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Wembanyama, potential first NBA draft pick, dazzles in two-game exhibition in Las Vegas

HENDERSON, Nev.: Victor Wembanyama blocked a shot Thursday afternoon, ran down the court, flew just inside the foul line, caught a go-oop pass from a hand and slammed a dunk.

The entire sequence lasted eight seconds.

It may have been the signing moment – ​​and there were plenty of candidates – of Wembanyama’s two-game trip to the United States, which ended on Thursday with the French phenom Metropolitans 92 team rallying from 16 points to lead the G League Ignite 112-106. He led the way, of course, with 36 points and 11 rebounds.

“As a first impression of the American game, it was really great,” Wembanyama said.

Him too.

His final numbers from two shows: 73 points on 22-for-44 shooting, nine 3-pointers, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots. He returns to France on Saturday, and the next time he plays in the United States, there will probably be an NBA logo on his jersey, probably after he became the first pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

“It’s very, very special for France,” said Metropolitans 92 coach Vincent Collet. “Not just for France. He has enormous potential. It’s a huge talent. »

The reviews came from that two-game Vegas residency for Wembanyama, who is 7-foot-3 barefoot, and they were of a wild variety. Perhaps the best of the bunch came from Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, who suggested that calling Wembanyama a unicorn might not fully convey how unique he is.

Instead, James went with a standout comparison.

“Everyone’s been a unicorn for the past few years, but he’s more like an alien,” James said. “No one has ever seen someone as tall as him, but as fluid and graceful as he is on the floor…He is, for sure, a generational talent.”

Golden State guard Stephen Curry added, “He’s like the (NBA) 2K player builder, every point guard who wants to be 7-footer. Cheat code type vibes, man. It’s a solid talent. It’s great to watch.

Sure enough, when Wembanyama is around, a viral moment can happen at any time. Maybe it’s a dunk. Maybe it’s a block. It could be a 3-point fade from the corner as his momentum drifts him towards the baseline. It could be a 3-pointer from 28 feet from the wing. He may be the one kicking a ball into a monitor and narrowly missing fellow French center Rudy Gobert.

Yes, all of those things happened.

The scene: Gobert and fellow Minnesota Timberwolves standout D’Angelo Russell, in town to face the Lakers in a preseason game later Thursday, decided to postpone their afternoon nap – a must of the NBA game-day routine — and making the 20-minute drive from Las Vegas to watch the game, arriving at halftime.

Gobert made a quick appearance on the game’s TV show. Wembanyama, standing nearby, stuck one of his massive feet in the path of a pass from Ignite center Eric Mika. The bullet ricocheted off the monitor near Gobert’s seat, knocking him over.

Gobert burst out laughing. Wembanyama raised his hand to apologize.

“Hey, he also played football,” Gobert said.

Gobert raves about Wembanyama, who will almost certainly be France’s top-five pick in the draft. And he doesn’t think there’s any real comparison: Gobert said Wembanyama’s defensive instincts reminded him of himself, while his ball handling and shooting reminded him of Kevin Durant.

“What strikes me most about him is his maturity,” Gobert said. “Obviously he’s a very unique talent and he has a very unique physique. But his maturity and his confidence…he’s really unique.

Thursday’s game was a little scary, and the other NBA Draft headliner in this showcase had the worst of it.

Scoot Henderson, the goaltender whose 28 points led the Ignite to a 122-115 win Tuesday night in the exhibition opener, left Thursday’s game after less than five minutes. The reason: he bumped his knees with Wembanyama.

Henderson moved on to Wembanyama, who was dribbling down the wing. Wembanyama made a move, collided with Henderson and fell to the ground, initially appearing to have gotten the worst of that exchange. But Henderson, who was called for a foul on the play, ended up hobbling for evaluation and the Ignite quickly declared he would not return.

“Scoot is doing well,” G League coach Jason Hart said. “It was a precaution.”

There are 31 games left on the Metropolitans’ 34-game schedule in the French league, and the plan – for now – is for Wembanyama to complete their season, which is due to end in mid-May. The NBA Draft is June 22.

Bouna Ndiaye, one of Wembanyama’s agents, said some NBA teams might not understand why he is playing. The reason, he says, is that no one can get Wembanyama out of the gym.

“He wants to live on the pitch,” Ndiaye said.

What these two games showed, in many ways, is simply that the Wembanyama tapes that came out of Europe in recent years weren’t lying. He needs to get stronger. There are a lot of things he can still tweak. It is, from all points of view, already exceptional.

“Just before we arrived last Saturday, we had a meeting with our doctor and we are going to prepare to plan the next two months to increase what he does, off the court, to strengthen the body,” said Collet. “We always pay attention to the time he spends in training, so as not to go overboard. … We plan to limit risk.

At the end of Thursday, after the comeback was complete, Wembanyama briefly raised his arms skyward in celebration, then shook a lot of hands, took part in a lot of hugs and posed for many photos.

With that, the hype for the project continued.

“I’m still excited and so happy,” Wembanyama said. “I know I’m so lucky to have this chance.”

Helen D. Jessen