The NBA’s biggest budding rivalry was on display Wednesday night, as Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs took on Chet Holmgren and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second time this season.
The Western Conference-leading Thunder dismantled the Spurs 140-114, grabbing a 2-0 edge in the season series between these teams. Wembanyama led the team with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. On the other side, Holmgren had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Now, midway through their first NBA season, these two are competing head-to-head as front-runners for Rookie of the Year.
Holmgren has already claimed the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month title in November and December. And it doesn’t hurt that the Thunder are one of the top teams in the league, led by an MVP-caliber guard in Shai-Gilgeous Alexander.
Wembanyama, on the other hand, has been the sole light in an otherwise dismal season for the last-place Spurs. He’s leading the team in points (20.3) and putting up impressive performances throughout the month, including having the second-fewest minutes for a triple-double in NBA history.
Coming off their second matchup, our NBA Insiders break down the future of the Holmgren-Wembanyama rivalry and what lies ahead in the tight Rookie of the Year race.
Early buzz in San Antonio
Long before they met at midcourt for the opening tip, Wembanyama and Holmgren shared the Frost Bank Center court together. The rookies warmed up at the same time, 65 minutes before tipoff. Wembanyama hoisted 3-pointers on one side, and Holmgren did the same on the other.
While everyone around the two 7-foot-plus sensations might be downplaying the Rookie of the Year race — Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said «It’s a team sport. It’s not tennis,» when asked about the rivalry between the big men — the crowd in San Antonio made its feelings known right away.
During player introductions, Spurs fans loudly booed Holmgren when his name was called and gave Wembanyama perhaps his second-loudest ovation of the year moments later (only opening night felt bigger).
— Andrew Lopez
Who’s at the top of the block?
Both Holmgren and Wembanyama are on track for the most blocks per game by a rookie since Shawn Bradley averaged 3.0 in 1993-94. Wembanyama’s 3.2 average ranks sixth among rookies since blocks were first tracked in 1973-74, according to Stathead.com, while Holmgren (2.6) is in the top 20.
On Wednesday night, both exceeded their season averages. Wembanyama’s four blocks were highlight worthy: He erased Jalen Williams’ shot attempt on a drive moments after Holmgren had one of his three blocks, spiked a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shot to the court and showcased his 8-foot wingspan by snatching a Josh Giddey layup with an outstretched left arm. Wembanyama also had the only head-to-head block of Holmgren under the basket.
For both star rookies, rim protection goes beyond just blocking shots. Each is in the top 10 in field goal percentage allowed on shots inside 5 feet, with Wembanyama ranking fourth, according to Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, while Holmgren sits eighth — just ahead of Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. Each rejection makes opponents warier of venturing near the basket against either of these rookies.
— Kevin Pelton
Good luck guarding them
In watching Holmgren and Wembanyama go at each other, it’s apparent how precise NBA defenders — and the young stars themselves — have to be when guarding these two from the moment they have the ball.
Holmgren, shooting an impressive 38% from 3-point range on four tries per game, forces hard closeouts along the perimeter. But he’s fluid enough to put it on the floor and nimble enough to pull off creative finishes, as he showed in Wednesday’s opening period. Wembanyama had a few offensive hiccups early in the game with Holmgren guarding him and once forcing him into a travel. A few sequences later, Wembanyama got the better of Holmgren, flashing to the free throw line and turning for a one-handed dunk before Holmgren could get into proper position.
Wemby throws down one-handed flush
Victor Wembanyama gets to the rack for a one-handed dunk.
The fourth quarter elicited even more highlights with some one-on-one action. Wembanyama caught the ball at the top of the arc before bodying Holmgren into the paint and dunking on him. That seemed to light a fire under Holmgren, who had a dunk of his own shortly after en route to a nine-point burst in the final period.
That’s the beauty of these two — they change the game in an instant by forcing split-second decisions on both ends of the floor. Another reason why we look forward to seeing this matchup for years to come.
– Chris Herring
Bring on Round 3 of the rivalry
The game within the game between Holmgren and Wembanyama is just as fun to watch as the actual game itself. Wembanyama staring down Holmgren after an absurd step-through dunk in the fourth quarter, Holmgren lowering his shoulder into Wembanyama on the next possession in response. It’s obvious how much these guys understand the significance of their budding rivalry and the brightly lit stage they were playing on Wednesday night. Kudos to both coaches for letting them go at it deep into the fourth quarter of a blowout.
Wemby powers through Holmgren for the dunk
Victor Wembanyama forces his way through Chet Holmgren for a mean dunk.
In an era in which stars hug each other after games and like each other’s Instagram posts, the organic nature of their rivalry has been refreshing to watch unfold — the league hasn’t had one of these in quite some time. Yes, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have been rivals for the MVP award the past three seasons. But they are friendly rivals, complimenting each other through the media rather than stoking the fire of their fan bases.
Wembanyama and Holmgren stare each other down. They go at each other. The Spurs and Thunder fan bases mercilessly debate each star’s merits for Rookie of the Year, and no one steps in to tamp down the animosity. I can’t wait for the next matchup.
— Ramona Shelburne