OKLAHOMA CITY — Sixty minutes before Tuesday’s season-opening tournament game, the NBAThe new big boys are dribbling. Victor Wembanyama is near center field, going through his legs and back, followed by television cameras, a member of team security observing him. Chet Holmgren is simultaneously sitting courtside, several minutes earlier than his scheduled warm-up time, mindlessly yo-yoing under his knees.
Most rookies warm up earlier, before fans even enter the arena. After all, veterans choose first, and the slots closest to the start of the game go quickly. But these two are different. They are starters, cornerstones and the very future of the league. Freshman statutes don’t apply equally to them, not even to traditionalist franchises like theirs.
Tuesday’s first matchup between Wembanyama and Holmgren in the regular season was, at least on a narrative level, a dud. by Holmgren Oklahoma City Thunder defeated Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs, 123-87. Neither gargantuan big man, for all their guard skills and futuristic promise, scored in double figures.
But these two have been linked since their first on-court confrontation in 2021, when the U.S. beat France in FIBA Under-19 World Cup championship game. There was an impressive pre-season shock in which they showed why they cannot (almost) literally slip away, why they are both ready to redefine what centers can be.
Now they belong to the league two rookie of the year favorites playing 469 miles apart. This juxtaposition was only reinforced by each player’s franchises, which chose them for the same reasons each used to construct their respective identities.
“Everything is the same, especially in the way they treat you,” said Doug McDermottwho joined the Spurs two years ago after playing half a season with the Thunder. “They really invest a lot in everything (beyond) basketball.”
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San Antonio is the most storied small-market franchise in the league. From his ABA roots to his dynastic success in the NBA, multiple No. 1 overall picks have defined his existence. Wembanyama is the latest, an incredibly long 7-4 anomaly from France who were desperately hoping to join them even before the lottery determined this summer’s draft.
Oklahoma City has none of that history. It arrived barely 15 years ago, a real boost in the awareness of this sport, which is reminiscent of the very founding of the State. It quickly enjoyed rapid success, thanks to players that the franchise also drafted high. But Holmgren, who missed his first season due to injury, is the top draft pick since the franchise moved from Seattle. While he may not have the buzz of Wembanyama, nor the dedicated security staff, what he represents is similar.
In many ways, these franchises are more similar than different. The similarities go beyond their small market status, more than their mutual isolation, more than their team-building strategies from the first draft and, now, more than the two centers who not only represent the future of the league, but theirs. It’s fitting 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 held another role in the NBA: a seven-year stint as assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, which taught him much of what he has since retained.
“It probably created a lot of cultural expectations about 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.”
In the context of this league, San Antonio is old money, more akin to a Fortune 500 company with a name and reputation that requires 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 exploded. He didn’t happen with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonardbasketball fundamentalists who fit their media aversion philosophy, but Kevin Durant And Russell Westbrook, filled with lensless frame glasses and backpacks as fashion statements. The Thunder were an invented concept from another city, who had to earn their place – and, with the best winning percentage in the league since their arrival, they eventually did.
They both revered traditions that each franchise makes visible within their walls. The one in San Antonio is a quote from the Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, displayed just outside the team’s locker room in the language of each player on its squad. This year it was added again in French.
“When nothing seems to help, I go to a stonemason hammering his stone maybe a hundred times without a single crack showing. However, on the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know that it was not this blow that did it, but everything that preceded it.
Oklahoma City’s cultural marker is in their practice field, a gleaming place where even the grass outside, McDermott remembers, is artificially green. After each practice, the basketballs in the racks that line the courts are rotated. so that their Wilson logos face outwards. This evokes the same kind of repetitive consistency of Riis’ quote, the one by which both franchises want to define themselves.
But these two franchises are not the same, and they have once again drifted apart with their respective big men. Wembanyama and Holmgren could represent the league’s next rivalry, but that’s not what the players are concerned about.
‘I 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 few weeks I’ll have an answer for you.”
Truth be told, it will take a little longer than that. Oklahoma City, although reaching the playoffs more recently than San Antonio, is further along in its development curve. Holmgren was tasked with integrating into the franchise’s core led by Gilgeous-Alexander. Wembanyama arrived at a Spurs franchise that asks him to lead theirs.
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And if these franchises reach new heights, they will also be different thanks to these two players. When Holmgren faced Wembanyama in the preseason, it was Wembanyama who faltered after beating him on an and-1 layup — and Holmgren who later pointed out on social media that it probably should have been a foul, saying: “The headbutt is an unstoppable headbutt. move fashion.
The headbutt is an unstoppable fashion move😂😂🤝 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 have to learn where he feels best on the pitch.” He relinquished control because Wembanyama arrived not to fill a Duncan-style hole, but to create his own presence.
Even beyond Wembanyama, San Antonio has embraced change: jerseys in holiday colors blend with the team’s gray and black uniform; a new general manager, Brian Wright, who has made more trades since taking over in 2019 than his predecessor RC Buford ever did. Wembanyama is taking them into a new era, one that may not quite look like San Antonio.
Presti, once described as a man with a recurring haircut appointment on his calendar, is equally adaptable. Those around him talk about how he passionately explores his non-basketball obsessions – book genres, meditation, music producers. Holmgren just might change him and the Thunder in the same way the Thunder’s identity shaped Holmgren.
And while this identity was initially shared and may have been inspired by some San Antonio genetic codes, it has long since moved beyond that.
“He’s not doing well because he was in San Antonio, but because he’s brilliant,” Popovich said. “What (Oklahoma City) did is not about the DNA of San Antonio, it’s about what Sam did.”
Wembanyama and Holmgren barely defended each other in Tuesday’s match, except for a first half where Holmgren pushed his French counterpart back. Wembanyama, who had stretched to reach shots previously deemed unblockable, couldn’t touch Holmgren’s turnaround jumper. The Oklahoma City crowd was buzzing, ready to prove their Loud City nickname. That was the moment they came to see.
Holmgren’s sweater fell apart. The arena sighed. The game ended with all its anticipation for the first unrealized clash of these two players.
It’s not time for these two yet, not yet, not until they continue to grow into who they are – and take their franchises with them.
(Top photo: Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)