Is Victor Wembanyama the best NBA rookie ever? (2024)

Is Victor Wembanyama the best NBA rookie ever? (1)

Most things in life don’t live up to the hype.

As a kid, for example, I was SO excited to see what was in Al Capone’s vault. Turns out that there wasn’t much, uh, there there. Damn you, Geraldo!

And so, I will admit that I initially cast a skeptical eye on the hype machine surrounding teenage French basketball prodigy Victor Wembanyama.

Yes, he was tall (7’4”). And, yes, he was housing dudes in the French league. Shooting threes. Dribbling like a guard.

But, like, a spindly teenager was really the best prospect since LeBron James? Really?

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With the NBA regular season now over, I think it is safe to say that Wembanyama lived up to the hype. And, actually, exceeded it.

Like, here’s 33 minutes of him just doing ridiculous stuff in his first year in the NBA.

He’s going to win the Rookie of the Year award. (He’s a MASSIVE betting favorite.) He could win Defensive Player of the Year — although Rudy Gobert of the Minnesota Timberwolves is the favorite.

There’s no doubt really then that Wemby has the potential to be a generational talent. His rookie year actually made that scenario more plausible, not less.

So, I wanted to try to compare Wemby’s rookie year to some of the all-time greats to see where he ranked. So I headed to Basketball Reference — an absolutely amazing site — and did some digging.

Let’s start with Wemby’s stats this year:

He played in 71 games (out of 82). He averaged 21.4 points per game, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 3.6 blocks. (He led the league in blocks per game.) He shot 46.5% from the floor and 32.5% from three-point range. He shot 79.6% from the foul line.

Pretty, pretty good.

But how does Wemby’s first year compare to the all-time greats?

Well, first you have to figure out who the all-time greats are. I decided to use Bill Simmons’ list — taken from his “Book of Basketball” — since a) I like Bill and b) no one thinks more about the NBA than he does.

Here’s his top 5:

  1. Michael Jordan

  2. Bill Russell

  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  4. Magic Johnson

  5. Larry Bird

Let’s run through their rookie year stats.

  • Jordan (1984-1985 season): 82 games played. 28.2 points a game, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists. Jordan shot 51.5% from the field, 17% (yeesh) from three and 84.5% from the line. He was named Rookie of the Year.

  • Russell (1956-1957 season): 48 games played (out of 65). 14.7 points a game, 18.9 rebounds (led the league), 1.8 assists. He shot 42.7 from the field.

  • Kareem (1969-1970 season): 82 games played. 28.8 points per game, 14.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Kareem shot 51.8% from the field and 65.3% from the line. He was Rookie of the Year.

  • Magic (1979-1980 season): 77 games played. 18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists. He shot 53% from the field, 22.6% from three and 81% at the foul line.

  • Bird (1979-1980 season): 82 games played. 21.3 points per game, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Bird shot 47.4% from the field, 40.6% from three and 83.6% from the line. He was named Rookie of the Year.

It’s hard to say Wemby had a better first year in the NBA than any of those guys. But, that’s not really the point. We are talking about the five best players EVER. Like, even to be in a credible conversation about whether your rookie year matches up to theirs is remarkable. And Wemby is absolutely in that conversation.

And it’s also important to remember this: Wemby is only 20 years old. All of the guys I mentioned above were at least a year and, in some cases two years, older when they came into the league. `

And this: Wemby is 7’4”! While Kareem clocked in at 7’2”, he never had the sort of face-up game — or handles — that Wembanyama has already shown in his first year in the league. He really is an alien.

That height could, of course, be Wemby’s undoing. The health history of very tall people in the NBA is, um, not great. Yao Ming. Gheorghe Muresan. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ralph Sampson. All were hugely tall (7’3”+) and all were driven out of the league by foot and leg issues.

By the way, people forget how dominant Sampson (he was 7’4”) was at the University of Virginia and early on in his NBA career.

So Wemby’s extreme height does raise durability issues. As does the fact that he is, well, thin. ESPN says he weighs 230 pounds, which ain’t much on that sort of frame. (Wemby and his inner circle are reportedly sensitive about his weight.)

But, that’s for the future to worry about! In the present, the guy played 71 games! He was dynamic from the start — and clearly got better as the season wore on and he figured things out! Earlier this month, he scored 17 points in THREE minutes against the Nuggets!!

Will he ever match the heights reached by Jordan, Russell, Kareem and the like? That depends less on his individual stats and more on whether or not his team wins. This year was not great on that front. The Spurs were 22-60, good for second-to-last place in the Western Conference.

But, on his rookie year alone, it’s clear that Wemby has the potential — emphasis on potential — to write his name in the NBA record books. I can’t wait to watch him try.


Is Victor Wembanyama the best NBA rookie ever? (2024)
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