Victor Wembanyama is on the path to GOAT. So, why don’t we talk about it that way?

We’ve never seen anything like Victor Wembanyama. The 20-year-old stands 7-foot-4 (many, including me, believe he’s closer to 7-foot-5). He has a gargantuan 8-foot wingspan. And, operating within this frame, he constantly creates basketball moments that we haven’t experienced before. Silicon Valley has been captivated by generative artificial intelligence — computer algorithms that generate new content based on reading existing material and creating a novel product. It’s here now, but it’s the future. That sounds a lot like Victor Wembanyama — the NBA’s first generative athlete.

The software underneath that frame may be more breathtaking. He studies the game with precision and attention to detail like an academic scholar (). Wembanyama wasn’t a fully formed product in the NBA’s opening month. But he builds and builds. By season’s end, he was more complete than your average NBA player has ever been or ever will be.

On Monday, Wembanyama will almost certainly be named the Rookie of the Year, a deserved honor for the French sensation. The ROY will likely be it for Wembanyama’s individual awards this season. He’s a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but his fellow countryman Rudy Gobert will assuredly take home DPOY honors for anchoring the NBA’s top defense in Minnesota.

The MVP is out of reach — for now. Before the season, that Wembanyama might win the 2023-24 MVP and he came up well short; the Spurs’ woeful supporting cast ultimately let him down. But Wembanyama’s coming for it, as early as next season.

Wemby’s coming for another title, too.

Looking back on his rookie season, I don’t think I set my sights high enough. His rapid improvement suggests he’s built differently, like Chat GPT to the traditional Google search. (The “GPT” in Chat GPT stands for “Generative Pretrained Transformer.” Yeah: Wemby.) Barring injury, the numbers suggest that the GPT of basketball is on the path to earn a slightly different acronym: GOAT.

San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama celebrates a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in San Antonio. Houston won 103-101. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama celebrates a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in San Antonio. Houston won 103-101. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Victor Wembanyama’s rookie season somehow surpassed expectations. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

It may seem early to throw around the GOAT term, but I’m sure some thought it was too soon when Bob Knight declared Michael Jordan as the before His Airness even stepped foot in the league. (Knight looks prescient now.) Few players have entered the league carrying more hype than Wemby, but the San Antonio phenom’s rookie season somehow surpassed expectations. Starting the season as a teenager, Wembanyama finished the season with averages of 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and ultimately led the league with 3.6 blocks per game.

The only other player, according to , to reach those numbers in a season is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Hall of Famer — and GOAT candidate — accomplished it twice, averaging 41.2 minutes and 39.5 minutes per game in those dominant two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. Wembanyama, though, did it in just 29.7 minutes per game.

All of these season-end numbers, as impressive as they are, simply don’t do his rookie season justice. A closer examination of his ascendant season shows us that Wembanyama’s upward trajectory has him on track to be the greatest ever. Because the improvement from the beginning of the season to the end should be the takeaway here, not the final numbers.

Remember his regular-season debut? You may not and I wouldn’t blame you; it was forgetful. Against Dallas back in October, he looked lost and couldn’t stop fouling opposing Mavs on national television. He finished with five turnovers and five fouls in just 22 minutes. In his first 10 games, Wembanyama averaged 19.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.4 blocks per game. Solid numbers — only to be bulldozed by Wemby later.

In early November, it was hard to see April greatness. And then Gregg Popovich promoted a legitimate point guard, Tre Jones, into the starting lineup in January and the league was never the same. With a competent table-setter, Wembanyama’s powers became unlocked. In his first game back from All-Star weekend, Wembanyama came one assist away from a historic 5×5 – tallying at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a game — by one measly assist, a stat he can’t control.

The very next night, he clinched a 5×5. The software update fixed the glitch.

Wemby’s studious downloads of past players and seamless integration onto the court separates him from the field. It wasn’t enough for Wemby to pull off a Shammgod — the iconic misdirection dribble invented by 6-foot point guard God Shammgod in the ‘90s. In January, Wembanyama had the gumption to pull off . By April, Wembanyama iterated on top of that, into a whirling spin move that led to a clean scooping finish at the rim – with his off-hand. Developers at NBA2K would probably outlaw that move in its video game code.

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Wemby’s mere presence on defense forces opposing offenses to repeatedly smash the reset button. There was a against Memphis at the tail end of the season where he caused two players to take an abrupt U-Turn in transition simply because he was lurking nearby. When opposing teams tried to test Wemby, they often failed. After the All-Star break, he forced 110 misses around the basket while he was nearby, by far the most for any player in the league, per . After the All-Star break, he tallied more blocks than Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez combined.

And that’s the defensive end. On the offensive end, after the All-Star break, Wembanyama scored more points than Kawhi Leonard, made more 3-pointers than James Harden and tallied more assists than Jrue Holiday. Put these statistical categories into a blender and it gets even more baffling.

You can make a case that Wembanyama’s processor updates faster than any rookie we’ve seen. We’re able to look at his improvement along the 82-game season through a metric called Game Score, a box-score-based metric that estimates a player’s productivity in a particular game through his statistics. It’s based on John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, which is scaled so that a 15.0 figure is league average. In Wembanyama’s first 10 games, his average Game Score stood at 14.5. Again, solid. In his final 10 games? A different species. Wembanyama’s Game Score in that span was 22.7, an 8.2-point improvement — only seven players in the entire NBA were better. Again, he was a rookie.

