The NBA’s next generational talent is here.
Victor Wembanyama has become part of our basketball consciousness over the past eight months and he’ll never leave that spot. The 7-foot-4-inch prospect from France plays like a point guard with eight-foot reach, a smooth shooting touch, and the ability to defend guards.
The NBA hasn’t seen a player with the skill set of Wembanyama at his size in its 75-year history, and he will receive the full support and tutelage in the San Antonio Spurs system. He’s as much of a can’t-miss prospect as the league has seen since LeBron James.
Here are other storylines to watch in the NBA this season:
Dame in Milwaukee
After 12 years, Damian Lillard finally had enough with Portland’s inability to win consistently and his trade demand landed him in Milwaukee, where he’ll join two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to form one of the league’s top duos. The question in Milwaukee is whether Lillard, 33, still has enough left to nudge the Bucks back into title contention under first-year head coach Adrian Griffin.
Where next for Harden?
For the third time in three years, James Harden has requested a trade, and he’s missed all of Philadelphia’s preseason games. The 76ers will start the season knowing Harden has no intention of changing his mind and returning to the team and if he does, it will be a half-hearted gesture. So where does he go? The Clippers are the top candidate but don’t want to cave to 76ers general manager Daryl Morey’s high demands. This issue has spilled into the regular season and it could affect multiple teams.
Faces in new places
Damian Lillard, Bucks: Milwaukee needed some changes after being ousted by the Miami Heat in the first round. First, the Bucks fired Mike Budenholzer, and second, they moved Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, and draft picks to get Lillard. The longtime Portland star wanted to be traded to the Heat but the Blazers had no intentions of sending him to South Beach, so he opened up his candidates list and decided on Milwaukee, where he’ll have a legitimate shot of winning a championship for the first time in his career.
Jrue Holiday, Celtics: As a result of the Lillard trade, Holiday ended up in Portland with no future there. So Blazers GM Joe Cronin sent Holiday to the Celtics, where he could be the final piece to the championship puzzle. Holiday is coming off an All-Star season, is an elite defender, and is a better shooter than his predecessor Marcus Smart. His steadiness and experience gives the Celtics a backcourt element that had been missing.
Marcus Smart, Grizzlies: Smart wasn’t on the trade block until the Celtics’ plan to move Malcolm Brogdon to the Clippers was foiled by an elbow injury. Memphis had been interested in Smart for years and jumped at the opportunity as the Celtics were looking to upgrade their frontcourt with Kristaps Porzingis. Smart gives the young — and sometimes immature — Grizzlies a locker room veteran who will be a mentor for the troubled Ja Morant and a defensive stalwart to join Jaren Jackson Jr.
Grant Williams, Mavericks: The Celtics liked Williams but weren’t willing to pay him the near-$15 million per season he desired. So they let him go in a sign-and-trade to Dallas, where he will be the starting power forward and do much of the dirty work alongside Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Williams deserved better than he got during his four years in Boston and he’ll get the opportunity to boost his status with increased minutes and a role suited for his skill set.
Chris Paul, Warriors: Paul wants to win a championship. It’s the final piece to his Hall of Fame career, and he’ll chase that crown playing with several longtime rivals in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Paul will have to sacrifice his touches for the sake of the team, but if he can be the floor leader that he’s been throughout his career, the Warriors will add another intriguing element.
Jordan Poole, Wizards: Poole was the player who just never quite fit in in Golden State. He has immense skills and can score in bunches but he’s also inconsistent and lacks on defense; and as long as Curry, Thompson, and Green were in Golden State, Poole was never going to be a primary option. He’ll be that No. 1 in Washington, which will rely on younger players in yet another roster rebuild.
Bruce Brown, Pacers: The Dorchester native bet on himself last season and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets with a player option. He was a key component in Denver’s title run, enough to land in a two-year deal for a whopping $45 million with the retooled Pacers. Brown will finally get the prominent role he desires and a chance to lead a rebuilding team to the next level.
Bradley Beal, Suns: Beal finally waived his no-trade clause to get out of Washington and for the first time in his 11-year career, he has a strong chance to compete for a championship, joining All-NBA standouts Devin Booker and Kevin Durant in Phoenix. Injuries have been Beal’s biggest detractor the past few years but he’ll have the opportunity to prove he is still one of the league’s elite guards.
Kristaps Porzingis, Celtics: The 7-foot-3 big man is coming off a career season with the Wizards, where a mostly healthy season encouraged the Celtics to pursue Porzingis in the offseason. He gives the Celtics size in the paint and an elite perimeter shooting threat. If he can maintain good health, he should flourish as the Celtics’ third scoring option, and he can also protect the rim and strengthen Boston defensively.
