Nothing Can Save Us: The Existential Threat of Victor Wembanyama


In every movie about an invasive extraterrestrial species, there comes a moment when a team of hazmat-suited scientists examines the molecular structure of an unknown biological morsel under a microscope. When the cellular blob begins to grow at an exponential rate, the dorks fiddle with knobs and gasp in befuddlement. The glop ominously bubbles, slithering over the sides of the workbench as it differentiates into tentacles, wings, and a scaly hide. One of the labrats smashes a button and the enclosure is sterilized by flames. The charred lifeform belches out a shriek with a dying spasm, temporarily delaying interplanetary horror. 

There is no button to kill Victor Wembanyama with fire. Early on, we categorized the seven-foot-four San Antonio rookie in familiar ways: the most hyped prospect since LeBron James, the latest incarnation of legendary Spurs big men, an elongated update of a modern archetype—the spindly giant with perimeter shooting, ball-handling abilities, and dire injury concerns. He was Ralph Sampson with knees, Jonathan Bender resurrected, Arvydas Sabonis under capitalism, Bol Bol with more work ethic and fewer Palm Angels pieces on Grailed. But after 55 games, it is clear that we are watching the metastasization of something not only foreign to this sport but also a monstrosity that will devour it.

In the preseason, Wembanyama racked up impressive numbers but appeared slightly adrift. His jumper was better in theory, his dribble was entangled by wee enemies, he struggled to glom up rebounds. The game moved faster than his embryonic roundball brain could process. Defensive synapses clicked a beat late; double-teams made him look like he had stumbled into a surprise party in a bathroom stall. Despite some jaw-dropping moments, Wembanyama’s first 20 real games evidenced similar issues with scoring efficiency, outside shooting, and defensive impact.

We are accustomed to basketball learning curves that slope upwards over years, not weeks. In the case of Wembanyama, use any science fiction metaphor you like. Since the new year, he has posted 29.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, and 4.7 blocks per 36 minutes, with a True Shooting Percentage of 60.6% on the fourth-highest usage in the NBA. Over the last 15 games, he has shot 42.9% from 3-point range, led the league in shots defended at the rim, and is sixth in deflections. During that same span, he logged a triple-double with blocks and averaged an elusive 5x5 over another back-to-back set (at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks). 

There are some key moving parts here—Wembanyama was shifted from power forward to center and teammate Tre Jones has provided better facilitation at point guard—but the culmination of factors has been mind-bending. “He doesn’t have a ceiling,” said James, after one of those 5x5 games came against the Los Angeles Lakers. “He can do whatever he wants to do in his career.” 

Still, Wembanyama’s emergence is more jarring than StatMuse posts about his cartoonish statistics at a preternatural age (he turned 20 in early January). His height, eight-foot wingspan, fluidity, and technical skill-set distend our comprehension of the court’s geometry in bewildering new ways. Stephen Curry may have done the same with freakish shooting, but it was invisible and ephemeral—a wisp of magic that never revealed how the strings were pulled. 

Watching Wembanyama has the sensation of druggy depth perception. The rim is too low. The lane is too small. Opponents are too short. A conventional baby-hook turns into a one-handed dunk. Passes get delivered at impossible angles. Blocked shots are driven straight into the earth like fence posts. Was that just a Shammgod daisy-chained into a runner? Whether you see him as a 2K create-a-player sprung to life or a tulpa for positionless basketball endgame, he makes sacred elements of the game feel profane. 

Before James, Curry, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić and Chris Paul became NBA greats, we understood them. The infantile versions of those future Hall of Famers carried the same physical, intellectual, and stylistic markers that they would possess as adults, whether it was as high schooler in Akron, a collegiate at Davidson College, or as a tween dropping a 54-point triple double in the Under-13 Lido di Roma tournament. The question was scalability. Would they be able to maintain their chasmic distance from the field as the talent level of surrounding players steepened?

