"He was my size, 1.70 m, at around eight years old": to say that Victor Wembanyama, about to make his official NBA debut in the 2023 Draft on Thursday, has always impressed with his size and talent would be an understatement, especially his first coaches.
Two years ago, just as the prodigy was beginning to make a name for himself in French basketball, Emmanuel Saravas tells AFP about "Wemby's" early days. "When he was five years old, everyone thought he was 10," recalls his former coach at the Entente Le Chesnay-Versailles.
It was here, in this well-off commune in the Yvelines department, that little Victor began to handle the orange ball. "We suspected he'd have the body to play high-level basketball: his mom is 1.91 m tall, his dad is 2.05 m tall," continues Emmanuel Saravas, pointing to an old size 20 shoe his player wore when he was 15.
Above all, beyond their size, both parents are passionate about basketball and sport: the mother, a former player, coaches at Chesnay-Versailles and keeps a close eye on her son's beginnings, while the father, a former athlete, is a physical trainer. In short, a family environment reminiscent of Parker, Diaw or Batum.
"Often, coaches' sons who spend their time at the gym have something extra, they train harder than the others, they always have the ball in their hands," sums up Emmanuel Saravas. "While Élodie, his mother, was coaching, we could see the three children not far away; they've always been immersed in basketball," says his former coach.
And Victor is not alone: his older sister Ève, a basketball player, now plays for Monaco, having also passed, like Victor in 2021-22, through ASVEL, where their younger brother Oscar, who had initially taken up handball, still plays.
Right from his debut at Chesnay-Versailles, this drawing enthusiast was outclassed, a habit he would keep throughout his career, at club level as well as with the national team, and even in his life off the court, since he passed his baccalaureate with honors and a year ahead of schedule.
"We were amazed at his motor skills: he could do incredible things for a child his age," says Emmanuel Saravas, who coached him from the age of seven to nine.
"What's amazing about his game is that he can dribble, shoot, pass the ball, run..." says his former coach, who saw in him, as a kid, the potential of Dirk Nowitzki, the 2.13 m German who dazzled the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks for almost 20 years with his outside shooting.
"He can bring the ball up, he can play strong wing, pivot, even wing sometimes. He's a special player, he can do everything", says Michael Bur, one of his coaches at Nanterre, for whom it would be a mistake to sum Wembanyama up by his size (2.24 m according to the NBA website), however spectacular it may be.
This gifted player, who arrived in Nanterre at the age of ten, before joining the club's training center four years later, quickly rose through the ranks, to the point of making his pro debut, in the European Cup, at the age of 15.
"He always adapted very quickly to the older players," recalls Michael Bur. Dazzling at the U19 World Championship in July 2019, he gained even more notoriety but had to settle for silver with Les Bleuets, beaten by the USA in the final.
Despite a 2021-2022 season plagued by repeated injuries, he was crowned French champion with ASVEL, which he subsequently left for Metropolitans 92.
A full season followed, in which he became the new face of French basketball, winning the MVP title at the end of the regular season and splashing the championship with his talent, both offensively and defensively.
The Boulogne-Levallois experience included a stint in Las Vegas for exhibition matches, where "Wemby" impressed all the biggest American stars, LeBron James first and foremost.
In front of the press, he showed great maturity and mastery of communication: although he had not yet lived in the United States, he demonstrated his good level of English in interviews. Now that he is destined for the NBA's overcrowded schedules, the only - potential - concern for the future of this young prodigy from Paris is his physique.
Even though he has made enormous progress in this area, Wembanyama remains rather frail and will need to bulk up to withstand the NBA's muscular rackets and repeated matches.
But his former coaches aren't worried about him. They know he'll work smart, so as not to metamorphose and lose his physical qualities, like his shooting mechanics.
"Victor doesn't want to become like Conan the Barbarian," sums up Philippe Sudre, the Mets' training center manager. "He wants to get stronger, so he can take the knocks, but without becoming body-built".