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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fait accompli: Spurs draft French prodigy Victor Wembanyama at No. 1

French basketball player Victor Wembanyama shakes hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA draft on Thursday.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ben Golliver Washington Post

NEW YORK – Victor Wembanyama arrived early for his big day, stepping onto the Barclays Center stage nearly three hours before the NBA draft commenced. The French phenom, dressed in a dark green suit and with a shiny pendant around his neck, took a long look up at a video board that displayed the names of the 30 teams picking in the first round.

Of course, the 19-year-old center, who arrives in the United States as one of the most coveted and hyped teenage basketball prospects in history, didn’t need to read past the start of the list.

To the surprise of no one and to the delight of an unusually raucous crowd, the San Antonio Spurs selected Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick in the draft Thursday, making the smooth-shooting, 7-foot-4 prospect the third top overall selection in franchise history. Wembanyama joins Hall of Fame centers David Robinson and Tim Duncan, who helped establish San Antonio as one of the NBA’s most consistent winners throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The Charlotte Hornets selected Brandon Miller, a freshman forward out of Alabama, with the second pick. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Scoot Henderson, a guard who spent two seasons with the G League Ignite developmental program, with the third. Twin brothers Amen and Ausar Thompson then went fourth and fifth to the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons, respectively.

The Washington Wizards, who have been incredibly active under new president Michael Winger, took part in one of two trades involving lottery picks. Washington acquired No. 7 pick Bilal Coulibaly, a teammate of Wembanyama’s in France, in exchange for No. 8 pick Jarace Walker of Houston and other considerations. Then, the Dallas Mavericks flipped No. 10 pick Cason Wallace of Kentucky to the Oklahoma City Thunder for No. 12 pick Dereck Lively II of Duke and other assets.

Earlier this week, the Wizards agreed to trade Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Chris Paul in deals that will net Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones, Landry Shamet and other assets.

But Thursday night belonged to the tallest man in the building, who signed autographs for young fans who screamed his name and hobnobbed with former NBA player Joakim Noah, the son of French tennis star Yannick Noah, before the festivities began. Following his selection, Wembanyama called it “the best night of my life.”

A large group of Spurs fans, wearing custom Wembanyama T-shirts and waving signs with his “Wemby” nickname and chanting his name, traveled from Texas to witness the potentially franchise-changing event. Wembanyama, who became the first French player to be selected first overall, was joined by several family members who made the transatlantic trip.

Back in San Antonio, fans painted murals in his honor and crowded into the AT&T Center to watch the draft remotely. Wembanyama said he couldn’t wait to see footage of the event, and that he was looking forward to eating Texas’ famous breakfast tacos.

“I’ve been to Texas before but never San Antonio,” Wembanyama said. “What do I expect? From what I’ve seen from San Antonio fans here in New York, I know I’m going to get a lot of love. And I’m going to give a lot of love to this fan base. I love it. All this (excitement) means I can have a good impact on the world.”

After winning five championships during Duncan’s 19-year career, the Spurs have fallen on harder times since his 2016 retirement. San Antonio has missed the postseason four straight years under coach Gregg Popovich, and Wembanyama arrives as a potential savior who could restore the franchise to its championship heights.

“I’m very excited,” Popovich said. “I’d do a somersault, but I’d be out for three months.”

A talented scorer and shot-blocker who handles the ball like a guard and boasts an 8-foot wingspan, Wembanyama averaged 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks this season for Metropolitans 92 of the top French professional league. Appropriately, Wembanyama will wear jersey No. 1 in San Antonio.

“It’s no pressure,” Wembanyama said of following in the footsteps of Robinson and Duncan. “I’m living my own life and own story. It’s always a pleasure.”

Though Wembanyama’s selection by the Spurs was a formality, the rest of the top-five picks remained unclear until the final hours. Charlotte invited Henderson and Miller for follow-up workouts this week, and conflicting reports emerged over the past 48 hours as to how they would use the pick.

Ultimately, the Hornets went with Miller, a 6-9 forward who averaged 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and won SEC player of the year honors at Alabama. Miller said he found out he was heading to Charlotte “2 seconds” before his name was called by Silver and that he was looking forward to playing with LaMelo Ball.

“I’m willing to make all the winning plays as far as on or off the court,” Miller said. “LaMelo, that’s definitely one of the guys. He made me feel like a little brother away from home. I feel like our bond will get closer just due to the passage of time.”

The Hornets’ selection left Henderson, a 6-2 point guard, for the Blazers, who made their selection despite persistent rumors they might trade the pick to acquire veteran help for franchise guard Damian Lillard.

“I didn’t really pay too much attention to that,” Henderson said of the rumors. “I paid attention to what mattered and that was the work that went into being here to this day. I’m the most prepared player in the draft. That’s what I say. The fact that I went (to the Ignite) for two years just taught me so much.”