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Imagining Victor Wembanyama on the NBA's 5 Worst Teams

Grant Hughes

Victor Wembanyama is a multitalented mystery box with a size-and-skill combo nobody has ever seen. He's the kind of skeleton-key prospect who could unlock greatness in any number of ways for any number of NBA teams.

Some need him more than others, though. The clubs at the bottom of the standings will have the highest odds of landing the best draft prospect in years.

Those standings, by the way, are solidifying as we move past the quarter mark of the 2022-23 season. A handful of squads should really start thinking about what the 7'4" wunderkind could bring to each of them.

For our purposes, the five worst teams are the squads with the worst records as of Dec. 1.

The goal of this exercise is to highlight the specific ways in which Wembanyama could benefit each of the five worst teams in the league. The fact that it's so easy to imagine him addressing such a wide variety of needs says everything about his once-in-a-generation potential.

Orlando Magic

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Sheer novelty isn't the main reason why Wembanyama would be so intriguing on the Orlando Magic, but it's a big factor here. Don't tell me you aren't interested in seeing a starting lineup composed entirely of players listed at 6'10" or taller.

That's what Orlando could do by adding Wembanyama to a core that already includes Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero—all of whom are officially measured at 6'10"—plus 7'2" Bol Bol. This wouldn't be a gimmick, either.

Banchero has precious few games under his belt as a rookie, but he's delivered on the promise of being a primary playmaker that made him such a tantalizing draft prospect. He and Ben Simmons are the only rookies listed at 6'10" or above since 2000 to average at least 3.5 assists per game, and Banchero is the first rookie that tall since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to average at least 20.0 points and 3.0 assists.

Wagner has been an even better distributor than Bancheco this season, averaging 4.0 dimes per contest. Even Carter, the team's starting center, can dish it. He has ranked above the 80th percentile in assist rate among bigs in each of the last two years. Meanwhile, Bol's guard skills in a 7'2" frame would make him the world's most striking combination of size, shot-blocking and perimeter skill if not for Wembanyama.

“Everyone talks about the Victor dude from France," Banchero told Michael Scotto of HoopsHype. "I’m not trying to compare them, but Bol’s 7’2, shoots threes, brings it up the court, makes passes, and blocks shots."

Shot creation and playmaking wouldn't be a concern with this lineup, and that's before even considering the possibility that they could create passing angles above the defense. The Magic don't have any conventional guards who project as quality starters, but with Wembanyama on board, they wouldn't need them.

Scoring in the paint against this group would be impossible, and the zone configurations would make up in length what they'd surrender in foot speed. And again, Wembanyama's defensive mobility might ultimately be his greatest asset. This group would be legitimately hard to blow by, and even if guards got past the first line of defense, they'd be enveloped by miles and miles of wingspan. Plus, when you think you're past Wembanyama, you're almost always wrong.

Kickouts would be necessary, but even those may not yield anything against a group this rangy.

Oh, what's that, Toronto Raptors? You think you're on the vanguard of like-sized lineups because you trot out configurations where everyone is somewhere between 6'7" and 6'9" once in a while?

Stand aside, because this hypothetical version of the Magic is going full skyscraper.

Detroit Pistons

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Some suspected the Detroit Pistons would make a sneaky playoff push, but Cade Cunningham's unfortunate shin injury and the more predictable struggles of youth have this team ticketed for another trip to the high lottery. If a fourth straight season with a win total in the low 20s yields Wembanyama, it will all have been worth it.

While the selling point for Wemby in Orlando was all about breaking the lineup-construction mold, his fit on the Pistons is more conventional—insofar as anything about a positionless 7'4" teenager rates as conventional.

Detroit has elite athleticism at point guard and center in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. It also has the in-between spot filled by Cunningham, a big guard who has proved he can operate on the ball and who has the potential to space the floor as a shooter and secondary playmaker. Adding Wembanyama as an additional finisher and spacer on offense would make everything run more smoothly, but his defensive presence would fill the real void in the Pistons' makeup.

Detroit currently ranks last among the five teams listed here (and 26th overall) with 4.0 blocks per 100 possessions. That lack of an interior deterrent is especially problematic because its perimeter containment is so poor. Opponents rack up 8.8 points per game in isolation sets against the Pistons, the second-highest total in the league. Even worse, Detroit allows more points per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers than any other team.

While the Pistons will have to live with defensive mistakes on the perimeter until their young guards find their footing, Wembanyama could take the sting out of those errors by providing unsurpassed back-line defense. He currently leads France's Elite Pro A league in blocks per game, and he'd make penetrators think twice before trying to finish inside.

With Ivey and Cunningham sharing ball-handling duties, the Pistons' offense has a high ceiling over the next half-decade. Wembanyama would raise it another level and would fit perfectly alongside Ivey in particular because he's such a breathtaking force in transition. Ivey has open-floor speed that few can match, but Wembanyama gets up the court with incomprehensible ease for a player his size, and he has the shot-hunting feel of a guard in those situations.

Duren can really run, too. And lest there be any concern about fit issues between Duren and Wembanyama, the former is already showing signs that he's much more than a paint-bound big. These two could easily play together and complement one another on the Pistons' front line.

Fixing the defense would be Wembanyama's most important job with Detroit, but supercharging its transition attack would be the most exciting additive to the experience.

San Antonio Spurs

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The most satisfying aspect of Wembanyama potentially landing on the San Antonio Spurs has little to do with what would happen on the floor. The appeal here is all about the pure narrative completeness of head coach Gregg Popovich bookending his career with generational big men.

