As they meet in OKC, a look at the first Chet Holmgren-Victor Wembanyama matchup

As they meet in OKC, a look at the first Chet Holmgren-Victor Wembanyama matchup

That U.S. team featured the 7-foot-1 Holmgren, a long-limbed devourer of shots at the rim, and if you think it’s a stretch to say Team USA was ill-prepared for the 7-4 Wembanyama, you shouldn’t.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 8, 2023, 3:41pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 8, 2023, 3:41pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Josh Giddey didn’t see the game. 

The Thunder point guard wasn’t participating in the 2021 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, but his native Australia was. And though the Aussies didn’t make the title game in the under-19 event, the chatter about the teams that did found its way to Giddey. 

In one corner, Chet Holmgren and Team USA. In the other, Victor Wembanayama and France. 

A pair of game-changing 7-foot prospects on an international stage. 

“I wasn’t there, I didn’t play in it, but definitely heard about it,” Giddey said. “They’re obviously two generational bigs, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun watching them compete in the NBA over the years.” 

They (sort of) start Monday, when Holmgren’s Thunder and Wembanyama’s Spurs meet at the Paycom Center in each team’s preseason opener. 

Assuming both play — Holmgren is set to —  it probably won’t be for long; that’s the nature of preseason openers. They might or might not guard each other. The teams have a regular-season meeting back here on Nov. 14.

And it’s not as though the teams are scheming for each other. In a preseason opener, Thunder coach Mark Daignuealt said, the emphasis is on your own team. Over time, OKC will build a scouting report on Wembanyama.

For now, he’s more a curiosity than a defensive emphasis.

“You hear all the hype about leading up to him playing this game, and of course, he’s hyped up so you want to see what he got,” Thunder forward Kenrich Williams said. “But at the same time, we kind of want to focus on ourselves and what we do well.”

So maybe there’s not quite as much buzz in basketball circles about Monday as there was for the U19 World Cup final in Latvia, which was must-see TV for a certain breed of hoop head.

Holmgren was about to head to Gonzaga for his freshman season. Wembanyama was building a name for himself, but wasn’t yet the full-on sensation he became in the final year before he became draft eligible in June. 

“I remember a really cocky United States team, as much as anything,” said Sam Vecenie, the NBA draft analyst at The Athletic, who was watching that day. “I thought that they didn’t really know what to do with (Wembanyama’s) size and length, like it was something like they hadn’t really seen before.”

That U.S. team featured the 7-foot-1 Holmgren, a long-limbed devourer of shots at the rim, and if you think it’s a stretch to say Team USA was ill-prepared for the 7-4 Wembanyama, you shouldn’t. 

Wembanyama had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks in the game, and no less an authority than Holmgren was caught off guard by the French phenom. 

“I don’t really give too many people credit, but I give credit to this guy right here,” Holmgren said of Wembanyama after the game, per FIBA. “I thought I was tall, I thought I had long arms, but he takes it to a whole other level.”

Holmgren was named MVP of the World Cup, and though he was held to 10 points in the matchup against Wembanyama, he scored five during an 11-0 run that helped propel Team USA to the gold. 

Wembanyama fouled out of the game with 2:42 to play. 

He and Holmgren didn’t guard each other on every possession but they shared the floor for significant minutes, including this possession in which the then-17-year-old Wembanyama got the better of Holmgren: 

In some critical moments, Team USA turned to burly forward Kenneth Lofton Jr., who bullied the slender Wembanyama around the rim. He’d do the same to Holmgren at the 2022 NBA Summer League. 

But despite their lack of bulk, it was evident even in 2021 that Holmgren and Wembanyama were something special. Something new. 

“Defensively, Vic just completely changed the game,” Vecenie said. “He changes the geometry of basketball, just with his length out there. He cuts off angles in ways that other players just cannot. He — especially at the international level, where the court is not quite as well spread — just completely bogged down everything for the U.S.” 

That length is something to see. 

Vecenie isn’t a believer in the necessity of seeing players live. He mostly can evaluate fine on film, he said. It’s different with Wembanyama. 

“In this case, it is jarring,” he said. “When you see him in person, it’s like ‘Oh, this is completely different than anything I’ve ever seen before.” 

Holmgren, Vecenie said, is an even “more impactful anticipatory defender” than Wembanyama, a player who processes an offensive play and cuts it off at a level Vecenie calls “special.”

“Chet is the best — like, the best — big as a teenager, 20-year-old, that I have ever evaluated in terms of his ability to anticipate rotations, his ability to just anticipate coverages defensively, and go make an impact on them,” Vecenie said. 

If you make your way to Paycom Center on Monday, Vecenie said, Wembanyama will stand out. You won’t be able to miss his impact. But he suggests taking a look at Holmgren away from the ball on defense. 

“Watch the way that Chet just processes everything defensively across the court,” Vecenie said. “Watch the way he rotates, how intelligent he is, being as young as he is.” 

Maybe you can’t say you were there for that game in Latvia. 

But you can see what figures to be the first of many meetings between the two in the NBA. 

“He moves great,” Holmgren said of Wembanyama back in 2021. “He’s got a shot. He’s got skills too. He’s gonna be a rich man one day. I know he’s gonna keep working. Hopefully I’ll be able to see him in the NBA and continue to play against him for a long time.”

Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama last met in a FIBA U19 World Cup game between USA and France on July 11, 2021. (FIBA Basketball)

Gilgeous-Alexander out

Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (rest) is out for Monday’s preseason opener, Daigneault said at Sunday’s practice.

Guard Vasilije Micic (ankle sprain) also will miss the game and is listed as day-to-day. Aleksej Pokusevski, who sprained an ankle in a preseason workout last month, remains. Out. He is scheduled to be reevaluated in about four weeks.

The rest of the Thunder roster is available, Daigneault said.

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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