Let me put that in perspective. I looked at every rookie in the database for the best Game Score in the final 10 games of their debut season. Wembanyama checks in at fourth on the list. Look at these names:

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Not bad for Wemby, right? Now, let’s add one column to this list: age at the final game of their rookie season. Look at those ages:

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That’s right: Wemby’s a full year-and-a-half younger than the next-youngest top performer on the list. The level at which Wembanyama finished his rookie season is among some of the greatest players ever, but that doesn’t even capture how remarkable it is. At the same age, the others were toiling away in college hoops.

Let’s look at rookies who, like Wembanyama, played in their age-20 season or younger. This list would include names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Luka Dončić. Wemby, as it turns out, comes out on top:

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By this metric, there isn’t anyone particularly close to where Wembanyama finished his rookie season at this age. Not LeBron, KD or Dončić. His generative talent put him on another level.

Another way to see Wembanyama’s steady improvement this season is looking through the prism of a player impact projection system called DPM, or Daily Plus Minus, . On Medvedovsky’s site, we can queue up a visual of his game-by-game impact trajectory and see how it’s going in one direction: Up.

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That’s not normal. Most first-year players hit the proverbial Rookie Wall and experience a rockier arc. Not Wemby. His upward trajectory looks pretty impressive as a standalone visual, but let’s loop in other contemporary phenoms, like LeBron and Luka as well as slower-developing greats like Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokić, to really drive home the point. Let’s see how Wemby’s career arc is shaping up at his age compared to other GOAT chasers of his time.

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See that blue line? That’s Wemby. Its near-vertical steepness illustrates how dramatic his in-season improvement was during the 2023-24 season. But more importantly, it’s tracking higher than anybody else at this age, even LeBron James. Consider that Curry didn’t reach Wemby’s level until he was 25. Dončić, having just turned 25, is still approaching Wemby’s current stratosphere.

This is what I meant by the GOAT path. Wemby is performing at a level that puts him in the same breath as Kareem, MJ and LeBron. So if the numbers and film are suggesting that Wembanyama is on the G.O.A.T. trajectory, why isn’t the world caught up to it?

I suspect that the single biggest reason why “Wemby is on the GOAT path” seems like a hot take is because we’re blinded by team records. Our brains struggle to reconcile eye-popping individual statistics with the Spurs’ 60-loss season. Put simply: How could the Spurs be so bad if Wembanyama was so good?

To be clear, I thought the Spurs would be better than this. So did Vegas who set their win total at 28.5, but they won just 22 even with a transcendent Wembanyama. The math doesn’t add up.

But we shouldn’t take that out on Wemby. Jordan was 22, without a winning season yet, when Larry Bird uttered the famous line, “That was God disguised as Jordan” following MJ’s 63-point Game 2 in 1986. These days, my sense is that Wembanyama won’t truly be taken seriously as someone with “all-time great” written all over them until the Spurs, you know, try to win games. Outside of Wemby, the Spurs were bankrupt from a talent perspective. Devin Vassell and Tre Jones represent the only players on the roster who could plausibly start on a playoff contender. Everyone else on the roster can be described as bench or G-League fodder.

If Wemby held roster-building grievances, they’d be perfectly valid. Consider this: Wembanyama posted a box plus-minus (BPM) of +5.2 this season. No one else on the Spurs’ roster registered a positive figure – the only team besides the Detroit Pistons to have so few positive contributors, per (Box plus-minus is another all-in-one value metric that attempts to estimate a player’s contributions while on the floor.) MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, by comparison, has seven such teammates on OKC’s roster.

Let’s put this another way: Would Wemby be in the MVP conversation if he enjoyed the talents of Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon next to him? Or if he built a twin towers in OKC with Chet Holmgren alongside Jalen Williams? Or if he caught lobs from Kyrie Irving in Dallas?

The Spurs’ failures around Wembanyama weren’t just about the roster. Wembanyama did his best to hide his frustrations with not getting the ball consistently while Popovich experimented for weeks (with horrific results) with Jeremy Sochan at point guard.

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It’s an open question whether the Spurs ramp up this offseason and try to take advantage of Wemby’s ready-to-win-now talent. The Spurs project to have enough cap space to go after a premier free agent rather than sit out the bonanza like they did last offseason.

Just throwing it out there: the Spurs have two second-round picks before the Lakers select at No. 55. What if the Spurs take a flier on Bronny James knowing LeBron can opt-out and become a free agent? For a big man who thrived next to a competent point guard, the Spurs could plausibly sign both LeBron James and Chris Paul this summer and help Wembanyama one day realize his GOAT potential.

The irony is that the biggest thing keeping Wembanyama from becoming a national sensation has little to do with him. It’s the personnel around him. Hopefully, at some point soon, the Spurs respect Wembanyama enough to surround him with comparable talent like the Minnesota Timberwolves did with Anthony Edwards. Maybe then people will realize what they’re watching: a GOAT in the making. Because this — again, barring injury — is almost certainly the worst Wembanyama is ever going to be.

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