The Race to Victor Wembanyama Is Heating Up

By Patrick Hayes   January 23, 2023 

The Race to Victor Wembanyama Is Heating Up

The Detroit Pistons lost to the Chicago Bulls on January 19 in the first NBA game in Paris, France, since 1994. The game wasn’t a particularly exciting one, as the Pistons have been decimated by injuries this season and have the second-worst record in the NBA as of January 22. 

The Bulls haven’t quite reached the depths of Detroit and the league’s other bottom-feeders, but Chicago’s veteran roster hasn’t produced the desired results much of the season, as the team sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, trying to hold off the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors for the final spot in the East’s play-in tournament.

Predictably, the favored Bulls cruised to a comfortable 18-point win behind Zach LaVine’s 30 points. The win helped Chicago keep pace in its competitive chase for one of the final playoff spots in the East. But the loss helped Detroit, too.

The Talent

Around this time of year in the NBA season, we generally have a good idea about which teams will not be competitive and instead begin to focus on future seasons and the NBA Draft. There is always an unofficial race to the bottom, as bad teams try to finish bad enough to have a shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft. This year, though, that urgency is even more intense than normal because the prize for being bad is arguably the most hyped prospect to enter the draft since LeBron James, French teenager Victor Wembanyama.

At 7-foot-4 with a cartoon-like wingspan, Wembanyama is long enough to bother and contest shots from players of any size. He combines that with athleticism, shooting, and perimeter play that could make him one of the most difficult scorers to defend in the league in short order. Or, as The Ringer’s Michael Pina put it, Wembanyama is, “the manifestation of what would happen if Kevin Durant, Rudy Gobert, and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a baby.”

This is not normal

That comparison contains three MVP awards and four Defensive Player of the Year awards, so Wembanyama will certainly be entering the league with insane expectations even by No. 1 pick standards. He’s expected to be a franchise-altering talent and a future face of the league, so it’s understandable that several teams hastened full rebuilding efforts and teardowns that began last season to have a chance for him.

The Favorites

In the offseason, teams like the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers appeared to be shedding good veteran players in an effort to get bad enough to enter the Wembanyama sweepstakes. As fortune would have it, though, both teams have exceeded expectations and are instead contending for playoff spots. Currently, five teams have fewer than 20 wins as of January 22. Here’s a look, in order, at who currently has the best chance at landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Wembanyama in June.

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Houston Rockets

The Rockets currently have the worst record in the NBA, but as recent history shows, that doesn’t guarantee anything in the draft. Houston had the worst record in the league each of the last two seasons, and has zero No. 1 picks to show for it. That could also mean the Rockets are due, though. In terms of how Wembanyama would fit, he’d easily slot in as the team’s best player from day one. Recent lottery picks Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. have both struggled early in their NBA careers, although both still have significant upside. Alperin Sengun would form a nice, highly-skilled, and lanky frontcourt combination with Wembanyama.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons weren’t expecting to be in play for the No. 1 pick again this season and hoped their young team would take a jump forward toward playoff contention. A season-ending injury to Cade Cunningham and a horrific dropoff in the team’s defense has changed plans, though. Wembanyama would join an intriguing roster and, paired with a healthy Cunningham next season, would have the added bonus of not being looked to as the franchise’s immediate savior if he ended up in Detroit. He’d share that responsibility with Cunningham. The Pistons also have an added perk – Wembanyama’s French National Team teammate Killian Hayes is a member of the Pistons.

Could this become a thing?

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have had a dismal season after showing some improvement last season. LaMelo Ball has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and the team continues to struggle defensively, carrying over a theme of last season. Ending up with Wembanyama would form an exciting duo with Ball and would give Charlotte some flexibility when determining Miles Bridges’ future with the team. Bridges’ domestic violence case was resolved, but he’s due a new contract and likely faces a lengthy suspension from the league when he’s ready to return. Wembanyama would allow the Hornets to potentially let Bridges leave as a free agent.

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio traded away All-Star Dejounte Murray in the offseason, and is rumored to be shopping veteran center Jakob Poeltl before this season’s trade deadline. Whether its an intentional tank or not, the team has +100000 futures odds, tied for the highest in the league. All of that effort has pretty nakedly been aimed at improving their shot at Wembanyama and giving Gregg Popovich another towering giant as the anchor of the team’s future, following in the footsteps of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The Spurs also have some nice young talent that could surround him, including Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Jeremy Sochan. 

Orlando Magic

Runaway rookie of the year PLUS Victor Wembanyama next season?

Could the Magic secure the top pick for a second straight season, something they’ve already done once in their franchise’s history? Last time, it resulted in a Shaq-Penny Hardaway combination. This time, they could pair Wembanyama with Rookie of the Year favorite Paulo Banchero. The problem for Orlando is they might be getting too good. Banchero and Franz Wagner are both quickly becoming good NBA players, and Bol Bol has finally found a home with the Magic. Bol and Wembanyama would form a tantalizingly tall frontcourt if they were paired together, but Orlando might have to lose more to make it a reality.

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