Big risk, bigger reward: Victor Wembanyama’s size sets him apart

Victor Wembanyama (Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images)
Victor Wembanyama (Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images) /

19-year-old French center Victor Wembanyama is quickly becoming one of the most hyped NBA draft prospects in recent memory, especially now that we know just how big he is. While his height often differs depending on the source, he was just measured at a staggering 7’4″ without shoes and has a tree branch-like 8’0″ arm span.

That would make him the second-tallest player in the NBA, behind only Boban Marjanovic. Anyone who’s familiar with Wembanyama’s game knows that he doesn’t play like someone who’s 7’5 in shoes, and that makes him all the more tantalizing.

He’s incredibly mobile and is more than capable of shutting down the paint or switching onto guards and wings and blocking shots on the perimeter. He also has the potential to be a stretch five, but he can also score effectively in the paint. Wembanyama is the definition of unique, and there isn’t a perfect comparison for him in the NBA, but that can be a double-edged sword.

Victor Wembanyama, NBA Draft
French sensation Victor Wembanyama dunks at Euroleague match (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images) /

Victor Wembanyama could be a superstar, but his height is a cause for concern.

There’s a scenario in which he takes the NBA by storm and has a highly productive 15-year career–all-stars, MVPs, championships, you name it. On the other hand, players his size don’t often play that long, thus making his height both a strength and a potential weakness.

The best-case scenario would-be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who’s fairly close in terms of height, being listed at 7’2. He played four years of college ball before starting a 20-year NBA career. He obviously held up incredibly well while also playing at a very high level. Few players have careers nearly that long, however, and while the ones that do are often 7-footers, there’s apparently a cut-off.

Anyone over 7’2 seemingly faces an increased risk of knee and foot problems. There are some success stories like Mark Eaton, who was 7’4 and played 11 seasons in the NBA. In fact, he played until his mid-thirties and was fairly healthy over his career. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other instances where players of that height struggle to stay healthy and/or have relatively short careers.

Former players similar in size to Wembanyama have struggled to stay healthy.

Yao Ming may be more of a worst-case scenario, despite him being an eight-time all-star and a Hall of Famer. Ming, ironically, was incredibly healthy in his first three seasons in the NBA, missing just two games. The wheels quickly began to fall off after that, however. He missed 86 games—more than a season’s worth of games over the next three years of his career, and after a bounceback 2008-2009 season, he got hurt in the playoffs.

That injury cost him an entire season, and then he played just five games in the 2010-11 season before suffering yet another lower-body injury that forced him to retire at the age of 30. We’ve even seen it more recently with Kristaps Porzingis, who at 7’3 had more athleticism and mobility than most players his size when the New York Knicks drafted him.

After a strong start to his career, including being named to the all-star team in his third season, he tore his ACL midway through the 2018-19 season, causing him to miss 116 games. He then couldn’t stay healthy in Dallas and was eventually shipped to the Washington Wizards, where he’ll hopefully regain his all-star form after numerous setbacks.

Hopefully, what happened to Yao and Porzingis won’t happen to Wembanyama, and there were other players like Shawn Bradley, Gheorghe Mureşan, and Manute Bol who all managed to stay relatively healthy over their careers. On the other hand, they did so by playing limited minutes as starters or by coming off the bench, which obviously won’t be Wembanyama’s role in the NBA. He’ll be tasked with being the face of a franchise and expected to carry it for a decade-plus.

He also won’t have the luxury of hanging out near the rim. Instead, he’ll be asked to guard away from the basket in hopes of negating his elite rim protection, and while he’s more than capable of doing so, it means that he’ll be moving a lot more on defense than the super-sized centers before him.

Then, on the offensive end, he’ll be both the number one option and the primary target for other teams. That’s potentially a lot of wear and tear for a player of his size, but hopefully, it’ll be only a concern instead of an actual issue.

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All in all, Victor Wembanyama, despite potential concerns about his unprecedented size and agility, is still very much worth selecting first overall. Obviously, it remains to be seen how he’ll hold up in the NBA, but bad teams simply can’t afford to pass on such a unique player.