How Victor Wembanyama and trainer Tim Martin prepared for the NBA

How Victor Wembanyama and trainer Tim Martin prepared for the NBA

Over the past decade, Tim Martin has trained NBA stalwarts Rudy Gobert, Trae Young, Myles Turner and Tyrese Maxey in his Dallas-based gym. But Martin’s most prominent client has never set foot on an NBA court. At least not yet.

Victor Wembanyama, the 19-year-old French phenom and the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James, has played professionally in France since 2019. On Thursday, he’s expected to be drafted first by the San Antonio Spurs. But years before the typical NBA fan knew his name, Wembanyama started training with Martin.

And how does Martin, a 36-year-old country boy from Texas, relate to Wembanyama, a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime teenage talent from Nanterre in the suburbs of Paris? When he takes on clients, no matter what league they’re playing in or where they are in their career, Martin said he prioritizes their intellectual curiosity over their basketball skills.

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“Everybody expects them to know about basketball, but I’m always asking them questions about what they’re interested in and why they’re interested in those things,” Martin said. Wembanyama, for example, is a history buff, loves fantasy novels such as “A Game of Thrones,” is interested in opera and is a contemporary art aficionado. One of his favorite Parisian galleries is Galleria Continua, an art space that works with a family friend and artist, Adel Abdessemed, so Martin and Wembanyama have visited art museums when traveling together overseas.

Martin said he has focused as much on his talented pupil’s mental and emotional state as his physical status, even before he became an object of international scrutiny.

“We have all these mental health epidemics going on now,” Martin said. “I think these kids, it’s important for them to control their emotions and know how to navigate them. I firmly believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything. So I think developing them off the court is just as, if not more, important.”

He met and started working with Wembanyama through his Dallas-based agent, Bouna Ndiaye, when the phenom was 15 and growing into his already massive frame. When he met the teenager, Martin had been in France, training NBA players Ndiaye represents, and he said his first impressions were positive, because of both Wembanyama’s obvious potential and his curiosity. Martin noticed how Wembanyama saw the game, the type of questions he asked and how deep he was willing to go to find the answers.

“He was already coordinated in terms of dribbling and having great feet,” he said. “But his ability to ask questions stood out first. He would ask a lot of questions about the whys and the hows. I noticed we would have more conversations rather than me just lecturing.”

When they worked together in Paris, Martin said, the things he would teach Wembanyama in one session would be noticeable at their next meeting — a level of implementation he called rare for an NBA player, much less a 15-year-old.

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“He had no fear,” Martin said. “Most of the time, players have a sense of fear when making this stuff translate from practice to the game. They’re not going to try something because they might make mistakes and get subbed out. Victor’s actually the opposite. He’s willing to do something new in the middle of a game. To have that confidence level is not normal, especially at that age. That takes time to develop. Seeing him do that in games, I knew this kid could be something special.”

Player development, Martin said, is not as established in Europe as it is in the United States, so the duo started with foundational tools: nuances of footwork and foot placement. It was familiar territory for Martin, who said he always wanted to be a trainer. Even in grade school, his penchant for learning and asking questions earned him the nickname “Coach.” The basketball court felt like home as he and his mother bounced around Texas, often searching for a new start when the rent was due, forcing him to make new friends and adapt to new environments.

So when the pandemic hit early in their relationship and he couldn’t work with Wembanyama or his other clients in person, Martin did what life trained him to do — he adapted. Wembanyama and Martin went from training in the gym to training over Zoom. Martin set up shop on an empty tennis court in Dallas and, with a chair and a ball, connected with the next great prospect from across the world. Sometimes his AirPods would go out or the WiFi would drop, but they pressed on.

“It allowed us to form a very different relationship than just the trainer-and-player type of vibe,” he said. “I need the player to feel my energy, and I need to feel the player’s energy. That’s the true essence of development in this business, at least for me. I got to be around you so we can feel each other’s words and understand what I need from you. We had to get creative to find ways to demonstrate shooting mechanics. You had to use your imagination.”

Last summer, Wembanyama and his family traveled to Dallas to train with Martin for three weeks. It was Wembanyama’s first taste of the Lone Star State, which is quite a coincidence since he will now call San Antonio home. Martin said when Wembanyama first came to him, the weakest part of his game was in the mid-post. While Wembanyama had advanced touch and feel for the game, Martin said, his confidence skyrockets when he has go-to moves in spots around the court. Soon, Wembanyama added the mid-post game to his arsenal, with a fadeaway or a pump fake to go up and under defenders and dunk. When Martin put him one-on-one with his other NBA trainees, Wembanyama wanted only to play defense on Maxey and Turner, taking on the challenge to stop accomplished pros.

Martin said he has tried to prepare Wembanyama for what he’s about to face in the NBA, from the emotional pressure to the physical differences. But the trainer can’t stop himself from getting caught up in his client’s potential. Martin uses the word “revolutionary” to describe Wembanyama’s mixture of Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork and Kevin Durant’s scoring ability, and he points to the fluidity in his fadeaways, his competitive spirit and his timing on defense.

“I go back to the Bill Russell days,” Martin said. “Russell would block a shot, keep it in bounds and start the break. That’s like Victor. He’s a chess player in his mind. He’s always thinking two steps ahead. He’s the whole package. I can’t even imagine what the jersey sales are going to be like. It’s going to be pandemonium.”

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