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Hype surrounding ‘Wembamania’ grows for French basketball prodigy

Hype surrounding ‘Wembamania’ grows for French basketball prodigy
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PARIS — Victor Wembanyama scored his team’s first points after just 54 seconds, then pumped his arms when he assisted on the last score of Friday night’s game with a pass that traveled nearly the length of the court.

« Wembamania » is sweeping France and everyone is trying to get a look at the 18-year-old prodigy widely expected to become an NBA star.

Even 85-year-old former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who called the club’s president to ask for a ticket. The Socialist Party politician watched as Wembanyama scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting for Paris-based Metropolitans 92 in a 113-88 win against Blois. He went 2 for 3 from 3-point range and had seven rebounds and five blocks.

Grinning after a slick alley-oop and dunk late in the game, the 7-foot-3 Wembanyama then drew the roar of the night when he made a deep 3. Those few minutes of effortless-looking yet ruthless play were worth the entrance fee for the crowd of roughly 4,000.

Metropolitans coach Vincent Collet 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 US, » he said after the game. « 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 after the game . « 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. « 

Wembanyama even did a little improvised coaching on court, tapping his head as if to say « think » to a teammate. Before the game started, he twice tapped the undersoles his of giant shoes.

Wembanyama drew a huge cheer when he sprinted like an Olympian – his angular running style making his arms look like pistons – to get back and block a shot near the end of the first quarter.

NBA great LeBron James described Wembanyama’s athleticism by saying « no one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid. »

Wembanyama did let frustration get to him at times on Friday, dropping his head when he missed one block. He looked annoyed with the officials – raising his hands as if to say, « Oh, come on! » – when a Blois player appeared to trip him.

He had only five points in the first half, without trying a 3, but made five blocks. After hitting a 3-pointer 40 seconds into the third quarter, he then launched himself into the air to catch a pass and throw the ball off-balance back to captain Lahaou Konaté, clenching his fist when Konaté’s shot went in.

He jumped up from his seat and slapped a towel in appreciation when another teammate made a deep 3-pointer in the third period, before he turned entertainer again.

« Victor is a great guy, he’s always encouraging others. Even at times tonight when he wasn’t at his best he was pushing everyone else, and then he still ended up with 17 points, » teammate Hugo Besson said. « It’s so cool to play with him, he reads the game very well. I think he has the maturity to play in the NBA. »

Others are having to raise their game, too, because of the spotlight on the club.

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« I think you have to deal with it very well. Some players can get stressed out about it because there’s so much expectation around the team, » Besson said. « But I like it because it means we have high expectations. »

The crowd was small compared to what awaits Wembanyama in the NBA. When his name was read as part of the starting five, huge cheers broke out around the compact arena.

He is considered the likely top pick in the 2023 NBA draft and is a near-certainty to be the first top-five draft pick from France.

He’ll be 19 1/2 years old – almost exactly the same age soccer star Kylian Mbappe 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 at the 2024 Games.

The hype surrounding Wembanyama is growing and national news channel France 2 aired a report on him after his jaw-dropping performances in two exhibition games in Las 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, who launched four-time NBA champion Tony Parker’s international career with France, said tickets for Friday’s game were made available 10 days ago and sold out in two hours. The game at Le Mans last 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. »

Jospin served as France’s Prime Minister from 1997 to 2002.

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 of a lot of Tony Parker. »

Wembanyama looks like the ultimate perfectionist.

One hour before Friday’s game, he muttered in annoyance at himself for missing a couple of close-range shots during warmups.

« What’s interesting tonight is that he was patient. He only scored seven points in the first half. He was very patient without forcing things, » Collet said. « You can see that with his percentage. He made seven out of 10 shots, six assists and five blocks, so it was a complete performance. »

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.

Collet is also France’s longtime national team coach who lead the team to a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. He promises to keep a close eye on Wembanyama.

« 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, » he said. « He will have to get used to (the hype) because it’s not going to get any less. »

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