Victor Wembanyama dominated so much of the rookie phenom discourse that Chet Holmgren got lost in the trees. However, Holmgren finally comes out of the forest. Scoring an impressive 36 points and hitting the game-tying three in an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors will open some eyes. Holmgren’s brilliance may be shrouded by the deep bunker of talent Oklahoma City surrounds him with compared to the solid but lackluster group Wembanyama plays with in San Antonio. For example, against the Warriors, Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked like the tandem of the future.
The SGA-Chet Holmgren 1-2 punch flashed his knockout power early. A year ago, Gilgeous-Alexander’s name was thrown around in trade talks amid questions about how much fueling he can tolerate.
Oklahoma City was one of the frontrunners to land Wembanyama. SGA’s breakout, Jalen Williams’ rise as a do-it-all wing, accelerated their ascension. Now Sam Presti is boss of basketball’s best emerging collection of neophytes. It’s starting to look a lot like the Durant, Harden and Westbrook years again. On Sunday, SGA and the Thunder series showed how much can change in a year. Basketball develops at breakneck speed. Golden State’s advantages are obsolete.
When I wrote about the NBA’s defensive counter-revolution last month, Holmgren was what I had in mind as a lieutenant in the rebirth of perimeter defense. However, Oklahoma City has more horses in its stable than San Antonio. Williams has played 84 percent of his minutes this season as the four in Oklahoma City’s lineup without giving up too much size due to his pterodactyl arms and is on the verge of a 50/40/90 split this season.
Through the first month of the new campaign, Oklahoma City’s offense boasts the highest 3-point shooting percentage in the league, is in the top 10 in defensive rating, offensive rating and field goal percentage efficiency. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are keying the big man’s return, but Holmgren has flashed a more primetime-ready game this week than Wembanyama, who is still finding his sea legs half the time.
The tall and eager players Presti gathered in Oklahoma City begin to form their Voltron. Holmgren is 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. SGA is 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Jalen Williams steps in as a 6-foot-5 small-ball four with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. Aleksej Pokuševski is still only 21 somehow, and has a 7-3 wingspan on a lean but 7-foot winger’s frame. On switches, 6-foot point god Chris Paul had to hold his own against Holmgren’s skeletal figure and an onslaught of long Thunder wings.
Awkward length is not a new development. But a team of tall, efficient floor spacers who can also be classified as legitimate playmakers and two-way disruptors makes Oklahoma City special. The Thunder briefly embarrassed the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry still plays up as His Majest-3 behind the arc, but a 6-foot-3 combo guard next to CP3. Klay Thompson is 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, but Curry is the rare example of an undersized player with almost a negative wingspan, standing 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot -4 wingspan.
Even Draymond Green is a callback to the small-ball era. His free-running instincts were driven by a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a strong 6-foot-6 forward’s body. Holmgren resembles Draymond Green’s elongated skeleton, but he intimidates with a different level of verticality and agility that makes him a threat on switches. But it’s the added bonus of his penchant for getting buckets that makes him a complete unicorn. On his game-tying corner triple to extend the action to overtime, his length allowed him to pull over Andrew Wiggins’ game.
In overtime, SGA scored 10 and used that length to negate a signature Curry triple and secure their second win over the Warriors in three days. Golden State is phased out by basketball Darwinism and Oklahoma City holds the crystal ball that predicts the future. It’s coming faster than we thought.