My students give me many music recommendations, though I do not often enjoy them. I know part of this is due to my being more than twice as old as most of my students, and that the artists they are listening to are not making records with me in mind. I am outside their target demographic and thus I feel much more at home listening to old soul songs or Bob Dylan bootlegs. But I think another reason is that I have spent my whole life digging through the used sections at record stores and going to concerts, looking for the next song that will thrill me in a way nothing else can. Because of this, it is hard for me to hear a song without it immediately sounding like a reincarnation of something I have heard before. I try to maintain a sense of openness though, and this belief in possibility keeps me searching for something that will resonate, that will remind me why I love music so much. There are new songs being sung daily and I know there must be some unlike any I have heard before.
When I started hearing about Victor Wembanyama, I tempered my expectations. The rhetoric felt hyperbolic, more like breathless exaggerations than anything rooted in reality. Before his arrival, a 7’4” player with an 8-foot wingspan, a deft shooting touch, and the grace of someone much shorter would have been no more than a myth, something you imagine and hope for while falling prey to magical season after another wasted season by your favorite team. But no, Wembanyama is, improbably, somehow real, a one man revolution. He is not a remixed version of another player, nor is he a combination of previously seen skills coming together in one person. He is something entirely new.
Wembanyama is the third highly touted big man taken first overall by the Spurs after David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997. Robinson led the Spurs to the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history in his rookie year, a record that would be broken nine years later in Tim Duncan’s own rookie year. After finishing 22-60 last season, Spurs fans are hoping that he can lead a similar turnaround but such a turnaround is likely to be a bit more delayed than it was with Robinson and Duncan.
Robinson was more athletic, stronger, and more skilled than the average big man but he did not radically redefine the center position – he simply played it better than most ever had. Duncan meanwhile was so fundamentally sound, so precise in his dominance that he appeared to be an archetype made flesh. These were two men who came from central casting; one chosen to turn around a struggling team, the other to inaugurate a dynasty. They did not need to be accommodated, their roles had been created, their lines written, written long before their arrival in the NBA.
There is no precedent for Wembanyama though. He will not slide into a preconceived Popovich scheme without friction. Instead, Popovich will have to reconceptualize what brought him success in the past to make the most of Wembanyama’s revelatory abilities. He cannot bring back the playbook and slot Wembanyama into Duncan’s or Robinson’s old roles. Great as they were, it would be too limiting.
And yet, as impressive as Wembanyama has been thus far, he still looks like someone who is finding their bearings, someone who is trying to figure out how to make the most of their abilities. what to focus on, what to put aside for now, what will work best in this new context. Even in last night’s game against the Suns as he scored 38, grabbed 10 rebounds, and looked like the best player in a game that featured Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, there was a sense that we were only catching a glimpse of what he could be. The possibilities seem endless and impossible to imagine. Wembanyama is such a novel player that no one knows how to build around him, how to convert his abilities into a winning team, let alone a championship winner or a dynasty. No such blueprint currently exists. It is something that will have to be crafted game by game.
To call Wembanyama a generational prospect is not only to say that he has the potential to transform the Spurs, but to say that he has the potential to shatter previously held ideas about what is possible on a basketball court. The expectations are so high and his abilities so absurd that if he managed to be one of the best players in the league, but while doing so in a conventional way, it would seem disappointing. What he promises is not only greatness, but a new kind of greatness.
I am hesitant to make any grand proclamations about what his career may hold or what the Spurs may achieve in the coming years. The thing about potential is that it is not a promise. It guarantees nothing.Though even if he fails to reach the heights I imagine he may, he will still make plays that were inconceivable before his arrival and that is what I am most excited about. I expect to be awed time and time again, but with his talent being so outsized and so unique, nothing will surprise me. He is a song I have never heard before.