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The MVP case for Victor Wembanyama
Why the Vegas odds for Defensive Player Of Year and MVP defy logic.
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The Wemby hype train is barreling down the track. Some of my favorite NBA minds are giving serious love to Victor Wembanyama as Defensive Player of the Year and naming him to first-team All-Defense this year. Some Wemby praise:
ESPN’s Zach Lowe ranked him a top-15 defensive player already “and that may be very pessimistic,” he added: “The guy is just everywhere on defense. He blots out the sun, the moon, the arena lights, every passing lane in a 20-foot radius, the basket you could have sworn you just saw over there. My god.”
The Athletic’s John Hollinger picked “the rim-denying giant” to make the All-Star team: “I had thought Wembanyama might need a year to get his NBA sea legs before we really saw his impact. To hell with that.”
The Right Time’s Bomani Jones: “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life … he quite possibly is walking into the NBA as the best defensive player in the league.”
Everyone’s going nuts for good reason. We keep waiting for Wemby to show his youth against “real competition” whatever that means. Wait until Summer League. Wait until preseason against actual NBA players. Wait until … Look, I’m tired of waiting. And you should be too. To all those who are picking Wemby to win DPOY, I have a little suggestion.
If you believe Victor Wembanyama is going to win DPOY, you should double down and pick him as MVP.
Yes, DPOY and MVP.
I think it’s telling that the general consensus insists that Wemby is doing things we’ve never seen on a basketball court. The preseason highlights look like they were cooked up by a bootleg AI app with the prompt “human praying mantis breaking basketball.” The actual production is just as jaw-dropping.
The 19-year-old led all players this preseason with 2.8 blocks per game, doing it in just 20.9 minutes. Translated to a per-75 possession basis:
6.0 “stocks” (steals plus blocks)
2.5 stocks per foul
I know the sample size is small, just four games of preseason hoops. But Wemby won MVP, Best Defender, Best Scorer and Best Blocker as an 18-year-old in the top French league. It’s not like he hasn’t dominated men’s competition as a teenager before.
Wemby’s early ability to defend grown NBA players without fouling is what sets him apart. Look at his production this preseason next to reigning DPOY Jaren Jackson Jr, who has five seasons under his belt:
Jackson: 10 blocks, 4 steals, 16 fouls in 94 minutes
Wemby: 11 blocks, 4 steals, 6 fouls in 83 minutes
Again, Wemby is 19 years old and doing this stuff. He checks off every DPOY box. He’s got the sizzle. He’s got the size. He’s got the stats. Bettors are sprinting to place their wagers. BetMGM said on Tuesday night that Wemby is the most-bet player to win DPOY. I’m guessing that’s the same at every sportsbook.
To be clear, I’m not predicting that Wemby’s going to win MVP. What I’m saying is that the market feels wildly mispriced to me. Let me explain.
The MVP odds
As of this writing, on DraftKings on Wednesday morning, Wembanyama’s DPOY odds were ninth-shortest at +1500, with an implied odds of 6.3 percent. That’s longer odds than I would personally have, but that’s not the crazy part.
Here’s where it gets wonky:
Wembanyama is +9000 for MVP, which ranks as the 37th-shortest odds in the league behind guys like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. I’m sorry, what? Wemby’s MVP odds are six times longer than his DPOY odds?
This disconnect strikes me as insane. Six times less likely? I could see the logic if Wemby’s offensive skill was wayyy behind his defensive game. But Wemby is not some Rudy Gobert out there -- a defensive wall with limited utility on offense.
To wit, one of the sharpest draft scouts on the planet, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, answered a Wemby mailbag this week. It was a great read; Sam has watched Wembanyama more than just about anyone. The first question was not about his defense. It was this:
Apologies to the Stifle Tower, but no one on God’s green earth has ever wondered: How the f*** do you guard Rudy Gobert?
History as a guide
We can use history as a guide here. If you were worried about old-timey voters being stingy with the awards, there’s recent precedent for a star doubling up the MVP and DPOY. In 2019-20, voters had no qualms about overwhelmingly selecting Giannis Antetokounmpo for both awards, just like they did for Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and Michael Jordan in 1988-89.
Speaking of Giannis, when asked about Wembanyama by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Jason Kidd likened the Frenchman to, yes, the MVP/DPOY winner:
“He's in a class of his own. 7-5, can put it on the floor, can shoot it, can block shots, can block jumpers. So, I mean, maybe a combination of Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and I don't know who else. That's the closest person I can think that I've worked with that I've seen who can put it on the floor, [is] athletic defensively, will block shots and can shoot the 3. So, nothing against Giannis -- Giannis didn't shoot the ball like Victor does, but you got to be aware where he's at, at all times on both sides of the floor."
