LAS VEGAS — Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson. Scoot Henderson and Victor Wembanyama.
Get used to seeing those two names paired together, because it’s going to be that way for a long, long time.
We’ve seen plenty of draft class rivalries in the past, where two players become inseparable from comparisons throughout their careers. Although they weren’t technically drafted in the same year, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson became the poster for player rivalries, sharing a rookie season after facing off in the NCAA championship game in 1979, going on to matchup up in three NBA Finals.
Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon carried that torch in 1984. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony’s rivalry began in high school before they were selected first and third overall, respectively, in 2003. To a lesser extent, the 2005 draft class’ Chris Paul and Deron Williams was a heated debate for a moment in their careers. Fast forward to 2018 when Luka Doncic and Trae Young were traded for each other on draft night, giving us the most recent rivalry that still draws attention any time they share the floor.
After the performances Wembanyama and Henderson put on in a pair of showcase games in Las Vegas this week, it immediately feels like the tandem is destined to be attached at the hip.
The first night at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada — the Ignite’s new home court — was a moment that those in attendance will not soon forget. Look in any direction in the arena and there was an NBA scout or executive, with the number of talent evaluators and decision-makers said to be north of 200. On each baseline, there were NBA and WNBA stars, ranging from Chris Paul and Devin Booker to A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray, accompanied by their WNBA championship trophy.
And despite being a friendly exhibition game, the on-court intensity felt nothing of the sort, matching the magnitude of the spectators who came to see the event’s main characters. Henderson and Wembanyama battled as if the winner was going to be the first to hear their name called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the conclusion of the contest.
Henderson had that look in his eye the entire night, showing his fearless competitiveness from the get-go. His deadly midrange jumper was falling and his renowned speed and explosiveness looked even faster than we last saw. He showed growth with his playmaking and vocal leadership, and he seemingly made it a point to attack Wembanyama with every opportunity he got.
MORE: Henderson channeled inner CP3 with playmaking vs. Wembanyama
Wembanyama — who was playing his first-ever game in the United States — gave everyone who tuned in to the national television broadcast a glimpse of how truly out-of-this-world his game is. The 7-foot-4 alien, as LeBron James put it, used his 8-foot wingspan to get his hands on what felt like every shot within reach. His jumpshot looked so smooth that even his misses were pretty, knocking down seven 3-pointers in a variety of ways.
The two engaged in a back-and-forth that was so filthy it felt scripted for an ultimate highlight reel.
Henderson wasted no time to go at Wembanyama, isolating him on the perimeter for a stepback 3 over his out-stretched go-go gadget arm.
Later in the first half, Henderson delivered his signature highlight of the night, using a shifty reactive dribble move to get past his primary defender before showing his elite body control with a eurostep gather and layup over Wembanyama at the rim.
Wembanyama had no shortage of highlight plays either, knocking down shots on the move and off the dribble as we’ve never seen before from a 7-footer.
He also won a battle of rim warfare against Henderson, getting revenge on Scoot for a couple of tough finishes earlier in the night.
When Wembanyama’s team was trailing in the second half, the 18-year-old demanded the ball, pouring in 29 (!) points after halftime to give his team a chance. When the Ignite were trying to cling on to a late lead, it was Henderson who had the ball in his hands, playing with the poise of a veteran as he orchestrated the offense and made all the right reads to secure the win for his team.
Wembanyama had 37 points, five blocks and seven 3-pointers — something that has never been done in an NBA game. Henderson had 28 points, nine assists and only two turnovers, making clutch plays on both ends of the floor when the game was on the line. The outcome of the first showcase exhibition only left one question: Are you not entertained?
Everyone in the arena was buzzing after the game, fully realizing how insanely ridiculous it was that the contest somehow exceeded the insurmountable hype.
I wasn’t in the building for the second contest, but the prospect showdown was cut short after Henderson banged knees with Wembanyama in the first half, ending his night early. Instead of going punch-for-punch, Wembanyama turned the game into his personal hoop mixtape, looking like a created video game character with the sliders turned all the way up as he poured in 36 points with 11 rebounds in a double-double effort.
Victor Wembanyama followed up his 37-point game on Tuesday with an equally impressive 36-point double-double in a win!
— NBA (@NBA) October 6, 2022
It wasn’t the same without Henderson to swing back in Game 2, but the two-game showcase certainly served its purpose.
Still eight months away from the 2023 NBA Draft, it was evidently clear why these two phenoms are projected to be the first to hear their names called.
43 years after Bird and Magic ignited their rivalry with a historic amateur showdown, Wembanyama and Henderson lived up to the billing in a desert meeting that will be talked about for decades.
The NBA’s next great rivalry is already here. This was just the beginning.