LEBRON JAMES WAS experiencing a big moment, and his veteran teammates wanted to make it memorable, it being his first NBA game and all.
So they asked the 18-year-old rookie if he would take the honor of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers onto the floor for the preseason opener at the Palace of Auburn Hills that early October night in 2003.
James proudly ran out and got ready to start warmups before suddenly realizing he was by himself, a still sparse crowd looking at him awkwardly. Back in the tunnel, his teammates were roaring with laughter. Naïve and embarrassed, James could only shake his head at the joke.
His teammates have spoken of Wembanyama in recent weeks not like a kid brother — which is how the Cavs handled James to the point that then-coach Paul Silas occasionally had to step in to defend him like a father figure in the early days — but with a certain amount of awe. Things have changed, it seems, for phenom teenage rookies.
“I think he’s just a freak of nature, it’s not a normal thing to see,” Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan said. “I’m here to help him.”
“The days of treating [rookies] the same,” veteran Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “left us long ago.”
COMPARISONS BETWEEN JAMES and Wembanyama are irresistible because of the hype surrounding the two No. 1 overall picks drafted two decades apart.
James was a Sports Illustrated cover subject in 2002 as a high school junior, then entered the NBA with a $90 million Nike contract and “The Chosen One” moniker just as Michael Jordan left. Wembanyama is a social media phenomenon whose jaw-dropping blend of skill and size might be unprecedented and who happily basks in his “alien” nickname, ironically given to him by James.
Wemby excited for first regular-season game
Victor Wembanyama sits down with Malika Andrews to discuss his preseason and expectations for the start of the regular season.
They are viewed as being the same sort of can’t-miss prospects by scouts, executives and media. Both were internationally famous before stepping into the league even without college basketball to magnify them.
It’s easy to forget James didn’t arrive in the NBA fully formed in 2003. He had some since long-forgotten rough moments in his first weeks as a pro, which could be relevant to keep in mind as the Spurs rookie begins his much-hyped rookie season Wednesday night in his first regular-season game against the Dallas Mavericks (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“[Wembanyama] has had that hype for so long, kind of like LeBron did coming out. I compare him more to LeBron than [former Spurs No. 1 picks Tim Duncan and David Robinson] in that respect,” Popovich said. “And sure, I did worry about it. One of my major concerns was to figure out how to protect him or how I’m going to give him speeches about this and this and you got to look out for this and all that.”
James’ first preseason was not one to savor. Though he had some highlight dunks and wowed fans by showing off his passing ability, he shot the ball poorly. He averaged just eight points over his first three preseason games and then had a rough two-game trip to Southern California on which he went 8-for-32 shooting in two games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, with opposing players almost mocking him by standing back from him to dare him to shoot.
One national journalist asked if “hype” was short for “hey, you practice enough?” after James’ jumper looked so creaky.
That’s already a sharp contrast to Wembanyama, who has only amplified the interest in him with a dazzling preseason filled with highlight plays from nutmegs to step-backs jumpers to eye-popping dunks. He put the finishing touches on it with a 19-point, five-block display Friday night in his first game in California against the Golden State Warriors.
“I think I’m ready,” Wembanyama told ESPN last week. “I know I haven’t seen the best level of the NBA so far and the best teams and the best players, but it’s very exciting.”
WHETHER WEMBANYAMA’S PRESEASON will translate to dominant regular-season games quickly is yet to be seen.
James’ first regular-season game, a road matchup in Sacramento, is remembered as historic. His first quarter, in which he scored 12 points and got steals on three of four Kings possessions — one leading to an iconic photo of his first official dunk (of 2,108 regular-season dunks and counting) — was as surprising as it was statement-making.
No one saw James’ 25-point, 9-assist, 4-steal game coming because he’d shot 35% in seven preseason games and never cracked 20 points. Looking back 13 years later, James remained mildly surprised at how well he handled it.
“Just seeing how for an 18-year-old kid there really wasn’t much I could tell him at that point,” said James in 2016 talking about watching that first game years later. “He was just excited to be on the court, and he was just having fun. This was before social media and all that, so he didn’t really have to worry about anything, just go out and play and live with the results, live with whatever happened, and he’s continued to do that.”
James’ Cavaliers lost their opener by double figures and started that 2003-04 season 4-15. James was among the league leaders in turnovers over the first two months of the season, struggling as the team’s starting point guard before he was truly ready for that assignment.
Wembanyama is playing in an experimental lineup out of the gate. The Spurs plan to start the season with one natural guard, shooting guard Devin Vassell, and four forwards/centers with Sochan playing point and Wembanyama likely to get some ballhandling duties. And, as James noted, Wembanyama will have to compete under what will likely be a fair amount of social media scrutiny, perhaps similar to what he faced during his disappointing debut at the NBA 2K24 Summer League.
The Spurs are a potentially exciting team with Wembanyama bringing them increasing levels of attention, appearing on national television 19 times this season compared to just once a season ago. However, like the Cavs in James’ first year — Cleveland finished 35-47 and missed the playoffs — the Spurs might not be a good team.
Still, Wembanyama’s seemingly stress-free early days have fostered confidence. He was nervous before his preseason debut in Oklahoma City two weeks ago, struggling to sleep with extra energy, but he mostly has looked smooth since.
Unlike James, who started his rookie season with a three-game West Coast road trip, Wembanyama also gets his first two games at home.
Popovich has admitted he’s dropped his guard a little from being extra protective the more he has watched Wembanyama manage both the spotlight and the transition to the NBA game. Though the preseason isn’t what it used to be back when James was starting out — back then it wasn’t unusual for stars to play over 30 minutes and compete deep into fourth quarters in double the number of games — Wembanyama has set a tone.
“This didn’t just happen to him. For a pretty long time now, he’s been lauded,” Popovich said. “He’s learned to just let it go, in one ear, out the other. Water on a duck’s back, all that sort of thing. He doesn’t get impressed with any of the plots or criticism, he just wants to play and be the best player he can be.”
Memorabilia from James’ first game has sold for more than two decades. Coming from different eras and quite different backgrounds and upbringings, his and Wembanyama’s experiences are assured to be different no matter how the Spurs rookie’s debut unfolds.
But they also likely will have some things in common, too.
“It was my first time in the NBA and then to be able to be a part of an atmosphere like that,” James remembered, “it was pretty cool.”
Wembanyama was two months from being born when James had that experience. But even coming from a different generation, he wants the same thing.
“I’m looking forward to discovering all the stuff I used to see on TV. All the stories. All the arenas. The atmospheres. All of this is going to be really precious for me,” Wembanyama said. “I know it’s going to lead to incredible things and obstacles. I know it’s going to be a beautiful year. I know I’m forging forever memories right now.”