He’s basically saying Giannis with a jump shot. That’s an MVP candidate. Hey, here’s a question, do you think Wembanyama could realistically win DPOY and also average 20 points per game this season? If you answered yes to both, then he’s pretty much guaranteed to be Top-3 in MVP, if not outright win the whole damn thing.
Of the last 10 DPOYs who averaged at least 20 points per game, three of them won MVP, four finished second, two placed third and one (Dwight Howard in 2008-09) didn’t medal, landing at fourth.
That’s a pretty compelling track record. Did I mention that Wembanyama’s already averaging 20.8 points per 75 possessions this preseason? So he’s already scoring at that MVP-clearing bar against NBA competition.
Oh, wait. Check that.
Wemby scored 30.8 points per 75 possessions this preseason – sandwiched between Kevin Durant’s 32.7 and Giannis’ 29.6. My bad! Just for posterity’s sake, here are Wemby’s per 75 possession preseason numbers: 30.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.4 blocks, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.8 three-pointers and just 2.5 fouls. Indeed, Zach Lowe, my god.
Maybe you’re not on the Wemby bandwagon. But you should def join the Finder.
As Nate Silver wrote this week, the best comp might be Shaq’s rookie season when the LSU product posted 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game for the Orlando Magic, a team that finished exactly 41-41 and missed the playoffs in 1992-93. Shaq finished a distant 7th that year in the MVP race, but I suspect he’d finish much higher in today’s climate.
Children, 1993 was a different time. Voters basically looked at the best team in the NBA and gave the MVP to their best player. (Seriously, the 10 MVPs in the 1990s played on the team with the best record eight times and second-best the other two times. Not saying they were wrong, but yeah, my six-year-old could logically fill out the same ballot).
Why the time is now
I think voters today – with so much more information and social-media influence impacting their vote – aren’t nearly as
brainwashed persuaded by team record and can separate the individual from his supporting cast (see: Nikola Jokic 2022; Russell Westbrook 2017). I also think Wemby’s defensive upside helps elevate his candidacy compared to Shaq. The interesting thing is that Shaq didn’t receive a single vote for DPOY, even though he finished second in blocks per game. I don’t see voters dismissing Wembanyama’s DPOY credentials like they did for Shaq; the Wemby DPOY conversation has already begun and it is loud.
Another reason, I suspect, why Shaq didn’t fare so well with voters: he was a rookie. We haven’t seen a rookie win MVP since the merger. Wilt did it in 1960. Wes Unseld did it in 1969. In both cases, the teams won the 82-game equivalent of 50+ games. Wemby’s supporting cast isn’t nearly as good as those teams, so I don’t think he needs to win 50-plus games to convince voters he had the best season. A winning record? Maybe. But we know the bar is lower than 50 wins.
And finally, via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, here’s Gregg Popovich on Wemby’s transcendent talent that defies any sort of rookie convention: “The days of treating [rookies] the same left us a long time ago.”
Pop was probably talking about giving Wembanyama the star treatment right away. The rookie posted a 33.9 percent usage rate, the highest scoring responsibility for any Spurs player – preseason or regular season – since NBA.com began tracking the stat in 2004. Pop isn’t holding him back. If the notoriously-ornery Pop isn’t giving him the rookie treatment, neither will voters. Easing Pop’s mind is the fact that Wembanyama, like Luka Doncic, has already played high-level pro basketball unlike raw talents like Shaq or Dwight Howard (or Kwame Brown for that matter).
So let’s take Pop’s lead and treat Wemby like a grown up. Wemby’s MVP odds, to me, are way out of whack for someone of his talent, production and hype. The MVP race is wide open as it is. Yes, Nikola Jokic is the favorite but load management has flattened MVP races compared to years past. The odds for the preseason MVP favorite (Jokic currently at +425) is the longest since 2008. This, my friends, is the time to get spicy.
Put it this way: if Wemby convinces voters to give him DPOY, I can’t envision a world in which those same DPOY winds don't also carry him to an MVP.
Look, I’m not saying a Wemby pick for DPOY-but-not-MVP is the coward’s way out. I’m not saying that! I’m just saying we should say these things with our chest. DPOY-not-MVP feels like a strategic hedge. In one stroke, you can protect against the vicious social-media mob in case Wemby flames out, but if he doesn’t crash, one can still enjoy the chest-beating upside of calling the Wemby takeover before everyone else.
My argument is that you shouldn’t stop at DPOY, if you’re willing to go there. I’m not even argu– you know what, screw it. This is supposed to be fun, right?
I’m picking Wemby for MVP. Join me. While you still can.