Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama had dazzling debuts, even if it is preseason

Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama had dazzling debuts, even if it is preseason

Thunder-Spurs: What to take away (and leave behind) from the preseason opener.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 10, 2023, 6:36am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 10, 2023, 6:36am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — He had given you a block and that lob dunk and those 3-pointers. In 16 minutes of eye-popping preseason basketball, Chet Holmgren had exceeded any reasonable expectation for his Thunder debut. 

And so maybe it was too much to ask that he also dish an assist to the narrative. 

Holmgren dueled the Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama Monday night at the Paycom Center in that rarest of NBA occasions — a preseason game we might actually remember — and that was enough. 

He didn’t want to also tell you it was The Start of Something. 

“Obviously a great player and a great team on the other end to match up with, but that’s what the NBA is, man,” Holmgren said afterward. “It’s a great player, great players every single night.”

Hardly a social-media-ready quote about the dawning of the NBA’s next great big-man rivalry. 

When told that Wembanyama saw the night as the beginning of years of great matchups, Holmgren did say he “100%” agreed, noting that both players expect to be around a long time, that by necessity they’ll face each other routinely. 

If Monday night was any indication — and as a preseason opener, it might not have been — they’ll be must-see meetings. 

The Thunder won 122-121, a game decided long after Holmgren — who didn’t play at all in the second half — and Wembanyama had retired to the bench. Most of what really mattered happened before halftime. 

If you turned out or tuned in, you saw Wembanayma’s impossible block on a Jalen Williams drive that would have crated too much space for maybe any other NBA player to close. And Holmgren swatting Zach Collins’ shot, controlling the ball and bringing it upcourt to start the Thunder’s offense. 

You watched Wembanyama cross Holmgren on a drive, lower a shoulder to draw a foul and finish with a flex. You saw the 7-foot-4 Spurs rookie swish a 3-pointer at one end only to watch the 7-1 Holmgren respond at the other. 

And you got to see a dizzying sequence of modern big-man magic where Wembanyama flushed a fast-break dunk and Holmgren responded at the other end with a layup and foul. 

The final numbers: Holmgren 21 points, nine rebounds, an assist, a block, 7-of-10 shooting; Wembanyama 20 points, five rebounds, a block, two steals, 8 of 13 from the floor. 

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault spent some of his postgame news conference downplaying the matchup, rightly pointing out how far Holmgren and Wembanyama have to go as NBA players. 

“(Holmgren’s) got talent, but he’s got a long way to go in a lot of areas, and at the end of the day we can’t get blinded by any player’s talent,” Daigneault said. “We have talented guys on our team, and the one thing they all have in common is they all need to improve in order for them to maximize themselves as players and maximize our team.” 

A wet blanket, maybe, but a sensible sentiment. 

Even with what your eyes told you, the standard preseason disclaimers apply: The game isn’t meaningful; it’s early for both teams; the list of things Holmgren and Wembanyama don’t know about playing at this level is impossibly long. 

This might not have been the start of something significant. 

But it sure was fun. On the first night of the Thunder’s preseason, that was enough. 

More from the Thunder’s preseason debut:

Oct 9, 2023; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) with the ball while defended by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams (8) during the first half at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) with the ball while defended by Thunder forward Jalen Williams (8) Monday, Oct. 9, 2023 at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City. (Rob Ferguson/USA TODAY Sports)

What mattered

Cason Wallace — thrust into a starting role because star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rested — hit 1 of 3 shots but showed some of what earned him the rep as a defensive stopper coming out of Kentucky. 

Wallace was strong on the ball and made a terrific play off it, breaking up a backdoor cut with good instincts for one of his three steals. He had five rebounds (two on the offensive end) and two assists, but Daigneault said before the game that starting Wallace was to get a “baseline” evaluation against quality NBA players, and there were some defensive takeaways. 

The 6-foot-6 Williams spent much of his limited time on the court guarding Wembanyama, who stands almost a foot taller. Don’t be surprised if that happens again in the regular season. 

Williams put on muscle in the offseason in part, he said, to be a more versatile defender, and the Thunder is comfortable having him guard power forwards. Doing it Monday allowed Holmgren to guard Collins, the Spurs center, and ultimately the best version of Holmgren figures to be a player who floats, guarding a variety of players and taking away entire sections of the court with his mobility and reaction time. 

“It’s always fun to guard other special players, and he’s a special talent,” Williams said. “I definitely felt little. And I don’t think there’s gonna be a lot of people that aren’t gonna feel that way.”  

What didn’t

It’s a dangerous game to draw roster conclusions based on any preseason game, but Monday’s was particularly unhelpful given that Daigneault played a fairly tight rotation of expected contributors in the first 24 minutes and got a longer look at the back half of his roster in the second. 

By opening night, the Thunder has to trim its roster to 15 full-time players and three players on two-way contracts. 

OKC entered Monday night with 18 players on NBA contracts and three on two-ways. 

Victor Oladipo, an offseason trade acquisition who is rehabbing from a season-ending injury, isn’t in camp and isn’t expected to play for the Thunder this season. That still puts the Thunder two over the limit. 

But there wasn’t much to draw from Monday. You could read into Daigneault’s decision to limit the minutes for backup big men Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10 minutes) and Jack White (seven), but one preseason game is hardly a sample size for finding solutions. 

If this was a regular-season game…

Gilgeous-Alexander would have played. The Thunder’s decision to rest him wasn’t based on any injury. He led his native Canada to a bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup last month, meaning he racked up offseason minutes. The Thunder will ease him into the preseason. 

Four starters — Williams, Dort, Holmgren and Giddey — would have played more minutes than the 16-18 each logged. Wallace would have played fewer. Daigneault’s rotations vary wildly over the course of a season. It’s pointless to try and unlock any clues in the preseason. 

The crowd presumably would have been bigger. Attendance in the upper deck at the Paycom Center was sparse and there were wide patches of empty seats in the lower bowl. But the atmosphere at times was electric, befitting the Holmgren/Wembanyama fireworks.

 

 

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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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