Richard Justice: “Pray for Victor” is the bottom line for Rockets

Oct 4, 2022; Henderson, NV, USA; Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 forward Victor Wembanyama (1) smiles after the game against the NBA G League Ignite at The Dollar Loan Center. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: “Pray for Victor” is the bottom line for Rockets

   “Pray for Victor.”

   Tillman Fertitta uttered those three words at the end of a recent interview, and if you’ve been jonesing for a State of the Rockets address from the owner, there it is. Nice and neat.

   If those prayers are answered, Rockets games instantly would become must-see events. Victor—that’s Victor Wembanyama—is the NBA’s most intriguing prospect in decades, and he would change everything for our NBA team.

   Every few years, a prospect comes along capable of doing that. Think LeBron James (2003), Tim Duncan (1997), Shaquille O’Neal (1992), David Robinson (1987), Hakeem Olajuwon (1984), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969).

   Conventional wisdom is that Wembanyama is the NBA’s best prospect since Kevin Durant in 2007. That’s simply a reference point since there has never been a player like him.

   We occasionally exaggerate the talents of a player of whom we’ve seen so little. Because Wembanyama has played in his native France’s top pro league for the last three seasons, because he hasn’t been tested by America’s top college players, there is a bit of the unknown.

   That said, virtually every NBA personnel expert is dazzled by him. He’s 19 years old, 7-5 (in shoes, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst) with an eight-foot wingspan, and a rail-thin 230 pounds. Check out his YouTube highlights: the ball-handling skills of a point guard with a nice outside shot. We’ve seldom seen this skillset from someone of this size.

   James called him a “generational talent” last October, adding: “We’re labeling him like this unicorn thing. Everybody has been a unicorn over the last few years, but he’s more like an alien. I’ve never seen—no one has ever seen—anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and as graceful as he is on the floor.”

   Wembanyama told Sports Illustrated: “I’m really glad he said that because I didn’t like to be called a unicorn. I like being called an alien, it’s just something not from this world. It’s really what I’m working to be—something unique and original.”

   He’s averaging 22.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, and 2.3 assists for the Metropolitans 92. To think the Rockets could put him on the floor with Alperen Şengün and Jabari Smith and intersperse a veteran or two is to understand why prayers are in order.

   His arrival would allow us to remember a time when those Rockets championship celebrations turned Richmond Avenue into the wildest of street parties. OK, deep breaths all around.

   The Rockets are 50-162 the last three seasons. This season, they’re 13-45, worst in the NBA. So, you know, baby steps. How about a .500 season?

   While the NBA would prefer its team owners not say the quiet part out loud, Fertitta didn’t spill any state secrets. When the Rockets began this rebuild, they took the long view that they eventually could land a transformative talent to get the team back into the hearts and minds of Houstonians.

   Here’s the lousy part of the equation: their chances of getting him aren’t great despite 13-45. On May 16th, the NBA will hold its annual draft lottery, and it would be impossible to overstate the importance of getting the No. 1 pick. Problem is, in attempting to discourage tanking, the NBA lottery is a true lottery.

   The Rockets have only a 14% chance of getting the top pick. The Spurs and Pistons are also at 14%. To think that all those losses could add up to a consolation prize for the Rockets would be hugely disappointing.

   Wembanyama will test a franchise’s ability to maximize his unique skillset. Even if it doesn’t happen overnight—or in one season—it will be fascinating to watch.

   G League point guard Scoot Henderson is the consensus No. 2 pick, with an explosive first step and tremendous playmaking skills. He, too, would make the Rockets way better.

   In this draft, though, Wembanyama is in a different solar system. This is what’s on the line for the Rockets in the lottery. Pray for Victor.

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