Why Wemby vs. Chet will be the NBA's fiercest big-man rivalry in decades

ABOUT 30 MINUTES after his first NBA preseason game in October, having missed the entire 2022-23 campaign with a foot injury, Chet Holmgren bounded out of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s locker room and ran into Victor Wembanyama’s family.

When Wembanyama saw Holmgren in the hallway, he smiled and turned to introduce Holmgren to his mother, Elodie, who was making her first visit to Oklahoma to see the game. And what a show she and the rest of the fans at Paycom Center had taken in that night.

It was more than an appetizer for the two fascinating rookies. Wembanyama, too energy-filled to make it through a planned afternoon nap, had been brilliant for the San Antonio Spurs in his first NBA preseason game, registering 20 points, five rebounds, two steals and a block. Holmgren was just as impressive (21 points, nine rebounds and a block), as the two had several moments of controlled but unmistakable one-upmanship.

Holmgren and Wembanyama have been circling each other for years. Wembanyama is 7-foot-4; Holmgren is no slouch himself at 7-1. Both have slender frames and exhibit guard skills and rare athleticism for their size. They had been on scouts’ radars and, therefore, each other’s since they were in their mid-teens.

“I don’t look up literally to many people,” Holmgren said. “But that’s one of them.”

They watched the other’s highlights, monitored their various rankings and tracked their progress from across the ocean. They share something else besides a rare blend of size and skill: a fierce competitive streak that is as much a part of their personalities as their height.

To know these two young stars on any level is to understand the stage is set for what could be an intense rivalry between them in the coming years. While they’ve been careful to remain mostly respectful of each other in media settings, watching their actions the few times they’ve shared the floor forecasts a coming intensity when they compete against each other.

Their first NBA matchup that counts comes Tuesday back in Oklahoma City — and with extra stakes, an in-season tournament game that the Thunder need to win to maintain their hopes of advancing out of group play.

Wembanyama, 19, has made it known he has long-standing goals of becoming the NBA’s best big man, and Holmgren, 21, is directly in his path, as they are slated to compete at every level, starting with the Rookie of the Year Award.

Holmgren’s coaches and teammates, past and present, describe a relentless drive to win. He might see Wembanyama as just another opponent to try to conquer in this regard, but Holmgren can’t deny that the two are going to be judged heavily in the way they perform head-to-head, such as many other rivals through NBA history.

“There is no choice but for us to go back and forth,” Holmgren said.

AS HOLMGREN MET Mrs. Wembanyama, he collegially brought up the one previous time they indeed had all been together in the same place. It was in Riga, Latvia, in July 2021 at the U19 FIBA World Cup final. Team USA had beaten Team France 83-81 in a hotly contested game during which Wembanyama had frustratingly fouled out in the fourth quarter.

It is only the worst basketball memory of Wembanyama’s life — “Just thinking about it makes my jaw clench,” he has said — and one of the great accomplishments of Holmgren’s. Though he didn’t play exceptionally by his standards in the championship game — Holmgren had 10 points and five assists — the American player was named the tournament’s MVP and returned for his freshman year at Gonzaga with a gold medal. Wembanyama had put up 22 points with eight rebounds and eight blocks before having to watch the final minutes from the bench.

The idea that that game could’ve been the beginning of years of the two uber-talented giants playing for big stakes in contests dripping with intensity is an exciting prospect for the entire NBA machine. For those who were there, it was unforgettable.

“I remember,” Elodie Wembanyama said to Holmgren with a smile.

As for seeing each other in even basic social settings such as this, it has rarely happened. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a slate of international events that might’ve brought them together via shoe companies or governing bodies was canceled. Being a year apart in draft classes, they weren’t part of those festivities, either. So you end up with two possible future cornerstones of the NBA rarely seeing each other.

“No,” Wembanyama said emotionlessly when asked if they had any relationship.

Perhaps one will begin now. Their collision course as they compete for two teams on the rise in the Western Conference seems inevitable. They will start to see each at least four times a season, and they are primed to eventually face off in playoff series and rematches in international competition.

Team USA is likely to consider Holmgren in the near future with the senior team, as he starred as a junior member. Wembanyama is slated to headline American rival France for years to come, having declared to French reporters that he wants “France to be the biggest basketball nation in the world and for a long time. I want people to see us that way, [to] move past USA.”

In the short term, the Spurs, who are struggling defensively despite Wembanyama already making an impact by averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game, are playing catch-up to the Thunder, who are a couple of years ahead in their rebuild. But the two teams, both armed with young talent and extra draft picks, hold promise of postseason showdowns.

“The games against OKC are going to be interesting,” Wembanyama said. “For sure.”

AFTER SAYING GOODBYE to the Wembanyamas, Holmgren was off to the parking lot to head home. No hard feelings. Maybe just a hint of needling. And then there was the tweet.

A few minutes after departing, Holmgren dashed off a post on X after seeing “SportsCenter” celebrate a highlight from the game. Following an aggressive drive against Holmgren, Wembanyama drew an and-1 and flexed.

“The headbutt is an unstoppable move fasho,” Holmgren wrote, insinuating that Wembanyama might’ve gotten away with an offensive foul.

Gregg Popovich offered his impressions after watching the first NBA meeting.

“They went at each other a couple of times, and it was interesting,” the Spurs coach said. “It shows their character, their competitiveness, and they did it within reason. Neither one was shooting a horrible shot to try to outdo the other one. It was basic basketball that the basketball gods would agree with. They will be a lot of fun for everybody to watch over their careers.”

Wembanyama plays more at forward than center, which is where Holmgren has spent most of the time for the Thunder. There might be limited head-to-head moments such as the one that delivered that contested highlight between them in the preseason. But the link is undeniable, and the time to start making memories may have arrived.

“I plan to play a long time, and I’m sure he does too,” Holmgren said. “So I’m excited for the future down the road, as well.”

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