Basketball: French phenom Victor Wembanyama taken No.1 by San Antonio Spurs in NBA draft

Victor Wembanyama has been selected first overall by San Antonio Spurs at the NBA draft at New York, making the highly touted phenom the highest-drafted French player in league history.

'Wemby' comes into the league with a buzz that has not been seen since LeBron James, the league's all-time leading scorer, was drafted out of high school 20 years ago.

Wembanyama, 19, shed tears of joy, after he heard his name called by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Victor Wembanyama in action in the French league
Victor Wembanyama in action in the French league. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I've accomplished something that I've been dreaming of my whole life," he said. "Hearing that sentence from Adam Silver, I dreamed about it... I've got to cry."

At 2.23m (7ft 4in), Wembanyama has the size of a centre but the ball-handling, passing and shooting abilities of a guard, a jaw-dropping combination with the potential to revolutionise the sport.

He is dangerous shooting the ball from distance, and athletic enough to rebound and dunk his own misses, if necessary.

With a wingspan of close to eight feet (2.4m), he can block shots and grab rebounds with ease, and gets up and down the floor quickly for a player of his size. 

Despite his awesome height, Wembanyama weighs only 104kg and it remains to be seen whether he can bulk up, before the regular season kicks off in late October.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich will look to further develop his unique skillset in the hopes of resurrecting the storied franchise, which has missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons and has not advanced past the opening round since 2017.

San Antonio has selected first overall twice before, choosing future Basketball Hall of Famers David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997. They led the Spurs to two NBA titles and Duncan won three more with San Antonio.

The team has a history of success with French players, including Tony Parker, who led the team to four championships between 2003-14 and whom Wembanyama grew up admiring.

The previous highest-drafted French player to the NBA was Killian Hayes, selected seventh by the Detroit Pistons in 2020. Basketball is popular in France and the country has produced more NBA players than any other country outside North America.

Wembanyama is coming off a solid campaign with Metropolitans 92, a professional team in the French League, where he averaged 21.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, and won several awards, including Most Valuable Player.

His teammates on that roster included former NZ Breakers players Barry Brown Jr and Hugo Besson.

Billion-Dollar Man

Wembanyama's impact on the Spurs has been felt instantly, as more than 12,000 fans showed up to AT&T Center at San Antonio to watch the broadcast of the draft.

"He's going to up their franchise value by a billion dollars in terms of their brand equity," Pinnacle Advertising creative director and market analyst  Bob Dorfman told Reuters.

"The Warriors are the most valuable at US$7 billion (NZ$11.3 billion) and this will probably vault San Antonio into the top 10.

"They're going to get more TV exposure, more games in primetime. They're probably going to sell out the arena every night and they'll probably be able to raise their ticket prices substantially."

Victor Wembanyama at the NBA draft
Victor Wembanyama at the NBA draft. Photo credit: Getty Images

San Antonio has reportedly seen a surge in season ticket sales, along with 10 times the amount of web traffic and Spurs app downloads, since winning the NBA draft lottery last month.

Wembanyama's endorsement deal with Nike is expected to be the most the company has ever paid for a basketball player, likely in the US$100 million (NZ$161.7 million) range over 10 years, Dorfman said.

French brands that do big business in the US, such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Peugeot and Dior, could be next.

"They'll all be jumping on his bandwagon," he said.