HENDERSON, Nev. — We can only do so much to create our own history: identify the actors who might shape things to come, place them in the arena, hope for the best outcomes, subject them to the chaos that follows . Perhaps no unseen force can destroy a plan faster than teenage nerves. And so, the odds of two basketball prodigies each putting on a transcendent performance Tuesday night probably weren’t as favorable as basketball players in this desert would surely have you believe.
Much of the NBA scouting cognoscenti descended on Las Vegas this week to find out anyway, as it’s not every day that 18-year-old Frenchman Victor Wembanyama flies across the globe to show you what you’re missing. With a well-deserved foil to American point guard wunderkind Scoot Henderson, the two players widely touted as the top two draft picks on next year’s team (in that order) squared off for the first time. Teams will have to lose a lot, either engineered or random, to really figure out the syntax of either, but damn if that idea doesn’t have a little extra credibility the next morning.
What unfolded on Tuesday felt like a glimpse of a brighter future. Wembanyama – who is 7-foot-2 and could be taller – scored 37 points on 20 shots, made seven 3-pointers, blocked five attempts and managed a furious second half in response to a 19-point halftime deficit. Henderson took the field with a twinkle in his eye and set the tone for the G League Ignite team. Wembanyama and his Metropolitans 92 battled to within one win, but Henderson was relentless, finishing with 28 points of his own, nine assists and just two turnovers, hitting big jumpers and attacking with fervor to close out the 122-115 win.
Suffice it to say, these types of spectacles almost never go according to plan, particularly in preseason exhibition games, especially when jet lag is a factor, as well as when the environment isn’t exactly fuel. Wembanyama and Henderson had never even met before this week, and any narrative tension was mostly contrived. Henderson hopes to challenge for the No. 1 pick, but has largely avoided commenting on it. Wembanyama complemented Henderson, calling him his favorite player in their division on Monday (while acknowledging his own position as a front-runner in that debate). Even so, the Dollar Loan Center, Ignite’s new home arena just south of the Vegas Strip, felt barely half full on a nondescript Tuesday night. If anyone had bothered to shoot t-shirts out of cannons, they would have landed in the hands of eager scouts. And yet, what we got was something unusual, two young players pushing each other to their limits at a nascent stage of their careers, getting the best out of each other more than beating each other.
“The hoops were snapped,” said an executive who was present, rather eloquently. “It was everything we could have asked for.”
Wembanyama and Henderson play opposite positions and affect the game in different ways, which meant they weren’t going to cover each other, leaving room for both to dominate. Each duly made his presence felt, Henderson finishing a few times around Wembanyama at the rim and hitting a first quarter over his outstretched fingers, but also failing while challenging his counterpart (he was the victim of three Wembanyama blocks). There were more than enough juicy body moments in the flow of things. Both players seemed to enjoy it. Wembanyama got off to a slow start but grabbed the limelight again with a thrilling shot in the third quarter that proved his ability and that he can already take over a game with his shooting threat among other things. “At this age players can sink after a tough first half,” Metropolitans coach Vincent Collet said, “and he did the opposite.”
Behind the scenes, there was reasonable debate to start the week as to how much is really at stake here in the draft. That means even Henderson’s best efforts this season as a teenager in the G League might not change the pecking order come June, even if a point guard-needy team wins the lottery. There was a brief moment at half-time, with Henderson using the momentum of his performance and Webaniyama struggling, where the window for discussion opened slightly. But Wembanyama inherently breaks convention in a way that Henderson does not, which is no small feat. His diverse talents have tugged at the hearts of scouting offices over the past few years, and barring devastating injuries, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t hear his name called first. It’s not often that the debate surrounding a top pick seems so inevitable this early. When this happens, it is important and formally justified.
You don’t find athletes as tall as Wembanyama (put a period here if you want) who also possess remarkable basketball ability, motor skills, innate focus and a desire to learn. His defensive presence has been solid – he blocks and denies almost everything – and now his jump shot – off the dribble, off the move, from corners and with confidence – is starting to blossom. He hasn’t touched what he could do as an attacking fulcrum. Wembanyama is seen by most if not all who know as a generational prospect, which seems like a blunt, clichéd way to describe someone until you hear it spoken so casually by those who have dedicated their lives to the art of talent spotting. in basketball. you start to believe it yourself. The key question may not be which team he ultimately prefers, but whether there are two such players in this draft.
“Scoot showed he’s far from an afterthought,” said another scout in attendance. Henderson showcased the fruits of diligent offseason work and made a strong impression with his attitude, bolder and more vocal than the version of him who learned the ropes of the pro game in the G League last year at age 17. Henderson changed his body while maintaining his fighting weight of 195 pounds, looking noticeably leaner and perhaps even faster and more explosive than the last time we saw him.
Henderson also looked much more confident in his jumper, and while the Ignite lead dwindled in the second, he did a great job sharing the ball, showing a promising understanding of how to manage a game and pick his spots. “Growth within [Scoot] he tells everybody where to go,” Ignite coach Jason Hart said. “The goal is to get the ball [in the NBA] as a rookie, you have to be a leader. Last year he was a bit shy, the youngest in the team. He’s a veteran now.” Point guards don’t develop overnight, but Henderson is well on his way to being special, one who can combine the physical and the mental in a way that matters.
Their teams will meet for the second time on Thursday evening, before Wembanyama returns to France to continue his season and Henderson returns to preparation for his. It’s hard to expect such an exciting contest, but these are two players with the ability to consistently win and change our expectations. These types of performances are only unusual until, by definition, they are not. There’s no guarantee that either player measures up where the fantasy certainly runs, but a world where both come close to reaching their potential is real. Because for one night, they touched it, and they touched it together, and for now, that was all that really mattered.
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