That is not the case with Wembanyama. He was not dominating pubescent Gallic enemies with their first smudges of twirlable mustaches in an earlier format. He was not rampaging through the AAU circuit, the Jordan Brand Classic, and the McDonald’s All-American Game. Until his final season in Europe, he did not have viral highlight mixtapes like top picks Zion Williamson, Andrew Wiggins, or John Wall

Due to his height and wingspan, Wembanyama was always a blinking target on the international basketball radar. He did not slip from the marine fog as a ghost ship, like fellow overseas travelers Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokić. There are clips of him from six years ago, where his elasticized proportions and mobility were startling, but he resembled a young Rudy Gobert, swatting shots and dunking putbacks. From 2020 to 2022, he played 52 games in leagues like LNB Pro A or tournaments like EuroCup—and averaged 7 points and 4.3 rebounds. 

Incredibly, Wembanyama’s numbers as a rookie in the NBA are already better than those he posted for the Metropolitans 92 while winning MVP of the Betclic Élite league. Per 36 minutes, he has averaged slightly more points and rebounds while spiking in categories like assists, steals, and blocks. It's not just that Wembanyama is unprecedented, there's barely even a prior version of him to use as reference material.

Attempting to visualize Wembanyama’s full potential is futile. Maybe he will pack on 50 pounds of muscle. He might turn into a deadly 3-point threat. He will probably develop into a better midrange shooter who can punish mismatches at the elbow. Being surrounded by teammates who can competently pass and shoot will surely help him thrive. It almost does not matter. As Andrew Kuo said on a recent episode of the world’s most influential basketball podcast, speculating about Wembanyama’s future is like “grabbing smoke.” He is everything we were promised.

Similarly, it is tricky to pinpoint where Wembanyama stands in comparison to superstar peers. His ascension has been too rapid. He is an exotic flying machine, enormous and stretchy and finespun, where every flap of an ornithopter wing or hoot of steam is achieved with precariousness. Airworthiness has not stabilized enough to know if he is already a top 20 player, a top 10 player, or a top five player on the planet. Every outstanding game boosts impossible expectations, every clunker—like his 10-point effort in Tuesday's loss to Houston, a game in which Rockets center Alperen Şengün dropped 45 points and 16 boards—is a sobering lash of cold water. We can just tap the “He is everything we were promised” sign again.

When considering how impactful Wembanyama is at this early juncture, naysayers point to the Spurs’ miserable record. San Antonio is currently 13-49, bad enough to be third-worst in the NBA and dead last in the Western Conference. The team is within the league’s bottom seven in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Net Rating, last in 3-point percentage, and second-last in getting to the free throw line. They are asscheeks. 

But there are indications that Wembanyama already has the ability to make this collection of grotesqueries respectable. His presence on the floor turns what would statistically be the most porous defense in the history of the sport into one that has the equivalent of ranking within the league’s current top 10. When he shares the court with Jones and Devin Vassell—San Antonio’s other two most credible NBA players—the Spurs have a Net Rating of +10.9 in 1,333 possessions. By cautiously limiting Wembanyama’s minutes and giving playing time to droves of borderline G-League talent, the team is concealing a decent squad within the sooty fuselage of a tanking wreck. 

Still, the disconnect between Wembanyama being really good and the Spurs being really bad is beginning to attract eyeballs. Talking heads have suggested that he does not have patience for losing. “How long do you give him? A year…two?” asked ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, on a recent episode of NBA Today. “A year, max,” replied co-host Malika Andrews. “He’s not trying to lose,” offered Kendrick Perkins, with the nuance of a Cobb salad. Beyond the implication that San Antonio—a franchise that has won five titles since 1999—is clueless when it comes to building a contender, the pundits are not wrong. The Spurs are on the clock. It is not due to Wembanyama’s impending trade request to the Lakers, but because his time is so finite and precious.

It will be hard for the Spurs to fuck this up. Any strategy will be fine, outside of maxing out Tobias Harris. Trade for Trae Young! Sign Tyus Jones or Kris Dunn or Malik Monk! Take another Frenchman with a top-three pick! Use assets the Atlanta Hawks owe you in 2025, 2026, and 2027 to acquire a second star! Save them and draft some other dudes! Be a Whateverist King! Do you!

A squirrel should eventually be able to put the right pieces around Wembanyama. His ability to uniquely warp the dimensions of the court on both sides of the ball—mushrooming it on offense, mashing it into an overnight bag on defense—makes him a laughably easy keystone for a contender. Until that happens, we can enjoy Wembanyama for being the mesmerizing player that he is, not whatever he will become. Long shadows, dancing light, and yawning negative space should not distract you from what is right here.

If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Find it where you buy books, even if you hate reading like we do.