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French phenom Victor Wembanyama is picked first in the NBA draft


At last night's NBA draft, French phenom Victor Wembanyama was taken first overall by the San Antonio Spurs. Now, he was as much of a no-brainer lock for the top spot since LeBron James. However, once upon a time, using the top pick on a European player was unthinkable. Now the league is dominated by stars from across the Atlantic. Recent champions include Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo and also past champions such as Dirk Nowitzki. Here to tell us about the rise of European players, we're joined now by Jesse Washington of ESPN's Andscape.

All right, Jesse, Victor Wembanyama - why is he so special?

JESSE WASHINGTON: He's a big deal because he's super duper big but plays like a small guy. And we've seen the evolution of bigs having all these outside skills outside the three-point line, but we've never seen one quite as large, 7 foot 5, quite as skilled - really plays like a guy who's 6 feet - in Victor Wembanyama.

MARTÍNEZ: For the past five years, the NBA's Most Valuable Player, the MVP Award, has gone to an international player. Why are we seeing more international players dominate the NBA?

WASHINGTON: You know, I think that youth basketball in the United States is in a really bad place. And one thing that's overlooked with basketball a lot is that character really counts. And to be a great player, you really got to be a great guy. You know, you've got to be a great teammate, a great leader. You have to have your head on straight. And everything about youth basketball in the United States really gasses these young guys up. It makes it really hard for them to be humble, to be levelheaded, to be not greedy and not selfish, for it to be about the team, you know?

And these European guys - they don't grow up in this fishbowl with social media and money and hype that the Americans do. If you looked at Jokic in the finals, he was just such a class guy, all about the team, not interested in personal accolades. If he scored five points or if he scored 50, it was all the same to him. That's really unusual for American guys, and I think that that really is one of the things that explains why these people from other countries are coming over here and - it hurts me to say it as an American - dominating our game.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the American style is still more of a one-on-one style. The Euro style tends to be more team-oriented, it seems.

WASHINGTON: Very much so. You know, and don't get it mistaken - American culture, American style - we still create the foundation of the game that is played. You know, the way Wembanyama plays - fluid, has these crossovers, 3-pointers, stepbacks - like, we did invent that, you know, so let's hold on to that part. We still dictate how the game is played. We just don't play it the best anymore.

MARTÍNEZ: And European phenoms tend to play against men earlier in their careers, while American youth superstars tend to play against people their own age for a while.

WASHINGTON: American youth superstars oftentimes play down. You know, they'll reclassify into a grade so they can play against kids who are younger. So that's another thing that goes on at the youth level. But, you know, that playing against men is a big trend. And if you look at this year's - the top of this year's draft, you've got kids who are going to play in the G League and Scoot Henderson or, you know, the Thompson twins who are going pro at an earlier age. The Americans are starting to offer professional opportunities for basketball players at younger ages in the model of Europe. So I think that there is a wake-up call going on, like, hey, we need to do better...


WASHINGTON: ...Developing these young guys.

MARTÍNEZ: One last thing, quick - America still basketball's game?

WASHINGTON: A hundred percent. Everything about it - you know...

MARTÍNEZ: All right.

WASHINGTON: ...Basketball is more than just putting the ball in the hoop, man. It's the way you move. It's how you flow. It's how you shoot.


WASHINGTON: We're still inventing that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jesse Washington, senior writer at ESPN's Andscape.

Thanks for joining us again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.