Fred VanVleet, Rockets: The Raptors never chose to extend VanVleet to that long-term maximum contract, so he opted to take the Rockets’ money (130 million over three years) to become their point guard, cornerstone, and leader. VanVleet has played in big games and will bring the experience the Rockets need to get to the next level.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets: The skills and the impact of the two-time MVP had been questioned because the Nuggets never won. But he was so brilliant during their championship run that there’s a newfound respect for the gifted center because of his ability to do everything well without the bravado. There may be MVP fatigue with Jokic but he’ll still garner his share of votes with another banner season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: There’s a question as to whether Antetokounmpo has peaked as a player. Will he ever be a better shooter? Or make more of his free throws? But at his best, Antetokounmpo is the top player in the NBA because of his athleticism, drive, and ability to attack the rim. Carrying the Bucks to the league’s best record may be enough for a third MVP.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics: It’s about time for Tatum to be in the MVP conversation past the All-Star break. He is still only 25 and a top-five player but he needs to elevate his game to another level to be on par with Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Antetokounmpo. Tatum has all the game, all the moves, but he can become a better 3-point shooter, more physical in the paint, and a better playmaker. If that happens, he could be an MVP favorite.
Joel Embiid, 76ers: He long clamored for the respect he received last season when he took home his first MVP. If he is able to carry the 76ers, with all their chaos, to 50-plus wins and a top-four playoff seed, he should garner consideration for a second award. Embiid is arguably the most offensively skilled center of this generation and he’s capable of being even better.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder: Gilgeous-Alexander is the best player that most casual NBA fans are not familiar with. He is a silky scoring guard who has an array of moves in the paint and on the perimeter. If the Thunder become a legitimate playoff team and Gilgeous-Alexander is the leader of that charge, he’ll definitely be in consideration all season. He’ll get one before his career is over.
Rookies to watch
Victor Wembanyama, Spurs: There hasn’t been a rookie season more anticipated since LeBron James debuted 20 years ago. Wembanyama is a generational talent, a player with a skill set that is unheard of in the NBA. And there will be a daily fascination about how he fares against the league’s top players and how far he can catapult the Spurs after several downtrodden years.
Brandon Miller, Hornets: Miller comes to the NBA under a cloud of controversy after his involvement with two suspects that were charged with murder after a late-night altercation near the University of Alabama campus. Miller has not faced any charges, but the victim’s family recently filed a civil suit against him. On the floor, Miller is a gifted swingman who is expected to initially come off the bench because Gordon Hayward plays the same position. How long will that last?
Scoot Henderson, Trail Blazers: Henderson’s upside was so intriguing that the Trail Blazers decided to take him with the third pick, much to the chagrin of Damian Lillard, who wanted the club to trade the pick for an established veteran. With Lillard gone, Henderson now becomes the 19-year-old face of the franchise, a gifted guard with elite athleticism and a mean streak. He could push Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year.
Bilal Coulibaly, Wizards: You probably haven’t heard of Coulibaly but you eventually will. He has already broken into Washington’s starting lineup and could be the best defender in the class. He’s a former teammate of Wembanyama and has extensive international experience. Coulibaly could be a star in the near future and a center part of the Wizards’ rebuilding plan.
Cam Whitmore, Rockets: Whitmore is a grown man in a 19-year-old body, a physical monster who has seemingly played against adults since he was in grade school. He played just one year at Villanova and the Wildcats struggled, so there wasn’t much spotlight on Whitmore when he entered the draft. But he seems to have no issue transitioning to the NBA game and already has an NBA physique. He’ll be a favorite of coach Ime Udoka.
Potential busts with new teams
Chris Paul, Warriors: The strong-minded Paul will have to fall in to achieve ultimate success in Golden State. But he’s also 38 years old and looked mortal at times with the Suns. Paul still has enough game to be a frontline point guard but eventually age and attrition has to take over. Will that be this year?
Malcolm Brogdon, Trail Blazers: It’s been a difficult few months for Brogdon, who was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Clippers and then was eventually moved out of a championship situation in Boston to the Trail Blazers. Brogdon again will be coming off the bench in Portland, but how long will the 31-year-old be OK with the Blazers develop-now, win-later plan? Will he eventually be traded again?
Christian Wood, Lakers: For some reason, Wood has essentially been discarded by his previous two teams despite putting up impressive numbers. And he also wasn’t signed by the Lakers until September, meaning his free agency was an afterthought to most teams. Wood has been known to want a more prominent role than he’s been given. In Los Angeles, he’s likely to come off the bench and back up Anthony Davis. Will that be enough for him?
