Contributor: John Dudley
With the Spurs winning a much-hyped lottery yet again, they get to select the most talked about young player in the last few years with Victor Wembanyama. Undoubtedly, he will be the next big thing and the clear guy to get in all of next year’s products. How does he stack up historically though? Number-one picks are always sought after, but there is a wide range of hobby buzz with them going from the lows of Anthony Bennett to the highs of LeBron James.
I want to get a handle on Wembanyama before forking out a fortune for his cards in the near future. To do this, I decided to figure out where the hype surrounding him ranks in relation to the hype surrounding other number ones at draft time. While noting the hype was great around Abdul-Jabbar, Ewing, Olajuwan, and Robinson, I don’t have enough personal recollections of the media environment then to rank them accurately. Consequently, I’m only considering number-one picks from the 1990 season to the present.
The Top Ten
10. 2016 Ben Simmons- He had a two-years long media lovefest that most top prospects don’t get. I’d actually rank his 2015 hype higher than his 2016 hype. Combined he just barely cracks the top ten. He’s also the only guy on this list unlikely to make the HOF that wasn’t derailed by injuries.
The Big Guys
9. Yao Ming- Yao Ming is the first of the bigs that will make up half of this list. He had the added bonus of being the key to unlocking the Chinese market and being huge for marketing. The PR potential actually overshadowed the buzz about his ability a bit so he’s at the back of the list.
8. Anthony Davis- While Yao Ming was the first big, Davis is the first one on this list that most analysts said could make a team a contender (or at least a playoff team) almost instantly. Not many number ones get that billing, but from Davis onward did.
7. Dwight Howard- It is easy to forget that Howard was once one of the most celebrated players in the NBA. He never quite lived up to the hype but did drag the Magic to the Finals almost by himself. He’s another big like Davis that almost everyone thought could change the fate of a team instantly. He’s also still likely to make the HOF so he can’t be considered a bust.
What Could’ve Been (The Injury section)
6. Greg Oden- Oden is memorable as the cautionary tale against buying the hype and is the name brought up when people think of draft busts. Still, he’s another big that was supposed to be a star, but what puts him above the others is that he had enough hype to rise above another guy that could’ve cracked this list in Kevin Durant.
5. Zion Williamson- Williamson might be the last true college superstar. He’s given just enough glimpses of how special he can be in the NBA that collectors still keep holding out hope.
Guaranteed All Stars
4. Allen Iverson- Iverson is the unicorn on this list as the only guy not to feature size as a key part of his game. His pure scoring ability was that great. Throw in the fact that he was one of the biggest cultural forces that the NBA has seen even as a draftee and he has to crack the top five.
3. Tim Duncan- Duncan had added hype as he was older and considered one of the biggest can’t-miss guys of all time. His stoic demeanor likely kept him from ranking higher on this list. The pundits were right on the money here and Duncan lived up to the hype producing 50-win seasons consistently regardless of his situation.
1b. LeBron James- James had his high school games televised and had entire products built just for him. Really, along with the top guy on this list the top two belong in a tier by themselves. LeBron had more basketball hype surrounding him than the number one guy on this list, but not as much celebrity hype. I’m putting him as 1b for that reason.
1a. Shaquille O’Neal- Shaq instantly became the new face of the league while Michael Jordan was in his prime. He instantly became the most sought-after endorser in America. LeBron might have had more buzz in basketball circles, but Shaq was instantly one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
Where does Wembanyama rank?
Wembanyama is hyped enough to crack this list easily in my opinion. I don’t think he’s in the O’Neal/James category, but he seems higher than Duncan and Iverson and definitely higher than Williamson. There is probably some recency bias here, but I feel confident he is at least in the top three and I can see the arguments for him becoming 1c. It’s hard to truly distinguish between O’Neal, James and Wembanyama as the media environment was different for all three, but all three went beyond being hyped in the basketball world to being part of the American zeitgeist.
What does this mean for the hobby? High prices for one. It also means that overlooked products like Bowman U will start being ripped at prodigious rates as collectors try to hit Wembanyama autos. It also means that the last couple of years of products will get severely overshadowed. That means cheap buying opportunities, but really how many people look back in hindsight and wish they had ripped more packs from the years around LeBron’s or Duncan’s rookie years instead of just ponying up more from the hyped new guy?
The track record for the truly hyped is strong. Outside of Ben Simmons, only injuries really can stop these guys. Big guys always have that risk, but there are no red flags yet with Wembanyama. I normally try to avoid FOMO purchasing but will likely forgo buying Banchero, Cunnigham, and Holmgren and even Doncic, Young, and Morant in favor of chasing Wembanyama for a bit. If nothing else, chasing the top trend should at least be fun.
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