The Spurs selected Tim Duncan first overall in 1997, a no-brainer decision that was as easy then as it would be to take Wembanyama 26 seasons later.

Popovich will be 74 by draft day, and his coaching future is very much a year-to-year proposition. But he has talked often (and movingly) about how indebted he is to Duncan's greatness, and one could imagine his desire to experience the early days of that relationship again.

In life, we don't often get to relive the glory days. But Wembanyama would give Popovich a real shot at some very pleasant déjà vu before he retires.

Other factors, though less sentimental, are still pretty compelling.

San Antonio is dead last in effective field-goal percentage allowed and defensive efficiency. The damage is being done mainly at close range, as the Spurs permit the league's highest percentage of shots at the rim.

Starting center Jakob Poeltl is rightly regarded as one of the better interior defenders in the NBA, and it's true that the Spurs have been so easy to score on for reasons beyond their struggles protecting the rim. But Poeltl isn't the type of hyper-mobile big who can dart around and put out the myriad fires set by the Spurs' suspect wing and guard defenders. Wembanyama would be far better suited to that task.

Besides, Poeltl is 27 and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Far from a core piece on a rebuilder, he's basically the definition of a stopgap in San Antonio. He could easily sign elsewhere in July if the Spurs don't move him prior to this season's trade deadline.

Charlotte Hornets

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Every team we've hit so far has had some level of success in identifying, drafting and developing young talent. Orlando made the easy pick with Paolo Banchero, the shrewd one with Franz Wagner and struck gold on Bol Bol as a reclamation project. Detroit has Jaden Ivey, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Duren. San Antonio did well to snag Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell with picks outside of the top 10.

Meanwhile, LaMelo Ball is the Charlotte Hornets' only obvious young building block. Why reward a team that has done less to help itself than the other candidates in this group?

In one sense, the Hornets "deserve" Wembanyama the least. But that also means they need him the most.

We've focused mostly on Wembanyama's potential to elevate teams' defensive performance, and he'd do that for the Hornets, who rank in the bottom 10 in half-court defense and points allowed per 100 possessions on putbacks. His control of the boards would make a major difference in both areas.

Spinning things more positively, he'd also supercharge what's already a strength. The Hornets have a stellar transition defense, and Wembanyama's presence could make it sublime. You don't need all five defenders to sprint back when one guy can snuff out a breakaway all by himself.

All of that aside, the Hornets could be the team that sets up Wembanyama for the most success on offense. That has everything to do with Ball, a brilliant passer in need of a similarly gifted receiver. He'd pick out Wembanyama on the break better than almost anyone in the league, and lobs would be effortless. LaMelo can fit a ball through a keyhole, so he'd have no trouble finding a guy whose catch radius is best measured in zip codes.

Considering the load Wembanyama would have to carry on D, the best thing for his development might be 20 spoon-fed points per night on offense. Charlotte would eventually need Wemby to become its top scoring option and shot-creator, but a little Ball-led boost to start things off could ease pressure and allow him to focus on controlling the game defensively.

Also, big picture: The Hornets need to give Ball a reason to believe that better days are ahead. Adding Wembanyama would be the absolute best way to do that.

Houston Rockets

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The Houston Rockets are going about their tanking business honestly. They aren't benching anybody or resting potentially helpful veterans. They aren't trading away the few players they have with experience, either. (Eric Gordon is somehow still on this roster.)

Instead, Houston is trotting out an absurdly young core, allowing it to learn on the job and taking the losses as they come. It's almost honorable.

The Rockets have given at least 300 minutes to seven players aged 22 or younger. Only Orlando, Detroit and the Oklahoma City Thunder (with five apiece) come close.

There's no guarantee it would work, but adding Wembanyama to such a youthful core could be the first step in building a tight-knit collective that bonds as it matures together. That's a lot like how the early-to-mid 2010s Thunder teams reached such heights, and isn't far off from how the Golden State Warriors got started with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green taking their lumps together.

Houston's inexperience is predictably producing tons of mistakes. Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. do most of the ball-handling for the Rockets, and they each rank among the top 10 leaguewide in total turnovers this season. As a group, Houston gives the ball away on the highest percentage of its possessions in the league.

Wembanyama will commit his share of gaffes as a rookie, but at least he'd give the Rockets' young guards someplace safe to throw the ball when their options dwindle and the defensive pressure rises. Just toss that thing up as high as possible, and Wembanyama is most likely to get it.

Houston's defense also leaves plenty to be desired. Promising prospect Alperen Şengün looks like a great offensive piece, but he essentially cripples the Rockets' defense with his lack of explosion and length whenever he's manning the center spot. Wembanyama could shield Şengün from tough defensive matchups and give one of the slicker-facilitating bigs in the league a perfect high-low passing partner.

The Rockets also seem like the ideal team to unleash Wembanyama in a role that mirrors Robert Williams III's with the Boston Celtics. They could switch pick-and-roll actions and station Wembanyama on a corner shooter, knowing he'd be ready to swoop in and obliterate any attempts in the paint.

Lastly, though he's shot the ball much better of late, Jabari Smith Jr. hasn't looked like anything more than a setup-dependent three-and-D option in the early going. He has loads of time to develop, but if he tops out as a support piece, Green will need another difference-maker to convince anyone that this Rockets core should be taken seriously.

Wembanyama, a surefire superstar, could be the guy who bumps everyone in the rotation down a peg and reorganizes Houston's pecking order in the best possible way.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 1. Salary info via Spotrac.

   

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