Teams on the rise
Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder’s rebuilding plan is coming to a close and general manager Sam Presti has compiled a slew of young talent as well as several first-round picks over the past few years. Those young bucks are now ready for a potential playoff run with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the leader along with Josh Giddey and rookie Chet Holmgren. Oklahoma City will no longer be overlooked by the rest of the league.
San Antonio Spurs: There are talented Spurs other than Victor Wembanyama. The club has stockpiled picks over the past few years and now those players, such as Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Tre Jones, are ready to blossom. The Spurs are extremely young but they are no longer lacking talent. They should take a significant step forward this season under Gregg Popovich.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers have made a series of trades in the past few years to dump salary and expensive veterans, opening up an intriguing roster led by Tyrese Haliburton. Bruce Brown was signed away from the Nuggets and Obi Toppin was acquired from the Knicks to add depth, and Bennedict Mathurin, an All-Rookie selection, now moves into the starting lineup. The Pacers will be a difficult out.
Teams on the decline
Miami Heat: The Heat waited all summer to acquire Damian Lillard and the trade was never close. That cost them a precious opportunity to upgrade the roster with free agents. So they’re essentially running back the same team from last year — minus Gabe Vincent and Max Strus — and hoping for similar results. Jimmy Butler just turned 34 and he’s the team’s unquestioned leader. But a drop-off for the proud franchise is eventually coming.
Chicago Bulls: Chicago has never reached expectations under Billy Donovan, despite the signings of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. Those players are still around along with the maligned Zach LaVine, who could be on the trade block. The Bulls didn’t add much in the offseason, and Lonzo Ball will miss the season, so there’s little reason to have hope for a bounce back.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves have been trying to break through for years, and it just hasn’t happened, regardless of the coach. Anthony Edwards is a budding superstar and Karl-Anthony Towns is still an All-Star player, but the addition of Rudy Gobert has been a failure so far and Mike Conley is 36 and slowing down. Hard to expect anything besides slippage.
Coaches on the hot seat
Billy Donovan, Bulls: Donovan was supposed to be the leader the Bulls needed to get to the next level. But he’s under. 500 in three seasons with the Bulls and there isn’t much hope they will compete this season. If there is a slow start, the club could look to move on with a younger coach and start trading off pieces for a major rebuild.
Wes Unseld Jr., Wizards: Unseld really hasn’t done anything wrong in Washington. He just hasn’t been given much to work with and the organization fired the general manager who hired him two years ago. Washington owner Ted Leonsis is desperate for a winner and may allow new president Michael Winger to start fresh by hiring his own coach. Unseld will have this year to prove he’s capable of leading the Wizards to the future. But the roster is young and projected to have one of the league’s worst records.
Chris Finch, Timberwolves: The Timberwolves have invested a lot of money in their roster and the results have been disappointing at best. They drafted Anthony Edwards first overall, gave up five first-round picks for Rudy Gobert, and gave Karl-Anthony Towns a max contract, and yet they were disposed of by the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. There is too much invested for a complete rebuild, meaning Finch may be the victim if there’s a slow start.
Worst road trips
No holiday cheer in Charlotte
The Charlotte Hornets not only have just one nationally televised game all year, they get a grueling West Coast road trip that takes them away from home for Christmas and New Years’ Day. The six-game haul begins Dec. 26 in Los Angeles against the Lakers, meaning they’ll have to travel on Christmas. After games against the Lakers and Clippers, the Hornets go to Phoenix and then Denver on New Years’ Day, Sacramento a day later, and then the trip ends on Jan. 5 in Chicago.
The Spurs’ Rodeo road trip
The Rodeo is back at San Antonio’s Frost Bank Center (long the AT&T Center) and that means the Spurs will be away from home for three weeks in February. The eight-game road trip carries over the All-Star break and begins in Miami, then Orlando, Brooklyn, Toronto, and Dallas. After the break, the Spurs go back on the road to Sacramento, Los Angeles (Lakers), Utah, and Minnesota. The Spurs have a 26-day stretch without a home game (Feb. 3 to 29).
The Clippers’ Grammy road trip
The Clippers will be away from Los Angeles for more than two weeks with the Grammys in town as they embark on a seven-game road trip to Toronto, Boston, Cleveland, back east to Washington, back to the Midwestto Detroit, then all the way down to Miami before ending in Atlanta. The Clippers also have a four-game trip that begins in Philadelphia and ends in Sacramento. Good times.