HENDERSON, Nevada — Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, the projected top two picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, captured the basketball world’s attention as they went tat-for-tat in their first ever encounter.
Henderson, an 18-year-old point guard, led the G League Ignite to a 122-115 win with 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds. Wembanyama, a French big who plays for Paris-based team Metropolitans 92, finished with 37 points on 7-for-11 from three and five blocks in 33 minutes.
The game — the first of two exhibitions this week between both teams — was far more exciting and competitive than its billing indicates but its result was ultimately secondary. With around 200 NBA personnel on hand at the Dollar Loan Center on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the focus was on the exciting flashes and the scary potential.
And certainly, there was plenty of that.
In particular, it was Wembanyama who drew shock and awe.
It’s tough enough wrapping your head around him being 18, at least 7-foot-4, and with arms that go on for eight feet. Wembanyama had to duck when passing through the arena’s security scanner, for instance.
But it’s more than that. It’s the skill level at that size that really pops out in person. The terms “rare” or “unicorn” have been worn out as multifaceted bigs increasingly become the norm in the NBA, but Wembanyama is truly one of a kind.
In one of his first experiences on American soil, the French prodigy was not just nonplussed. He embraced the challenge.
“I’ve never played such a long game, 48 minutes,” Wembanyama said post-game. “I can’t wait to do it again in two days — and probably for the rest of my life, so I’ve got time.”
Wembanyama cashed in seven threes from all over the floor. After one particularly pure make in front of the Ignite team’s bench, he turned back and talked some smack. His opponents couldn’t help but chuckle.
In front of WNBA champions Chelsea Gray and A’ja Wilson or NBA All-Stars Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins, next year’s projected no. 1 pick showed off a little of everything. He played above the rim, handled in transition, drew fouls at the basket, guarded on the perimeter, and tried stuffing everything at the basket.
Wembanyama will have to learn when to simply stay down and not leave his feet as he gets older — he initially fouled out of the game before his final foul was overturned — but he already puts fear into his opponents when they dare attack him in the paint.
Henderson, an 18-year-old guard in his second season with the Ignite program, felt the full brunt of that.
He tried dunking on Wembanyama late in the fourth but was met with a thunderous rejection. A few possessions later, Henderson wanted to pull up over his French counterpart and was again promptly blocked.
“[Scoot] is tough to guard, just what I expected,” Wembanyama said. “Every time the ball is in his hands, it’s something you feel on the court. He can do something dangerous like slash or shoot the ball.”
However, there were also the times when Henderson got the better of Wembanyama in a way that doesn’t usually happen to the latter.
A stepback three in the first quarter stands out, especially since Henderson only made 11 threes last season (21.6 percent), but he says he was not focused on the individual battle with Wembanyama and waved off any questions about that after the game.
“I pay attention to winning, getting to the next level, and being great,” Henderson said.
The Georgia-born guard became the Ignite team’s youngest-ever signing last year, signing with the program before even being draft eligible. Henderson is a habitual stat sheet stuffer who swallows up space in transition with his long strides and has a silent but deadly midrange game.
He is expected to take on an even bigger role now, and he demonstrated as much on Tuesday night with his effort on the court but also in in huddles and timeouts.
“I’m proud of myself the way I’ve been working on it this summer,” Henderson said. “Pooh Jeter’s helping me on the sideline telling me to be more vocal, and it’s just coming out.”
The Ignite guard’s range will have to expand out to the three-point line on a more consistent basis in the future, but his two threes against Metropolitans were a positive start. Henderson will also have to lock in on defense more often than last season, although his length was already a factor against former NBA guard Tremont Waters.
Henderson and Wembanyama are scheduled to face each other again on Thursday, also at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada.
Other Ignite notes:
The G League Ignite team’s third season — its first full-time in the Las Vegas area — is rapidly approaching, and there are plenty of other draft-related names worth monitoring on the team not named Scoot Henderson.
Sidy Cissoko, 18, has the potential to be this Ignite team’s Swiss Army knife. Cissoko had seven points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and one steal. Now listed at 6-foot-8, he actually played as more of a guard in Spain last season but looks set to take on more minutes at the wing. His outside shot needs to keep improving, but he isn’t a non-shooter and he is constantly a playmaker on both ends in one way or another.
Efe Abogidi, 20, exemplifies how the Ignite program’s approach has changed over time. Once focused on recruiting high school players, Abogidi actually arrived to the team after two years at Washington State. Right now, Abogidi is at his best when the game is kept simple for him — rim-runs, hard rolls, shots at the basket — but he’s flashed some perimeter shooting and his free throw numbers are very promising.
It was also notable that the Ignite team’s coaching staff seemed particularly attentive to the Nigeria-born big, who in some cases was paired up directly against Wembanyama. He got constant instructions and encouragement on just about everything from how he ran the floor to how he set screens.
Leonard Miller, 18, comes to the Ignite from yet another pathway. The Canadian point forward is a highly unique player on and off the court. A very late bloomer, Miller is an elastic and creative facilitator at around 6-foot-10, but he isn’t yet able to take full advantage of that — mostly because of his strength and shot (a trend across this year’s Ignite prospects). Both of those areas are improving, and Miller played with a physicality on Tuesday that I hadn’t seen from him too much before, but there’s still some way to go. However, he might have the second highest ceiling of anyone on the team if everything clicks.
Mojave King, 20, has been around for some time but remains a bit of an unknown commodity. The New Zealand-born wing was once one of his region’s brightest prospects, but really struggled in both of his seasons in the Australian NBL. Like many of the Ignite team’s prospects, the jumper might be King’s swing skill because I think the defensive tools down the other end of the floor are worth tracking.
London Johnson, 18, was announced as the Ignite program’s most recent signing earlier this week. The Jamaican point guard joins the team on a similar deal to Henderson’s, where he signs for two years until becoming draft eligible in 2024. He did not suit up for this game and is not expected to on Thursday either, he says, but his ballhandling and shooting should come in handy down the line.