Brian Windhorst and the Sportzshala insider team dig into life and news in the NBA world and beyond.
Victor Vembanyama remembers the date, an ominous anniversary he can’t seem to let go.
“I have been thinking about this loss every day since July 11, 2021,” Wembanyama said in French in an interview published in L’Equipe. “When everything collapses in an instant while you’re touching your dream, it’s hard.”
That day in Riga, Latvia, France lost 83-81 to Team USA in the U-19 World Cup final. Wembanyama, as you would expect from the number one basketball player on the planet, impressed with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.
But Wembanyama fouled with less than three minutes left. The play was clearly a foul—he collided with future Detroit Pistons defenseman Jayden Ivey on the drive—but Wembanyama remained furious.
Vembanyama stomped around the arena, biting the collar of his uniform, partly in anger, partly to avoid saying something that might aggravate the situation. Vembanyama spoke in an interview about how he can completely lose his cool after defeats and that he needs to work to “stay civilized”. What did that day in Latvia show; he could barely contain himself.
Victor Vembanyama led France to a 2-0 record in the FIBA World Cup qualifying window and today is another big match against Bosnia. 19 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks in 24 minutes in a 36-point win for presumed No. 1 pick. pic.twitter.com/TCpyMhkIGi
— Jonathan Zhivoni (@DraftExpress) November 14, 2022
Not surprisingly, he studied the players Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant the most. According to him, another date that he cannot forget is January 26, 2020, the day Bryant died.
“Since then, I think about it almost every day,” said Wembanyama.
“I know all his stats and records, but what I admired most was his state of mind and his philosophy in his approach to the game… When I suffer, when I have doubts, I often wonder what Kobe would have done. And I know he would have done more, so I’m going back to it.”
After Vembanyama fouled, France squandered a draw or win opportunity when the Americans grabbed two offensive rebounds in the last 10 seconds. If Wembanyama was in the game, he would probably provide those boards, and that fact gnaws at him. When the buzzer sounded as the Americans celebrated, the French teenager threw away the towel, which he chewed in disgust.
“Just thinking about it makes my jaw clench,” said Wembanyama. “This is regret. An unfilled hole inside of me that I have to mend.”
This is all relevant now, because over the past few days, 18-year-old Uembanyama has played for the senior French national team for the first time. The event has been called a seismic moment in France, compared to when football heroes Zinedine Zidane and Kylian Mbappe took their first steps playing for Les Bleus.
Progress could set the stage for a potential showdown with the Americans at both the World Championships next summer in Manila, Philippines and, of course, the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
In his first game on Friday, Vembanyama scored 20 points with nine rebounds in just 24 minutes in a loss to Lithuania. On Monday, he helped the French confirm their 2023 World Cup bid by scoring 19 points in 25 minutes in a 92-56 win over Bosnia.
These mid-season tryouts usually don’t attract the best talent, as the NBA doesn’t even consider ending play for them in the G-League. (Team USA is on the cusp of qualifying for the World Championship after an 88-81 win over Columbia in Washington, D.C. on Monday with former NBA and G League players.)
But in France it matters. The French league stops play for them, and Vincent Collet, coach of Wembanyama on his professional Metropolitans 92 team, is also coach of the national team. It’s no coincidence: Collet accepted the franchise job after Uembanyama promised to play there last summer before entering the 2023 NBA draft.
Just three weeks after the French under-19s lost to the US in the 2021 cup final, their senior national teams played the gold medal match in Tokyo, where the Americans won a hard-fought match (87-82).
In 2019, the French defeated Team USA at the World Championships in China, ending a 58-game winning streak that began in 2006 and stripped them of their medals. In Tokyo, France beat the Americans in a game of billiards to inflict their first Olympic defeat on the United States since 2004 in a 25-game streak.
In 2024, the French will have home court advantage as they try to stop the US from winning a fifth straight Olympic gold.
And they plan to get Wembanyama, who has said he intends to play as many summers as possible for the national team. Combined with French star Rudy Gobert, this gives France a huge advantage over any team in the world and a potentially devastating domestic defensive duo.
