Skip to main content

Victor Wembanyama, who has shown he’s a force to be reckoned with during his first NBA season, shows a determination that is admired by Dounia Issa. “We haven’t seen that since Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1990s,” says the former international player hailing from France.

Size isn’t everything

Issa broke down what makes Victor Wembanyama special, saying “Just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you can counter, even if tall players are often good at protecting the circle when their opponent has jumped and has only two options left: shoot or pass. Rudy Gobert does that very well. A counter-attack is the meeting of two worlds: that of the defender—his physical and cognitive factors (vision, reaction time, reading of situations and intentions, ability to counter with both arms)—and that of the attacker and his intelligence.

Size still helps

Issa is pretty tall when you consider he stands at 6’6″, but he’s on the shorter side compared to plenty of NBA players—including Wembanyama, who is 7’4″ and has an almost eight-foot wingspan that is currently unrivaled. 

“Where Victor is an ‘alien’ is that he’s also a good counter-attacker on one-on-ones, step-backs, isolation shots … It’s much harder because the other player retains his support and a much wider range of options. He can step back, dribble, play with you, move toward the circle… Victor is unique because he knows how to keep players on the perimeter despite their attempts to separate.

In a recent game against Golden State, Victor Wembanyama was behind the free-throw line when Klay Thompson, one of the NBA’s fastest shooters, got the ball. Despite this, the Frenchman managed to block him. This ability to block outside shots is extremely rare.

“It was said that he would have to put on weight in the NBA—as they always say for Europeans—and the belief is that it’s going to be hard for them when they arrive. However, those people haven’t realized that the NBA has become softer while the Euroleague has become increasingly tiring. It’s no longer the 1990s. In the NBA, the intensity level is low in the regular season, so Victor can exist right now. He’s not too challenged.”

Victor Wembanyama has passed the 220-pound mark since the draft and is currently listed at around 321 lbs. There are at least 120 players officially heavier than him.

“To go any further, he’ll need a nemesis. That’s why his duel with Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is so interesting. We’ll have to see if he can be that for Victor. If so, it could be epic.”

The game more important than the show

“Defense depends above all on one quality: competitiveness. Victor is determined to challenge every move, possession after possession. He doesn’t let any shot go by. Some people don’t go for certain shots, but if you watch him, he really has to be on the other side of the field, very far from the ball, so that he doesn’t try. It’s a defensive system in itself.”

With 3.3 blocks per game, Victor Wembanyama is well on his way to finishing as the top blocker in the league during his rookie season, which would make him the first player to do so since Manute Bol achieved the same in 1968. Since 2016, only Myles Turner has finished with a higher average after posting 3.4 per game during the 2020-2021 season. 

“To see that in a young player, it just boggles my mind. I can’t remember seeing that since Hakeem Olajuwon. Even Dikembe Mutombo didn’t go that far on the perimeter.”

In a game against Utah, Victor Wembanyama immediately tried to intercept the ball on a one-on-one with John Collins. He almost succeeded, but the Jazz forward recovered it. The Frenchman found himself far behind but managed to come back and play defense. It’s a combination of his self-sacrifice, his ability to regroup, and his athleticism that set him apart. 

“And it goes well beyond counter-attacks, as he multiplies his interceptions and deflections without needing to trash talk. He’s smart enough to raise his game if you get in his way.”

Another key point: Victor doesn’t need to play tough defense to impress the crowd. He does it to win balls. Here again, he’s closer to Olajuwon. He puts a lot of control into his defense to put the ball in the direction of play, not in the stands, and to facilitate its recovery.

“Our human eye has a hard time perceiving how much influence he can have, simply because what he does, who else can do?

Michael Jordan changed the game in a cultural sense. Stephen Curry changed the game in terms of imagination; he said you shouldn’t be afraid to shoot from deep. With Wemby too, you can feel that something is happening. He’s changing the game, particularly in the way he counters … but it’s hard for the human eye to perceive what his influence might be, simply because of what he does, who else can do it? Maybe it’s in the defensive influence.”

This post is originally from L’Équipe