OKLAHOMA CITY — Sixty minutes before the marquee game for Tuesday’s In-Season Tournament slate, the NBA’s newest tall men dribble. Victor Wembanyama is near center court, going on his feet and back, followed by television cameras, a member of team security watching. Chet Holmgren sat courtside at once, a few minutes early for his scheduled warmup time, mindlessly yo-yoing beneath his knees.
Most of the rookies warmed up earlier, before the fans even entered the arena. Veterans pick first, after all, and slots closer to the start of the game go quickly. But these two are different. They are the beginnings, foundations and future of the league. The first year rules don’t apply the same way to them, even for traditional franchises like theirs.
On Tuesday, the first regular-season showdown between Wembanyama and Holmgren was, at least narratively, a dud. Holmgren’s Oklahoma City Thunder defeated Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs, 123-87. Not even the hulking big men, for all their guard-like abilities and futuristic promise, have cracked double-digit scoring.
But these two have been linked since they first faced each other in court in 2021, when the United States defeated France in the FIBA under-19 Basketball World Cup championship game. There was an amazing preseason matchup where they showed why they (almost) literally can’t surround each other, why they’re both set to redefine what centers can be.
Now, they are the league’s two Rookie of the Year favorites playing 469 miles apart. That comparison is only reinforced by each player’s franchises, which chose them for the same reasons that each used to build their respective identities.
“Everybody feels the same way, especially the way they treat you,” said Doug McDermott, who joined the Spurs two years ago after previously playing half a season with the Thunder. “They really put a lot into everything (beyond) basketball.”
Wemby vs. Chet previews NBA’s future + are the Warriors and Pelicans OK?
San Antonio is the most storied franchise in the minor league market. From its ABA roots to its NBA success, it has had several No. 1 overall pick that defines its existence. Wembanyama is the latest, a towering 7-4 anomaly from France who is heavily hoping to be with them before the lottery even determines this summer’s draft order.
Oklahoma City does not have that history. It came just 15 years ago, a bullrush in the consciousness of this sport not unlike the establishment of the state. It quickly experienced rapid success, thanks to players the franchise also drafted highly. But Holmgren, who missed his first season with an injury, is the highest draft pick since the franchise moved from Seattle. While he may not have the buzz of Wembanyama, or the dedicated security personnel, what he represents is similar.
In many ways, these franchises are more alike than different. The similarities go beyond their small-market status, beyond their mutual humility, beyond their draft-first team-building strategies and, now, beyond the two centers representing not just the future of the league, but themselves. It’s only fitting that they split up on a long afternoon drive on Interstate 35.
Sam Presti, Oklahoma City’s lifelong general manager, has been the architect behind the Thunder’s resurgence. He held one other NBA job before that: A seven-year stint as assistant general manager with the San Antonio Spurs, which taught him much of what he’s carried with him since.
“It probably created a lot of cultural expectations for our environmental philosophy based on what (Presti) saw in San Antonio,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “Obviously that had a big influence on him professionally.”
Within the context of this league, San Antonio is old money, more like 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 that has defied geographical disadvantages and unavoidable market restrictions to win, and win, and win again.
Compared to them, Oklahoma City is the tech startup boom. It came 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 that had to earn its spot — and, with the league’s best winning percentage since their arrival, they had a chance.
They both respect the traditions that make each franchise visible within their walls. San Antonio’s is a quote from Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, placed just outside the team’s locker room in the language of each player on their roster. This year, it was added again in French.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and watch a stone cutter pound his stone maybe a hundred times without a single visible crack in it. But with a hundred and first blows it will be split in two, and I know that it was not the blow that did it – but everything that happened before.”
Oklahoma City’s cultural marker was on their practice court, a glittering place where even the grass outside, McDermott recalled, was artificially green. After each practice, the basketballs in the racks that line the courts are rotated so that their Wilson logos face outwards. It evokes the same kind of repetitive consistency of Riis’ quote, one by which both franchises like to define themselves.
But these two franchises are not the same, and once again they have been away from each other with their respective big men. Wembanyama and Holmgren could represent the next league rivalry, but that’s not what the players have in mind.
“I never really thought about that,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked if this game could represent the beginning of something. “Maybe in a few weeks, I’ll have an answer for you.”
Actually, it will take a little longer than that. Oklahoma City, despite reaching the playoffs more recently than San Antonio, is further along its development curve. Holmgren was tasked with adapting to the core of the franchise led by Gilgeous-Alexander. Wembanyama has already landed at a Spurs franchise who are asking him to lead them.
Why the Thunder’s three-headed monster could be ‘terrifying for years to come’
And if these franchises reached their lofty heights, they were different because of these two players. When Holmgren faced Wembanyama in the preseason, it was Wembanyama who buckled after powering him with an and-1 layup — and Holmgren pointed out on social media afterward that it was likely a foul, saying, “The headbutt is an unstoppable. move the fasho.”
The headbutt is an unstoppable move fasho😂😂🤝 https://t.co/Oaz7Mz8f57
— Chet Holmgren (@ChetHolmgren) October 10, 2023
These franchises adapt to their stars, a mutual assimilation that goes both ways. “I don’t want to have a road map (for Wembanyama),” Gregg Popovich said before the game. “I need to know where he is best on the court.” He relinquished control because Wembanyama had not come to fill some Duncan-like hole, but to create his own presence.
Even beyond Wembanyama, San Antonio embraced the change: fiesta-colored jerseys cycling through the team’s gray and black uniforms; a new general manager, Brian Wright, who has made more trades since taking over in 2019 than predecessor RC Buford did. Wembanyama takes them into a new era, an era that may not be the same as what San Antonio once did.
Presti, once described as a man with recurring haircut appointments on his calendar, is equally adaptable. Those around him talk about how he revolves around non-basketball obsessions — book genres, meditation, music producers — with passion. Holmgren can change him, and the Thunder, in the same way that the Thunder’s identity shapes Holmgren.
And while that identity was initially shared and may have inspired some of San Antonio’s genetic coding, it has long since been surpassed.
“He’s not good because he’s in San Antonio, but because he’s so smart,” Popovich said. “What (Oklahoma City) did wasn’t about San Antonio’s DNA, but what Sam did.”
Wembanyama and Holmgren barely covered each other in Tuesday’s game, with one exception in the first half where Holmgren trailed his French counterpart. Wembanyama, stretching to reach shots once deemed unblockable, missed Holmgren’s turnaround jumper. The Oklahoma City crowd was buzzing, ready to prove its Loud City moniker. Here it is, the moment they came to see.
Holmgren’s jumper thundered. The arena gasped. The game ended with all its anticipation for the first clash between the two players unfulfilled.
It’s not time for these two, not yet, until they continue to grow into who they are — and take their franchises with them.
(Top photo: Logan Riely / NBAE via Getty Images)