Victor Wembanyama was hyped as a potentially game-changing defender before coming into the NBA. He was named the French league’s Best Defender Award last season thanks to his 7-4 height, 8-foot wingspan and good mobility. Those skills have immediately transferred over in his rookie year, making him already one of the best defenders in the league with only half a season under his belt.
Wembanyama’s case for Defensive Player of the Year has flown under the radar due mostly to how bad the Spurs have been. But if you’ve been looking at the statistical leaderboards or watching any of his games, it’s clear that he is one of the most special defenders in the league.
Rudy Gobert is in all likelihood winning the award — he’s the overwhelming favorite in gambling markets — but Wembanyama should at least be in the conversation.
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Why Victor Wembanyama deserves to be in the DPOY race
Wemby’s defensive statistics are outrageous
If the DPOY award was based totally on statistics, then Wembanyama would have an excellent chance at winning. His 3.2 blocks per game lead the league by a wide margin. He is on track to be the first rookie to lead that stat since Manute Bol back in 1985-86.
Wemby has also been great in the passing lanes. His 1.1 steals per game ranks in the top 50. A viral tweet from earlier in the month showed how he had already recorded more blocks and steals at the halfway point of the year than Gobert had for the entire year during his 2018 Defensive Player of the Year season.
Wembanyama is already one of the best defenders in the league in terms of advanced statistics. Estimated Plus-Minus is considered one of the best publicly available impact stats. It rates Wemby as a top-10 defender. He grades out as the No. 8 defensive player according to DARKO, another well-respected stat.
His progression from the start of the season is ridiculous.
LOL https://t.co/PHfUlb9pvq pic.twitter.com/hEc2EsNo1E
— Cory Jez (@JezData) February 5, 2024
The league’s tracking data provides even more glimpses into how outrageously good Wembanyama is already. His 3.6 deflections per 36 minutes rank in the 94th percentile of the league, per Crafted NBA. Opponents shoot 10.6 percent worse against him within six feet of the basket, ranking in the 91st percentile.
It doesn’t matter what the defensive statistic is that you’re measuring — Wemby is going to be somewhere near the top.
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Wemby’s defensive highlights are unlike anything we’ve ever seen
The case for Wembanyama as the league’s best defender screams out at you even more on film. Teams are routinely petrified to challenge him. When they do, his size makes it look as if he’s playing against toddlers.
Everyone on the Wizards is terrified to shoot in the paint with Wemby back there. Gafford finally tries and Wemby plucks the ball out of the air with two hands. pic.twitter.com/Pfp4YGlvoS
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) January 30, 2024
When Wembanyama has wanted to be more forceful with his blocks, he’s looked like he’s spiking the ball directly into the Earth’s core.
Wemby with the DENIAL early in San Antonio 💪
— NBA (@NBA) January 27, 2024
He’s saved some of his best blocks for the highest-leverage moments. Blocking Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim at the end of a game will be one of the defensive highlights of the season.
Most rim protectors that get these dazzling blocks are also foul-prone, chasing blocks at the expense of staying solid defensively. Wembanyama is the opposite. He has fouled out of just one game this season, and the 2.9 percent rate at which he picks up fouls ranks in the 85th percentile of big men, per Cleaning the Glass.
MORE: These Victor Wembanyama blocks show why Spurs rookie has DPOY potential
Victor Wembanyama’s teammates will ultimately cost him the award
Gobert will likely win the DPOY after leading the Timberwolves to the best defense in the league. Wembanyama’s Spurs are No. 24, and that bullet point is enough evidence for many voters to leave him off the top of their ballot.
Consider, though, that Wembanyama joined a team that was the worst defense in the entire history of the league last season. That bears repeating for emphasis — in the 78 years that the league has been around, the Spurs were far and away the worst of all time. He inherited mostly the same roster and has been able to drag them toward respectability, which is a feat in and of itself.
In case you still doubt that the defensive problems aren’t on him, the Spurs have continued to be dreadful when Wemby is off the floor. In his 28.4 minutes per game, the Spurs defend at an above-average rate. When he’s off the floor, their defensive rating gets 10.2 points per 100 possessions worse, per Cleaning the Glass, dropping even further below last season’s putrid mark. His on/off differential is in the 98th percentile of players in terms of how dramatic it is.
If the award was based on the most impactful defender, then Wemby would have a strong case.
There’s no specific criteria for how voters choose the winner, but it’s almost universally gone to the best defender on a top-five defense. That should make Wemby a long shot to get the recognition that he deserves.
If the Spurs ever do get some defensive talent around him, Wemby is going to start racking up multiple DPOY awards. He’s a special defender who hasn’t even learned how good he can be yet. In his prime, he could end up as one of the best defenders of all time.
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