Victor Wembanyama had grown up in the suburbs of Paris dreaming about this moment since he was 12 years old. He had long felt as though he was different from everyone else, as though he could be great — and not just in basketball.
He’d spent the past several months, and even the last few days, exuding cool calm about his future. But when his moment finally arrived, he cried.
The San Antonio Spurs selected Wembanyama, 19, No. 1 overall in Thursday’s N.B.A. draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In doing so, they officially started the N.B.A. career of one of the most highly anticipated prospects in league history.
“Best feeling of my life,” Wembanyama said. “Probably the best night of my life. I’ve been dreaming about this for so long.”
In San Antonio, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was thrilled.
“He’s not LeBron, or Tim, or Kobe, or anyone else,” Popovich told reporters there. “He’s Victor.”
Fourteen players from outside the United States have been selected first overall in the N.B.A. draft. Wembanyama is the first international top pick who did not play high school or college basketball in the U.S. since the Italian player Andrea Bargnani, whom the Toronto Raptors selected first in 2006.
At more than seven feet tall, with the agility and ball-handling skills of a much smaller player, Wembanyama has drawn comparisons to N.B.A. stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant. He has long admired those players, but he has often said he doesn’t want to be like anyone in particular. He has said he wants to “be something that’s never been seen before and will never be seen again.”
At a draft night party at the Spurs’ arena, the crowd was chanting “Wemby” an hour before the draft had even begun.
On Wednesday, the N.B.A. took the unusual step of hosting a news conference just for Wembanyama before the other prospects addressed the news media in groups.
“Welcome to San Antonio,” a reporter from Texas said during Wembanyama’s news conference. With the draft still a day away, the reporter quickly added, “Not yet.”
“Not yet,” he said.
Wembanyama had been projected as the No. 1 pick for this draft even before the 2022-23 season. Miller, Henderson and the Thompson twins from Overtime Elite, a semiprofessional league for prospects, had also been expected to be high draft picks. Houston took Amen Thompson with the fourth pick, and Detroit selected Ausar Thompson at No. 5.
The Spurs won the draft lottery in May, as Wembanyama watched with friends and family in France.
“I was just thinking I was feeling lucky that they got the pick as a franchise that has that culture and that experience in winning and making, creating good players,” Wembanyama said on Wednesday. “I really can’t wait.”
The Spurs have had a strong history with French players and with the top pick in the draft.
They drafted the French point guard Tony Parker late in the first round in 2001. He won four championships with the Spurs and was named the most valuable player of the finals in 2007. Another French player, Boris Diaw, spent more than four seasons in San Antonio and was part of the 2014 championship team.
The Spurs have also had great success making the first pick in the draft. In 1987, they used the No. 1 pick to take David Robinson, who won the league’s M.V.P. Award in 1995, was a 10-time All-Star and won two championships with the Spurs. Then in 1997, San Antonio chose Tim Duncan first overall. Duncan went on to win five championships and two M.V.P. Awards, and he was named finals M.V.P. three times.
Coming into a team with that kind of history might seem like a lot of pressure for a teenager like Wembanyama, but he has appeared to be unruffled by it.
On Wednesday, Wembanyama was asked about a comment from a pundit, who said that his career would be a disappointment if it wasn’t like that of Durant or Hakeem Olajuwon.
Wembanyama calmly dismissed the premise.
“I’ve got such high expectations for myself that I’m immune to all this stuff,” he said. “So I really don’t care.”
Wembanyama grew up in Le Chesnay, west of Paris, but left at age 14 to live about 20 minutes away in the dorms of his childhood club, Nanterre. He went to high school across the street. He has played professionally in France since he was 15, often competing against and with players much older than him. It meant he had few opportunities to lead a team.
But last season, he starred for Metropolitans 92, a French club based in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret. Most of his games were broadcast on the N.B.A. App.
“Only this year I had the opportunity to learn to know this kind of responsibility,” Wembanyama said. “It is the best thing I learned in my career so far.”
The team had created a plan to prepare Wembanyama physically and mentally for the N.B.A. In turn, Wembanyama became deeply invested in his teammates’ growth.
One day in April, he told his agent Bouna Ndiaye that he needed a second athletic trainer because the first was overloaded. Ndiaye, assuming Wembanyama meant a second trainer for himself, found one and had been prepared to pay the second trainer’s salary to satisfy his client. But Wembanyama told him the trainer was for the whole team.
“He told me, ‘Yeah, but you don’t understand,’” Ndiaye said. “‘My teammates need that. Because I believe in this team.’”
The club eventually agreed to hire another trainer.
Wembanyama was named the most valuable player of his French league, the youngest ever to win that award, and led his team to a second-place finish. They lost in the finals last week.
He got to New York on Monday, excited to experience the city he had only seen in films and on television.
He rode the subway to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx from Columbus Circle in Manhattan on Tuesday. He jumped over the turnstile as he exited the train station in homage to Jacques Chirac, the former French president, who hopped a turnstile in the Paris metro in 1980. Wembanyama threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Yankees game against Seattle and laughed after it sailed wide.
It had otherwise been difficult for Wembanyama to simply go out and see the city. The anticipation for what heights his career could reach had been building even before Thursday’s official welcome into the N.B.A.
Wembanyama was the first player to walk into the green room, on the floor of Barclays Center, on Thursday night. About two and a half hours before he would hear his name called, he walked onto the stage for a moment. As he left the floor a minute later, he turned back to look at the stage one more time.
“This is when it started to feel a little bit real,” Wembanyama said after he was selected. “It still isn’t completely real. At that moment I started visualizing.”
Each team had five minutes to make its selection. Although the Spurs’ pick had been submitted early in the allotted time, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver waited until all five minutes had elapsed before announcing the selection.
“Longest five minutes of my life,” Wembanyama said.
His stomach began to flutter, and his family grew quiet. They began looking at their watches.
Then Silver finally called Wembanyama’s name, and a new chapter of his life began.
Santul Nerkar contributed reporting from San Antonio.