Victor Wembanyama vs. Chet Holmgren: A rivalry that is redefining their franchises – and the NBA itself

OKLAHOMA CITY — Sixty minutes before the marquee game for Tuesday’s In-Season Tournament slate, the NBA’s newest tall boys are dribbling. Victor Wembanyama is near center court, going through his legs and back again, television cameras following, a team security member shadowing. Chet Holmgren simultaneously sits courtside, several minutes early for his scheduled warmup time, mindlessly yo-yoing beneath his knees.

Most rookies warm up sooner, before fans even enter the arena. Veterans choose first, after all, and slots nearer to the game’s start go quickly. But these two are different. They’re starters, cornerstones and the league’s very future. First-year bylaws don’t apply in the same way to them, not even for traditionalist franchises like their own.

On Tuesday, Wembanyama and Holmgren’s first regular-season showdown was, at least narratively, a dud. Holmgren’s Oklahoma City Thunder trounced Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs, 123-87. Neither gargantuan big man, despite all their guard-like abilities and futuristic promise, cracked double-digit scoring.

But these two have been linked since they first faced each other on the court in 2021, when the United States beat France in the FIBA under-19 Basketball World Cup championship game. There was an impressive preseason clash in which they showed why they (almost) literally cannot overshadow each other, why they’re both set to redefine what centers can be.

Now, they’re the league’s two Rookie of the Year favorites playing 469 miles apart from each other. That juxtaposition has only been strengthened by each players’ franchises, who chose them for the same reasons each has used to build their respective identities.

“Everything does feel the same, especially in the way they treat you,” said Doug McDermott, who joined the Spurs two years ago after previously playing a half-season with the Thunder. “They truly do put a lot into everything (beyond) basketball.”

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San Antonio is the league’s most storied small-market franchise. From its ABA roots to its dynastic NBA success, it has had several No. 1 overall picks define its existence. Wembanyama is the latest, an impossibly long 7-4 anomaly from France who desperately hoped to join them before the lottery even determined this summer’s draft order.

Oklahoma City has none of that history. It arrived just 15 years ago, a bullrush into this sport’s consciousness not unlike the state’s very founding. It quickly experienced rapid success, thanks to players the franchise also drafted high. But Holmgren, who missed his initial season due to injury, is the highest draft pick since the franchise’s move from Seattle. While he might not have Wembanyama’s buzz, nor the dedicated security personnel, what he represents is similar.

In many ways, these franchises are more alike than different. The similarities are more than than their status as small markets, more than their mutual reclusiveness, more than their draft-first team-building strategies and, now, more than the two centers who represent not only the league’s future, but their own. It’s only right they’re only separated by a long afternoon’s drive on Interstate 35.

Sam Presti, the general manager for Oklahoma City’s entire existence, has been the architect behind the Thunder’s rise. He held one other job within the NBA beforehand: A seven-year stint as an assistant general manager with the San Antonio Spurs, which taught him much of what he has since carried over.

“It probably spawned a lot of cultural expectations for our environmental philosophy based on what (Presti) saw in San Antonio,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “That obviously had a huge influence on him professionally.”

Within the context of this league, San Antonio has been old money, more akin to a Fortune 500 company with a name and reputation that needs no explanation. Their rings and their trophies speak for themselves. This is the league’s model franchise, one which has defied geographical disadvantages and unavoidable market restrictions to win, and win, and win again.

Compared to them, Oklahoma City is the tech startup that boomed. It arrived not with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, basketball fundamentalists who fit their media-averse ethos, but Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, replete with lensless-framed glasses and backpacks as fashion statements. The Thunder were an invented concept taken from another city, one which had to earn its place — and, with the league’s best winning percentage since their arrival, they subsequently have.

They both have revered traditions which each franchise makes visible within their walls. San Antonio’s is a quote from Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, put just outside the team’s locker room in the language of every player on their roster. This year, it’s been added again in French.

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before.”

Oklahoma City’s cultural marker is in their practice court, a gleaming place where even the grass outside, McDermott recalls, is artificially green. After every practice, the basketballs in the racks that line the courts are rotated so that their Wilson logos face outward. It evokes the same sort of repetitious consistency of Riis’s quote, one by which both franchises want to define themselves.

But these two franchises are not the same, and they’ve veered away from each other again with their respective big men. Wembanyama and Holmgren could represent the league’s next rivalry, but that’s not what’s on the players’ minds.

“I have literally never thought about that,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked if this game might represent the start of something. “Maybe in a couple weeks, I’ll have an answer for you.”

Truthfully, it’ll take quite a bit longer than that. Oklahoma City, despite reaching the playoffs more recently than San Antonio, is further along its development curve. Holmgren has been tasked with fitting into the franchise’s core which Gilgeous-Alexander leads. Wembanyama has arrived at a Spurs franchise that’s asking him to lead theirs.

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And if these franchises reach their lofty heights, they’ll be different because of these two players, too. When Holmgren faced Wembanyama in the preseason, it was Wembanyama who flexed after powering through him on an and-1 layup — and Holmgren who pointed out on social media afterwards that it probably should have been a foul, saying, “The headbutt is an unstoppable move fasho.”

These franchises are adapting to their stars, a mutual assimilation that goes in both directions. “I don’t want to have a road map (for Wembanyama),” Gregg Popovich said before the game. “I need to learn where he feels best on the court.” He’s relinquished control because Wembanyama hasn’t arrived to fill some Duncan-like hole, but to create his own presence.

Even beyond Wembanyama, San Antonio has embraced change: fiesta-colored jerseys cycling into the team’s gray-and-black garb; a new general manager, Brian Wright, who has made more trades since taking over in 2019 than predecessor R.C. Buford ever did. Wembanyama is taking them into a new era, one which might not look quite like San Antonio once did.

Presti, once described as a man with a recurring haircut appointment on his calendar, is equally adaptable. Those around him talk about how he cycles through non-basketball obsessions — book genres, meditation, music producers — with passion. Holmgren may well change him, and the Thunder, in the same manner that the Thunder’s identity has been molding Holmgren.

And while that identity initially shared and may have been inspired by some of San Antonio’s genetic coding, it’s long moved past that.

“He’s not doing well because he was in San Antonio, but because he’s brilliant,” Popovich said. “What (Oklahoma City) has done is not about the DNA of San Antonio, but what Sam has done.”

Wembanyama and Holmgren hardly guarded each other in Tuesday’s game, with one first half exception where Holmgren backed down his French counterpart. Wembanyama, who had been stretching out to reach shots previously deemed unblockable, couldn’t touch Holmgren’s turnaround jumper. The Oklahoma City crowd buzzed, poised to prove its Loud City moniker. Here it was, the moment they had come to see.

Holmgren’s jumper rattled out. The arena sighed. The game finished with all of its anticipation for these two players’ first clash unrealized.

It’s not yet time for these two, not yet, not until they continue growing into who they are — and take their franchises along with them.

(Top photo: Logan Riely / NBAE via Getty Images)