Gregg Popovich placed his left thumb on the inside of his right wrist, paused for a couple of moments and then confirmed that, yes, he has a pulse.
It was also an indication when asked that yes, he is thinking about Victor Wembanyama.
There are very specific rules that teams must follow right now when it comes to mentioning the name of the 7-foot-3 French phenom with big-man height and elite guard skills who will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Essentially, since the 19-year-old is not officially in the draft yet, they can’t mention him.
So they don’t. And they don’t have to, either. Everyone knows what the teams who’ll be in the NBA lottery next month are hoping to have to happen when those 14 ping-pong balls go into a hopper and determine the future for Wembanyama and the team that’s lucky enough to draft him.
“If I have a pulse and I’m in basketball, I’m probably going to think about the ping-pong balls or the lottery, I guess. I can do that, right? It’s not against the rules,” said Popovich, the San Antonio coach and all-time NBA wins leader. “I can’t talk about any players or anything, I guess. But I’m alive. I have ears, and I see TV. There’s a lottery, yes. I’ve thought about it. Duh.”
“Duh” would also be the appropriate answer when the lottery winner gets asked what they’ll do with the No. 1 pick. There is no debate. Wembanyama is the pick. A team that was really bad this season is probably going to get really good really fast.
They were woeful for Wemby. Now they’re waiting for Wemby.
“He’s a freak,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Dirk Nowitzki said. “I mean, unbelievable. You always think you’ve seen it all during your life and your career and history of the league, and then somebody else comes along. Kevin Durant comes along, a 7-foot-2 two-guard. Now we have a 7-foot-4 two-guard. … This kid is unbelievable.”
Playing for the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, Wembanyama leads the French league with averages of 21.3 points. 9.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. He makes going viral an everyday thing; his latest break-the-Internet moment was when he took a 3-pointer, missed it short, followed the shot and slammed it home in one motion, completely unbothered by the players who were in his way.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him,” Houston forward Jabari Smith Jr. said. “Yeah, he’s a problem.”
The teams with the three worst records this season — Detroit, Houston and San Antonio — have the best odds of winning the lottery, 14% apiece. Detroit got here by having its worst season in more than 40 years. Houston has now had back-to-back seasons of 60 losses. San Antonio had its third-worst season ever.
They were never in the playoff race, though never drew any public scorn from the NBA office for trying to tank with hopes of improving draft odds, either — unlike Dallas, which faces a league investigation now for giving up on its play-in tournament chances with two games remaining. The team that wins the lottery will say it was all worth it. The others will feel at least some pang of disappointment, whether they say it or not.
“Talent-wise, I think he’s something that we’ve never seen before,” said Tony Parker, the former Spurs guard who’ll be going into the Hall of Fame later this year — and owned the team that Wembanyama played for in France last season.
It’s not just Wembanyama who will be coveted at this draft, though he is far and away the top prospect. This shapes up as a loaded draft at the top with G League Ignite standout Scoot Henderson and Alabama’s Brandon Miller expected to be the second and third picks in some order. It’s conceivable that in any other year, they would be vying to be picked first.
“Looks good to me,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said of the top of the draft class. “I don’t know what’s legal or not legal to say. The very top of (the draft) is very impactful.”
Most experts would agree that Henderson and Miller are more than consolation picks. Teams that lands one of them should also get better, and that’s why no team is betting it all on the lottery.
“I’m not really worried about where the ball drops,” Detroit general manager Troy Weaver said. “Would I celebrate with everybody? Absolutely, but I don’t walk around like that.”
Wembanyama — who keeps a relatively low public profile, rarely doing even postgame interviews despite worldwide interest in his every move — knows he captured the league’s attention long ago. LeBron James respectfully called him an alien last fall, Durant raves about Wembanyama’s game and French centre Rudy Gobert said he knew at least three years ago that the teenager would be an enormous star.
Even Giannis Antetokounmpo marvels at Wembanyama, predicting he could be “one of the best to play this game.”
“We’ve got to get ready for this kid,” Antetokounmpo said.
“It’s cool to see Giannis saying this stuff,” Wembanyama said when he sat down with the NBA’s social media team a few weeks ago and was shown the clip of Antetokounmpo’s comments. “He’s probably like my favourite player.”
Paolo Banchero was the No. 1 pick last year. He entered the league with massive expectations and delivered; he’s the frontrunner to win Rookie of the Year after a strong opening season with the Orlando Magic. And he knows what Wembanyama will go through – on some level, anyway.
“His hype is a lot bigger than my hype,” said Banchero, who led Duke to the Final Four in his only year in college. “He’s going to have it probably worse than I did, but I’d tell him to just enjoy it. I’m sure he’s dreamed of this for a while and a lot comes with it, but it’s also a lot that you gain from it, a lot of good things as well. I’d tell him to embrace it all and shoot, have fun. It’s going to be a dream come true for him.”
A dream come true for the lucky team, too. And answers start coming soon. The draft lottery is May 16, the same day that Wembanyama’s French season is scheduled to end. The draft is on June 22. Summer league starts in early July; the anticipation of Wembanyama playing in Las Vegas again after two ballyhooed games there this past fall is already building. He intends to play in the Basketball World Cup for France starting in August. And then his rookie season starts in October.
For one team, all the losing this season will be quickly forgotten, based on how four ping-pong balls land.
“This can be his league,” Nowitzki said, “for a long, long time.”
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