OKLAHOMA CITY – Sixty minutes before the main game of Tuesday’s season tournament, the NBA’s newest big boys are dribbling. Victor Wembanyama is near center court, checking his legs and vice versa, followed by television cameras and a member of team security following him. Chet Holmgren simultaneously sits on the court, several minutes before his scheduled warm-up time, mindlessly yo-yoing under his knees.
Most rookies warm up early, even before the fans enter the arena. After all, the veterans choose first and the slots closest to the start of the game fill up quickly. But these two are different. They are starters, cornerstones and the future of the league. First-year bylaws do not apply in the same way, even for traditionalist franchises like yours.
On Tuesday, the first regular-season matchup between Wembanyama and Holmgren was, at least narratively, a failure. Holmgren’s Oklahoma City Thunder defeated Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs, 123-87. None of the bigs, for all his guard skills and the futuristic promise of him, managed to score in double figures.
But these two have been linked since they first met 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 outshine each other, why they are both ready to redefine what centers can be.
Now, they are the two favorites for the league’s Rookie of the Year and play 469 miles away from each other. That juxtaposition has only been strengthened by each player’s franchises, which chose them for the same reasons each used to construct their respective identities.
“Everything feels the same, especially the way they treat you,” said Doug McDermott, who joined the Spurs two years ago after playing half a season with the Thunder. “They really put a lot into everything (beyond) basketball.”
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San Antonio is the most storied small-market franchise in the league. From his roots in the ABA to his dynastic success in the NBA, he has had several number one overall picks that define his existence. Wembanyama is the latest, an incredibly 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, an avalanche in the sport’s consciousness not unlike the state’s discovery. He quickly experienced rapid success, thanks to players the franchise also drafted highly. But Holmgren, who missed his initial season due to injury, is the highest pick in the draft since the franchise moved from Seattle. While he may not have Wembanyama’s enthusiasm or dedicated security staff, what he represents is similar.
In many ways, these franchises are more similar than different. The similarities are more than their small-market status, more than their mutual seclusion, more than their draft-based team-building strategies and, now, more than the two centers that represent not only the future of the league, but the your own. It’s only fair that 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 previously had another job within the NBA: a seven-year stint as assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, which taught him much of what he has learned 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. “That obviously had a big influence on him professionally.”
In 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 trophies speak for themselves. This is the league’s model franchise, one that has defied geographic disadvantages and inevitable market restrictions to win, win, and win again.
Compared to them, Oklahoma City is the tech startup that boomed. It came not with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, basketball fundamentalists who fit his media-averse ethos, but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, replete with lensless frames and backpacks as fashion statements. The Thunder were a made-up concept taken from another city, one that had to earn its place and, with the league’s best winning percentage since its arrival, has subsequently done so.
Both have revered traditions that each franchise makes visible within its walls. the one from san antonio is a quote from Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, posted right outside the team’s locker room in the language of each player on their roster. This year, he was added again in French.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and watch a stonecutter hammering his rock maybe a hundred times without a single crack showing. However, upon receiving the hundred and first blow it will break in two, and I know that it was not that blow that did it, but everything that had happened before.
Oklahoma City’s cultural marker is on its practice field, a gleaming place where even the outside grass, McDermott recalls, is artificially green. After each practice, the basketballs in the racks that line the courts are rotated. so your Wilson logos face outward. It evokes the same kind of repetitive coherence of Riis’ quote, one that both franchises want to define themselves by.
But these two franchises are not the same and have once again distanced themselves from their respective big men. Wembanyama and Holmgren could represent the league’s next rivalry, but that’s not what the players think.
“I’ve literally never thought about it,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked if this game could represent the start of something. “Maybe in a couple of weeks I’ll have an answer for you.”
The truth is that it will take much longer. Oklahoma City, despite making the playoffs more recently than San Antonio, is further along its development curve. Holmgren has been tasked with fitting into the core of the franchise led by Gilgeous-Alexander. Wembanyama has arrived at a Spurs franchise that asks him to lead theirs.
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And if these franchises reach their heights, they will be different too because of these two players. When Holmgren faced Wembanyama in the preseason, it was Wembanyama who flexed after going through him for an and-1 layup, and Holmgren was the one who later noted on social media that it probably should have been a crowd, saying, “The headbutt is an unstoppable blow. “Move fashion.”
– chet holmgren (@ChetHolmgren) October 10, 2023
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 know where he feels best on the court.” He has given up control because Wembanyama has not arrived to fill a void like Duncan’s, but to create his own presence.
Even beyond Wembanyama, San Antonio has embraced the change: festively colored jerseys blending in with the team’s gray and black attire; a new general manager, Brian Wright, who has made more changes since he took over in 2019 than his predecessor RC Buford. Wembanyama is ushering them into a new era, one that may not look much like what San Antonio once had.
Presti, once described as a man with a recurring appointment on his calendar to get a haircut, is equally adaptable. Those around him talk about how he passionately navigates non-basketball obsessions (book genres, meditation, music producers). Holmgren could very well change him and the Thunder, the same way the Thunder’s identity has been shaping Holmgren.
And while that identity initially shared and may have been inspired by some of San Antonio’s genetic codes, it is long gone.
“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, it’s about what Sam has done.”
Wembanyama and Holmgren barely defended each other in Tuesday’s match, with one exception in the first half in which Holmgren pushed his French counterpart back. Wembanyama, who had been stretching for shots previously considered unblockable, couldn’t touch Holmgren’s jumper. The Oklahoma City crowd cheered, ready to prove their Loud City nickname. Here it was, the moment they had come to see.
Holmgren’s jumper rang out. The sand sighed. The match ended with all the expectation for the first clash of these two players not fulfilled.
It’s not time for these two yet, not yet, not until they continue to become who they are and take their franchises with them.
(Top photo: Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)