Television has long figured out how to extract the maximum drama out of the utterly mundane business of sports. The NFL draft, essentially a business meeting between 32 teams and the commissioner, is a three-day televised event that draws more viewers than any show broadcast by a network. The NCAA men’s March Madness “Selection Sunday” is hosted by Greg Gumbel on CBS and pulls watchable television out of revealing the schedule for a 64-team tournament. And last night, the NBA and ESPN delivered a surprisingly dramatic thirty-minute show by simply revealing which teams will control the first fourteen picks in next month’s NBA draft.
All three Texas teams were represented this year—the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs because of their genuinely atrocious seasons, and the Dallas Mavericks because of a combination of poor play and deliberate tanking—but this year’s selection was dramatic largely because of the high stakes involved: whichever team landed the top pick would win the right to draft Victor Wembanyama, a seven-foot-five 19-year-old French star widely touted as the best NBA prospect since LeBron James.
The NBA draft lottery awards picks based on performance during the season. Accordingly, the Mavericks had a slim chance of being awarded a spot in the top four, while both the Rockets and the Spurs had as good a chance as anyone. During the broadcast, the draft order was revealed beginning with number fourteen, and when ESPN cut to a commercial before announcing the final four teams, both Houston and San Antonio still had a chance to win the top overall pick.
When the broadcast returned, the team that would be picking fourth was announced: the Houston Rockets were out of the running for first. (Wembanyama himself seemed comfortable with that outcome.) Suddenly the Spurs were the only Texas team remaining, with a one-in-three chance of getting the top pick, and the drama ratcheted up.
The number three pick was announced—the Portland Trail Blazers—and every single person in San Antonio appeared on the verge of exploding as the situation became a coin flip. Would Wembanyama become just the third number one pick to arrive in San Antonio since the NBA’s first draft lottery in 1985, or would the right to pick first go to an apparent professional basketball team called the Charlotte Hornets?
Within seconds, the announcement was made. The Spurs would receive the first overall pick, with Big Vic presumably following in the footsteps of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. San Antonio lost its collective mind.
There are a few reasons to be excited about this, even if you’re not a Spurs fan. Though if you are a Spurs fan . . . Yahtzee! If you’re under thirty, the four seasons the organization has spent in the wilderness after Kawhi Leonard’s departure have been the first time since you were old enough to follow a game that the Spurs weren’t a dominant force in the NBA. Getting back to the good ol’ days of Western Conference finals appearances and championship banners requires a transformative talent, and Wembanyama projects to be exactly that. The Spurs have been the recipient of unbelievable good fortune twice in their history—first when they took Robinson first overall in 1987, and then a decade later when they selected Duncan in the same spot—and the luck of landing a third once-in-a-generation big man could change the trajectory of the organization.
Coach Gregg Popovich—who oversaw the “Twin Towers” era, when the franchise started both Duncan and Robinson, as well as the dynasty that stretched for two full decades—recognized that such good fortune was uncommon in the NBA, downplaying his hopes that the team might land Wembanyama. The organization got Robinson and then Duncan, after all. He joked in April that league rivals would hold the Spurs’ good fortune against them: “You don’t deserve any more luck.”
Deserve, as William Munny once noted, has got nothing to do with it. When your number comes up, it comes up, and you make the pick in front of you (although some salty fans of other teams have managed to convince themselves the lottery was rigged). While there’s no reason to suspect anyone had a thumb on the scale, it is notable that Wembanyama fits the Spurs to an extremely specific degree. Popovich has always done well with international players, and the greatest French NBA player of all time, Tony Parker, spent the first seventeen seasons of his career in San Antonio. That means that the way this has played out is also good for the country of France, which has a whole lot of Spurs fans who’ve supported Parker and who now might have another couple of decades to sharpen their affinity for the Alamo City.
Wembanyama isn’t the first “best NBA draft prospect since LeBron” to enter the league over the past twenty years. Not all of them deliver on that promise. Sometimes an elite prospect turns out to be more Andrew Wiggins than LeBron James. Landing in San Antonio positions Wembanyama nicely to deliver on all of his promise, though—he’s landing with a Hall of Fame coach who has a strong record of developing the sort of rare talent Wembanyama possesses. If you had to pick a landing spot to groom Wembanyama into the once-in-a-generation player the basketball world would like to see him become, you’d probably settle on San Antonio.
Finally, the news is good even for basketball fans in North Texas. Sure, it would have been fascinating to see what Vic and Luka would’ve cooked up had the Mavs landed the first pick, but Dončić’s ball-dominant style might have made for an awkward pairing. Instead, Mavs fans can look forward to the possibility of fifteen years of the two stars facing off in regular- and postseason rivalry games, putting Texas at the heart of some of the best basketball in the league. (Rockets fans, we’re sorry.)
Will Wembanyama live up to the hype? We can only hope—and it’s certainly going to be a lot more fun than if the number one pick belonged to the Charlotte Hornets.