Holmgren-Wembanyama: Welcome to the NBA’s next generational rivalry

Holmgren-Wembanyama: Welcome to the NBA’s next generational rivalry

Both are spectacularly skilled for Redwoods, able to dribble and drive, shoot and pass, like backcourt players. Both have shot-blocking instincts that transform defenses. Both possess the rarest of skill sets, unique if you don’t group them. Futuristic, even. Players from a time to come.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 14, 2023, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 14, 2023, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Phoenix Suns got the full Victor Wembanyama experience in a 51-hour period. The Suns hosted the Spurs on Halloween night, then again two nights later.

In Game 1, Wembanyama posted a box score line of 18 points, eight rebounds, four blocked shots and 6-of-12 shooting. Fairly impressive for a 20-year-old rookie.

In Game 2, San Antonio’s 7-foot-4 wunderkind went for 38 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked and 15-of-26 shooting.

A few days ago, the Suns gathered for a scouting report on the Thunder. And Phoenix’s veteran players had to exclaim in unison 

You mean there’s another one!

The Thunder’s Chet Holmgren, who in any other year would be hailed as a rookie for the ages, is a 7-foot phenom. A Thunderkind, if you will.

Both are spectacularly-skilled for Redwoods, able to dribble and drive, shoot and pass, like backcourt players. Both have shot-blocking instincts that transform defenses. Both possess the rarest of skill sets, unique, if you don’t group them together. Futuristic, even. Players from a time to come.

And they meet Tuesday night, for the first time in the regular season, as the Thunder hosts the Spurs at Paycom Center.

Fair or not, these giants will be matched and compared for a generation. Like Bird and Magic. Or Chamberlain and Russell.

No one doubts that Wembanyama will be a star on the scale of those aforementioned legends. The low side of Wemby expectations is perennial all-star. The high side is NBA Rushmore, befitting a player with more hype than any newcomer since Sir LeBron James.

Holmgren has few doubters, but even his biggest supporters are not ready to reserve hotel rooms in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the 2044 Hall of Fame inductions.

Still, both Wembanyama and Holmgren are 10 games into their NBA careers, and while Wembanyama’s wow factor is the stuff of electric storms, Holmgren is in the same neighborhood.

“It sounds cliche, but he does do it all,” Josh Giddey said of Holmgren. “He can handle the ball. When he gets a rebound, he’s a guy that can take it up the floor himself and handle it … he protects the rim, in my opinion, as well as anybody in the league.”

By the way, Holmgren’s numbers against Phoenix on Sunday night: 18 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots, zero turnovers and 5-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers. The Thunder outscored the Suns by 27 points with Holmgren on the floor, en route to a 111-99 victory.

In fact, I’m breaking my own commandment, of not comparing Wembanyama and Holmgren. Let’s look at the numbers.

Points: Wembanyama 19.7, Holmgren 16.4.

Rebounds: Wemby 8.8, Holmgren 7.6.

Assists: Wemby 2.5, Holmgren 2.6.

Minutes: Wemby 30.2, Holmgren 30.1.

Field-goal percentage: Wemby .447, Holmgren .549.

Three-point shooting: Wemby .298, Holmgren .500.

True-shooting percentage: Wemby .542, Holmgren .691.

Rebound percentage: Wemby 16.4%, Holmgren 19.9%.

Block percentage: Wemby 7.2%, Holmgren 6.7%.

Usage rate: Wemby 30.9, Holmgren 19.9.

Remarkable players. The primary difference so far is that Holmgren has a lot more help with the Thunder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Santa Clara Williams, etc.) than Wembanyama has with the rebuilding Spurs. Thus Wembanyama has shot a lot more, with far less efficiency.

For the future, Wembanyama’s extra length — his 8-foot wingspan is the third-longest in NBA history, and the two with wider spans were Manute Bol and Tacko Falls, both of whom were bit players  — makes him more of a marvel.

The difference between 6-6 and 6-9 is vast. The difference between 7-foot and 7-3 is no less so.

But Holmgren’s ability to change the game defensively and mix it up inside, despite obvious strength deficiencies, makes him more of a difference-maker than even the Thunder could have hoped.

“He’s 7-foot, so he takes up a lot of space in the paint and on the court in general defensively,” said teammate Santa Clara Williams. “On the court in general defensively, when we kind of force it to him, he covers up for a lot of our mistakes.”

Holmgren was denied a one-year jump on Wembanyama. A foot injury robbed him of his 2022-23 season. Thus they are rookies together.

Holmgren is 614 days older, which is a big difference when guys are 20 and 21, and which means Wembanyama has a longer runway to muscle. That’s all that’s missing from their physical stature.

Wembanyama’s expectations don’t figure to be a curse, if only because he’s so talented. Wembanyama seems to be the next LeBron; a guy whose hype was matched by his reality.

But Wemby is not the greatest prospect in NBA history.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came into the league as a finished product. He was the best player in the league that 1969-70 season, even if most valuable player award voters cast their support for Willis Reed.

Wembanmaya (and Holmgren) can do magical things with a basketball. Things few 7-footers ever have done. But so did Jabbar. His skyhook has not been replicated, before or since.

Holmgren’s potential is projected well short of Wembanyama, and Holmgren’s brilliant start hasn’t changed that.

Many caution to skip the comparisons, not because they’re necessarily unfair to Holmgren, but because the players truly are different.

That one doesn’t pass the smell test. The difference between Wemby and Holmgren is miniscule compared to the difference between Holmgren and whoever is next most like him. Difference-making shot blockers who are star-caliber offensive players are rare.

Maybe more will follow. But we’re still waiting on the next LeBron (looking at you, Zion Williamson), and half a century later we’re still waiting on the next Jabbar. We’ll see when the next Wembanyama or Holmgren arrives.

Until then, the comparisons between the skilled skyscrapers are natural. And for now, Holmgren is holding his own.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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