Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. The co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” Jones talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
The NBA draft season is almost upon us, and word is that an incoming French phenom is about to change everything we thought we knew about pro basketball.
If you believe the hype, the 19-year-old player is not just the marquee draft pick of the year but is the biggest basketball sensation in decades.
Giddy sports writers, scouts, coaches, basketball pundits — and even other players — have been gushing over his potential. They have been amazed by not just Wembanyama’s 7-foot-3-inch height and how well he can cover the court, but the way he handles the ball for such a big man.
“The league’s really in trouble when he comes in. I want to see how it plays out. Everybody has been excited about his arrival to the league so we’ll see what happens,” said Phoenix Suns player Kevin Durant.
Today, the Suns star is one of the league’s most complete players, but like Wembanyama, going into the draft back in 2007 critics said Durant was too skinny and weak to succeed. But he gradually added weight, got stronger and silenced his doubters.
Retired four-time NBA champion and fellow Frenchman Tony Parker said it’s hard to compare Wemby with any other player because he’s so unique. “He runs like a guard, he shoots like a guard. … He’s got a great motor. He wants to win,” said Parker, who played 17 years for San Antonio. “And mentally, he wants to be the best.”
There hasn’t been this much excitement over the NBA draft since LeBron James crashed onto the scene as a high schooler in 2003. I remember it well. I was there — at the high school games, the draft, on the road with his family and friends. So all the anticipation and the excitement around Wembanyama is nothing new for me.
In James’ case, the media glare was much more invasive and critical of him, his family and his game. And that makes me worry for Wemby a bit, especially once he’s in San Antonio and needs some time to develop his NBA game a bit more. Patience has never been a virtue of sports fans or of sports media.
Wembanyama has a lot of work to do mentally as he adjusts to the NBA and to his new country. Although he comes to America after three years of playing pro ball in France, the NBA spotlight is something altogether different. And while I get the excitement around Wemby, I won’t be entirely convinced until I can see how he holds his own against NBA talent over a few seasons. Draft forecasts are fine, but the only way we’ll know if he can really ball is to see him on the court.
The main knock against Wembanyama is that he’s too skinny — and that’s a problem. Rail-thin, towering guys don’t scare anyone on the court and are easy to topple. So expect Wembanyama’s trainers to focus on slowly adding bulk to his lanky frame and making him stronger without sacrificing his agility.
If San Antonio hit the lottery jackpot winning the No. 1 pick in the draft, Wemby did as well: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a genius when it comes to turning international players into NBA greats — think Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to name a few.
Yet sports are all about performance, not predictions. So while we’re eagerly waiting for next season to begin, I have some advice for the French wunderkind, gleaned from decades of wisdom in sports and a courtside seat to life in the league.
Keep your village close. Luckily for the young Frenchman, growing up outside of the United States has protected him from a good deal of the hype and the criticism so far. From all accounts, Wembanyama comes from a close-knit family and a healthy support system of close friends and trusted advisers. That’s a huge advantage, because he’ll need to surround himself with those he trusts to protect himself from the countless shady characters who flock to pro athletes.
Remember that it’s the men, not the women, who are the biggest groupies. Fast-taking sycophants are experts at infiltrating your inner circle. They walk around with trendy titles: stretch doctor, social media influencer, personal barbers, tailors, jewelry designer, even (my favorite) event planner/party promoter. Talk about gold diggers. Rarely does their expertise match their resume. Steer clear of them.
Brace for a cultural awakening on race and being a Black man in America. Being Black in America is not the same thing as being Black anywhere else. It is often a culture shock for Black and brown people who come to the US from other cultures when they first experience America’s unique brand of systemic racism, cemented during hundreds of years of chattel slavery, a Civil War and Jim Crow laws that still shape our society. Many are surprised by just how ubiquitous racism is here, and reading headlines about social injustice in America or Black Lives Matter protests does not prepare you for the dynamics of race in America.
As I have traveled around the world, what I’ve been most struck by is how structural and systemic racism and the conversations around race and culture are vastly different outside of America. The divisions may be over religion, ethnicity, a caste system or white colonialist attitudes of superiority. In the US, meanwhile, the most pernicious form of racism has targeted Black Americans. Many of his NBA peers — including James — have found being wealthy and famous will not shield you from encountering racism. Brace yourself for it.
Finally, have fun. No matter how things go for you in the NBA, life is bigger than basketball. Getting drafted into the NBA is an American dream come true. The pressure to perform will be intense. But it’s important to remember you are more than a basketball player. If the news reports are to be believed, Wembanyama considers himself an artist. We are told that he loves to write, draw and build Legos. He should follow those passions in his spare time off the court and enjoy the journey.
After the June 22 draft, Wenbanyama is expected to play in the NBA Summer League, which will begin next month in Las Vegas. That’s when American fans and most media will get a first good look at his game. After that, the media honeymoon will be over, and the hard work of playing in the NBA will begin in earnest.
Meanwhile, my family and I are already planning trips to see the phenom from France for ourselves. See you in San Antonio, Wemby.