Will Victor Wembanyama's rise spell the end of Team USA's dynasty?
France's 7-foot-4 superstar prospect has the game to threaten the American stranglehold on international basketball.
Victor Wembanyama carries the date in his mind, a sinister anniversary he apparently has been unable to let go.
"That loss, I have thought about it every day since July, 11, 2021," Wembanyama said, in French, in an interview published in L'Equipe. "When everything falls apart in an instant while you are touching your dream, it's hard."
That day in Riga, Latvia, France lost to Team USA 83-81 in the U-19 World Cup final. Wembanyama, as you would expect from the No. 1 basketball prospect on the planet, impressed with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.
But Wembanyama fouled out with less than three minutes left. The play was clearly a foul -- he had slammed into future Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey on a drive -- but it left Wembanyama steaming.
Wembanyama stomped around the arena, biting the collar of his uniform part in anger and part to prevent him from saying something that would make matters worse. Wembanyama has talked in interviews about how he can totally lose his cool after defeats and that he has to work to "remain civilized." That showed that day in Latvia; he barely held it together.
It is not a surprise to learn the players he has studied the most are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Another date he can't forget, he said, is Jan. 26, 2020, the day Bryant died.
"I've thought about it almost every day since," Wembanyama said.
"I know all his stats and records, but mostly I admired his state of mind and his philosophy in his approach to the game. ... When I suffer, when I have a doubt, I wonder often what Kobe would have done. And I know he would have done more, so I'm going back to it."
After Wembanyama fouled out, France missed a chance to tie or win when the Americans got two offensive rebounds in the final 10 seconds. Had Wembanyama been in the game, he probably secures those boards, and that fact gnaws at him. When the buzzer sounded as the Americans celebrated, the French teenager heaved the towel he was chewing away in disgust.
"Just thinking about it makes my jaw clench," Wembanyama said. "It's a regret. An unfilled hole inside me that I have to fix."
This is all relevant now because over the past few days, the 18-year-old Wembanyama played for the senior French national team for the first time. It's being billed as a seismic moment in France, drawing comparisons to when soccer heroes Zinedine Zidane and Kylian Mbappé took their first steps playing for Les Bleus.
The progression could set the stage for a potential showdown with the Americans both in the World Cup next summer in Manila, Philippines, and of course, the 2024 Paris Olympics.
In his first game on Friday, Wembanyama scored 20 points with nine rebounds in just 24 minutes in a blowout of Lithuania. Monday, he helped the French seal their bid to the 2023 World Cup with 19 points in 25 minutes in a 92-56 win against Bosnia.
These midseason qualifiers don't typically attract the top talent, as the NBA doesn't even consider halting G League play for them. (Team USA is on the verge of qualifying itself for the World Cup following an 88-81 win against Colombia in Washington, D.C., on Monday using a mix of ex-NBA players and G Leaguers).
But it's important in France. The French League stops play for them, and Vincent Collet, Wembanyama's coach for his pro team, Metropolitans 92, is also the national team coach. That isn't a coincidence: Collet accepted the job with the franchise after Wembanyama pledged to play there last summer for his gap year before entering the 2023 NBA draft.
Just three weeks after the French U-19 team lost to Team USA in the cup final in 2021, their senior national teams played in the gold-medal game in Tokyo, with the Americans winning a closely contested game (87-82).
In 2019, the French beat Team USA in the World Cup in China to break the program's 58-game winning streak that dated back to 2006, knocking them out of the medals. In Tokyo, France beat the Americans in pool play to hand the U.S. its first Olympic loss since 2004, snapping a run of 25 games.
In 2024, the French will have home-court advantage as they try to stop the U.S. from winning a fifth straight Olympic gold.
And they're planning on having Wembanyama, who has said it is his intention to play as many summers as he can with the national team. Combined with French star Rudy Gobert, it gives France a massive edge against any team in the world and a potentially devastating interior defensive duo.
Team USA is in hot water in regard to size at the international level. Many of the world's top centers -- Gobert, Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Deandre Ayton (Bahamas) Jusuf Nurkic (Bosnia), Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), Jakob Poeltl (Austria), Clint Capela (Switzerland), Ivica Zubac (Croatia) -- are non-Americans.
That's the bulk of the starters in the NBA. The Americans are fortunate Bam Adebayo didn't hold too much of a grudge for being the last cut for the 2019 World Cup team. He was eligible to play for Nigeria in Tokyo and seriously considered it before joining Team USA.
Karl-Anthony Towns has an ideal skill set for the international game, but he played for the Dominican Republic national team as a teenager and therefore is ineligible to play for the U.S.
That's why it was quite newsworthy that Joel Embiid became an American citizen earlier this year, and his national team recruitment is an underrated bit of drama leading up to the summer of 2024. Embiid also holds French citizenship and could join Gobert and Wembanyama for Paris if he was so inclined and healthy.
Even at 7-foot-4, Wembanyama's tremendous ball skills allow him to project to playing as a wing at least part-time at the next level. Consider that for a moment.
One more note about Wembanyama: The highlight that is embedded from Monday's game against Bosnia, this outrageously one-footed fading 3-point shot that is a vicious combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
Well, it's the second time in the past few games Wembanyama has used it, making a similar shot in the French league a week ago. And get ready to see it more because he explained why it exists to L'Equipe, and this sort of answer is one of the reasons he appears to be the total package: "A basketball player is like a chess player, you have to be able to anticipate every move of your opponents and have a response. Adversaries always adapt. I have been working on this move for months. I want to be able to become indefensible."
The possible coming Wembanyama tidal wave has far-reaching implications, with the past few days serving as a reminder.