Team USA is in hot water in terms of size internationally. Gobert, Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Deandre Aiton (Bahamas), Jusuf Nurkic (Bosnia), Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), Jakob Poeltl (Austria), Clint Capela (Switzerland), Ivica Zubac (Croatia) – non-Americans.
This is the bulk of newcomers to the NBA. The Americans were lucky that Bam Adebayo didn’t take too much offense at being the last player in the national team for the 2019 World Cup. He was eligible to play for Nigeria in Tokyo and seriously considered it before joining Team USA.
Karl-Anthony Towns has the perfect international skill set, but played for the Dominican Republic as a teenager and is therefore not eligible to play for the US.
Which is why Joel Embiid’s becoming an American citizen earlier this year was highly noteworthy, and his recruitment to the national team is an underrated part of the drama leading up to the summer of 2024. Embiid also has French citizenship and could join Gobert and Wembanyama in Paris if he was so inclined and healthy.
Even at 7ft 4ft, amazing ball skills allow Wembanyama to play as a winger at least part-time at the next level. Consider what For a moment.
Another note about Wembanyama: selection built into the game on Monday against Bosnia, that outrageously one-sided fading three-point shot that is a vicious combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
Well, this is the second time in the last few games that Vembanyama have used him, having made a similar throw in the French league a week ago. And get ready to see more of it because he explained why it exists for L’Equipe and this answer is one of the reasons it seems like a complete package: “A basketball player is like a chess player, you have to be able to anticipate your opponents’ every move.” and have an answer. Opponents always adapt. I have been working on this move for several months. I want to be able to become insecure.”
The possible approach of a Wembanyama tidal wave has far-reaching implications, and the past few days serve as a reminder.
Speaking of the dominance of international players, here is a senior reporter Ramona Shelburne about one of Finland’s favorite sons:
Markkanen: “Confidence is everything”
There are few things more exciting to the NBA talent evaluator than a versatile 7-footer. The imagination runs wild when they appear. If they also have defensive skills or a nimble throw from the side, the comparisons get high pretty quickly.
Is he the next Pau Gasol? Could he be like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid?
However, these are the wrong questions.
What this 7-footer needs isn’t a definition – it’s the right situation to grow up in.
Take, for example, Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen, who is having a breakout season for the NBA’s most amazing team.
In his first three seasons in the league, the Chicago Bulls experimented with him in various roles with varying degrees of success. Was he a stretch 4? Wing? Small ball 5?
Markkanen has shown impressive flashes in all of these roles, but in none of them has he been consistent enough. In the end, the Bulls lost patience, Markkanen lost confidence, and two years ago the sides parted ways in a confused and drawn-out process of limited leeway.
“For us, he is all those [roles]jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Why are we trying to label him in one category?”
Hardy studied Markkanen’s play in both Chicago and Cleveland, where he reinvented himself last season as a winger in coach JB Bickerstaff’s big squads. But what really showed Markkanen’s potential was how the Finnish national team used him this summer at the EuroBasket Championship, during which he averaged 28 points and eight rebounds, including a monstrous 43-point game in Croatia’s upset.
“I feel like we really gave him the opportunity to just use all his skills,” said Finland captain Sean Huff. “The range of his skills is so wide that it is difficult to put it into boxes. It kind of gives him more freedom when he can do anything: run, play pick and roll, set picks, break away from screens, set screens.
“I’m really happy to see the Jazz doing the same with him. He is everywhere. And I think that’s where he shines.”
Coming from Cleveland in a trade for Donovan Mitchell, Markkanen is averaging 20 points per season for the first time in his career, becoming one of the league’s top scorers. According to Second Spectrum tracking, he is averaging 1.20 points per direct touch this season, second only to Jokic among players with at least 500 touches.
Markkanen’s ability to move the ball and play the role of playmaker has been vital to Utah’s offense, which ranks in the top 10 in assists per game after finishing fifth in the bottom 5 a season ago.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult for young players to find their streak,” Hardy said. But Markkanen definitely found himself in Utah, and with it, his confidence.
“Confidence is everything,” Markkanen said. “My third year in Chicago was mentally tough for me… I was always trying to get out of it.”