Here’s all you need to know about Victor Wembanyama’s relatively “disappointing” NBA debut: by scoring 15 points in 23 minutes, he still outscored both LeBron James (25 in 42) and Michael Jordan (16 in 40) on a points-per-minute basis in his first NBA game. He wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t as dominant as he was at points in the preseason, but if even a “bad” Wembanyama game puts him ahead of the two greatest players of all time in any metric, that’s a reasonable indication that his rookie season is going to be special.
Vegas has reflected that in the obvious way. Wembanyama has been a minus-money favorite for Rookie of the Year at most books since he was drafted. The best price you’ll find for him now is -120 at DraftKings, with most books offering him at even shorter odds. The implication here is that Wembanyama has a greater than 50% chance of winning Rookie of the Year, and that probably sells him a bit short. If he stays healthy, based on what we’ve seen out of the other top rookies in both the preseason and their season openers, he’s almost certainly going to win.
But there’s been another interesting bit of odds creep on the Wembanyama front that warrants a bit more investigation. If Vegas is to be believed, Wembanyama is already a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Different books are offering different numbers.
At DraftKings, for instance, you can grab him at +2500. At BetMGM, however, he’s all the way down to +1000. Only four players have shorter odds than him there: Jaren Jackson Jr., Evan Mobley, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Just behind him? That would be Bam Adebayo, a four-time All-Defense choice that anchored a unit that led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. He’s available at +1200. Double Wembanyama’s +1000 odds and you get Brook Lopez, last year’s runner-up, and Rudy Gobert, a three-time winner of the award, available at +2000. This is a gentle reminder that Wembanyama has played one NBA game.
Betting markets aren’t meant to be an accurate representation of likelihood. They reflect the public’s interest in betting on a particular outcome. Wembanya’s odds imply that he has a 9% chance to win the award. The truth is that he’s a very public name right now. Fans want to bet on him because he is the most exciting defensive player to enter the NBA in years. His actual odds, based on league history, are significantly lower.
The biggest reason why is the lack of precedent. No rookie has won Defensive Player of the Year. No teenager has either. Jackson Jr. won it at 23 a year ago, and that was his fourth NBA season. Another 23-year-old, Alvin Robertson, won it in his second season, and that fits a different trend. When perimeter players win the award, they tend to do so at younger ages. Of the eight Defensive Player of the Year awards to go to players in their age-24 or age-23 season, five went to perimeter players (Robertson, Kawhi Leonard, Ron Artest and Michael Jordan). Wembanyama is obviously a big man.
Big men face different challenges. A big one for younger rim-protectors is avoiding fouls. Wembanyama experienced this on opening night. He would have played more than 23 minutes if he hadn’t picked up five quick fouls. Jackson still struggles with over-fouling to this day. It’s a solvable problem, but it rarely happens overnight. At one point in Jackson’s career, he averaged 5.9 fouls per 36 minutes. Getting down to 4.6 last season was a victory. Notably, Jackson won the award despite playing only 28.4 minutes per game last season. Foul trouble contributed to that. Jackson overcame it by lapping the field in most rim-protection metrics. Wembanyama might find a way to do so as well, but he’d still have two major obstacles to overcome.
The first is durability. While minutes are not baked into Defensive Player of the Year, this season introduced the league’s first minimum threshold for qualification. While Wembanyama won’t need to play 65 games to qualify for Rookie of the Year, he does have to hit that minimum in order to qualify for Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs are known for being cautious, and Wembanyama’s body will need to adjust to NBA-level physicality. Wembanyama has never played more than 34 games in a professional season. He’d have to nearly double that total to reach 65, which is no certainty.
Even if he does, he’s somewhat beholden to his teammates. Every winner since 2008 has played on a defense ranked in the top five. Last season’s Spurs, with largely the same roster sans-Wembanyama, posted the worst defensive rating in NBA history by allowing 119.6 points per 100 possessions. They’ll be better this season. Not only are the young players more experienced, but the team is actually going to try to win games. But that sort of jump seems pretty unrealistic. The Mavericks are among the NBA’s best offenses, but for what it’s worth, the Spurs allowed 117.8 points per 100 possessions in their opener.
With all of this in mind, you probably shouldn’t bet Wembanyama for Defensive Player of the Year. As exciting as his candidacy would be, there’s just little precedent for a player in his situation actually winning. His odds might offer a bit of value on candidates you prefer, but with so little basketball in the books, your offseason picks should still be your favorites.