Monday, April 22, 2024
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Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren: Rookie of the Year race is over, but their rivalry is just beginning

Victor Wembanyama had just drained his fifth 3-pointer of the night when Chet Holmgren tried to answer back by going one-on-one for a pull-up jumper on the other end. 

Rookie of the Year rivals and co-stars of what has all the makings of a blockbuster rivalry set to play out over the next decade-plus, Wembanyama and Holmgren had each surpassed the hype of the matchup – just as they have both, somehow, exceeded the hype of their rookie campaigns in general. 

Wembanyama had 28 points. Holmgren had 23, and was going for two more. He went left, crossed over between his legs and stepped back. Against any other defender, the move would’ve cleared more than enough space for a seven-footer to get off a clean shot. But Wembanyama and his eight-foot wingspan snuffed it out like the last embers of a campfire. 

If Holmgren had even the thinnest thought of still challenging Wembanyama for ROY honors, it was, super lazy pun intended, swatted away on that play. Wembanyama, barring an injury that keeps him out of more than 10 of San Antonio’s final 22 games, is going to be the 2023-24 ROY. This performance sealed it. 

You might say Wemby had already sealed the award, and the odds, heavily weighted for the Frenchman, would certainly support that assertion. But Holmgren has been so incredible himself that had he come out and owned Wemby in this game, the responsible voter’s needle would’ve had to swing at least a tick back toward undecided.

An almost perfect microcosm for their respective seasons overall, it was Holmgren who came out faster in this game, outscoring Wembanyama 11-2 through the first quarter. 

  • He beat him off the dribble and forced Wemby into a goaltending call. He held his ground as Wembanyama tried to power through him and met him at the rim, forcing a pair of misses. 
  • He laced a pull-up 3 over Wembanyama’s considerable contest, spiked Cedi Osman’s shot, slithered around Wemby for a nifty reverse layup and out-skycrapped him for a go-go-gadget lob finish. 

Wembanyama was doing his thing, but Holmgren, if in a slightly more conventional manner, was better, just as he was in the early part of the season when he threw a seven-block party in his second career game and sunk 18 of 36 3-pointers through his first 10. 

Through to first two months of the season, and through the first two quarters of this game, it was enough to make you wonder, if you were just tuning in for the first time, if we had hyped the wrong seven-footer as the greatest prospect since LeBron James

But all the while, there were flashes of the impossible from Wemby. 

  • His defensive range and recovery on eye-popping display, he pinned a shot against the glass without jumping. He threw in a left-handed jump hook from basically above the cylinder. He hit a few 3s. He made some tricky passes look casual. 
  • At halftime, Holmgren led on the personal scoreboard 19-14. The gap was closing. 

And then, in the second half, and in particular the fourth quarter, Wembanyama simply went to another level. Over the final 24 minutes, Wembanyama outscored Holmgren 14-4. He dialed two long-distance daggers in the closing minutes, the first a from just inside the logo as the capstone of a mind-melting sequence that included one of the aforementioned tricky passes made to look casual and a grounded denial of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the rim. 

In the end, Holmgren finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block on 8-of-12 shooting. He was awesome – like Justin Gatlin, who ran a blistering 9.89 seconds in the 100-meter final at the 2016 Rio Olympics, or Johan Blake, who ran 9.75 at the 2012 Olympics in London. 

Unfortunately, Wemby is Usain Bolt. Over the second half of the race, his strides have just been too long to keep up with. Since Jan. 1, Wembanyama is averaging 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.6 blocks and 1.4 steals on 49% shooting, including 36% from 3 on over five attempts per game. He is doing this in 27 minutes a night. 

Extrapolate that to 36 minutes, and Wemby’s numbers go to the moon: 29.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 4.6 blocks and 1.4 steals. Since Feb. 1, Wemby has been shooting over 41% from 3, including 48% on pull-up 3s (23 for 48), which is off the charts for anyone and certifiably insane for a 7-foot-5 dude. 

On Thursday, Wemby hit five of his seven 3-pointers. He finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 blocks and two steals, dwarfing Holmgren’s otherwise exemplary line. Holmgren is third in the league with 155 total blocked shots. Wemby is first with 180. Holmgren is averaging 17 points. Wemby is averaging 20. 

Holmgren is the first player in history to amass 150 blocks, 150 assists and 100 3-pointers in a single season. Wembanyama is the first player to record 150 blocks, 150 assists, 80 3-pointers and 70 steals.  

Holmgren is the fastest player in Thunder history to reach 1,000 career points, doing so in just 49 games. Wembanyama, who, to be fair, took one game longer to reach 1,000 points, is putting up numbers over the course of a single month that no other player in history has managed to match over their entire career. 

Wembanyama recently recorded the fastest 5×5 game in history. He is on track to become just the sixth player in history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block for an entire season. The other five are legends: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Bob Lanier and David Robinson. 

In short, everything Holmgren has done has been incredible. In some cases, it’s been historic. It’s just that Wemby has been better. He was better on Thursday night. He has been better this season. The Rookie of the Year race is over, but this blockbuster rivalry is just getting started. 

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