. “He’s the most reliable that I’ve seen. He’s a really great player. If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.”

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