The biggest difference between Chet and Wemby

SAN ANTONIO — Victor Wembanyama was catching a quick breather late in the second quarter, but he sprung off the bench and hurried to the scorer’s table when Chet Holmgren checked in.

17 seconds later Wemby got loose in the paint and dunked past his primary challenger for Rookie of the Year, one of many highlights as he outperformed Holmgren by a little but the Spurs lost by a lot in a game that laid bare the choice before award voters. The only clear winner at this point is the basketball fans who get to watch them both.

It’s a heavyweight battle between two skinny giants with slick skills, and they’re both making a tremendous impact on their respective teams in very different contexts. They’re both already highlight-factory stars and impactful two-way players, and there’s a fair case to be made for each to take home the once-in-a-rivalry hardware. Those who feel strongly either way will be arguing about it until the games are done and the votes are in, and probably for years after that too, but anyone who claims it isn’t close does a disservice to the unicorn and the alien making this one of the more compelling races for ROTY in a hot minute.

In the silver and black corner: Wemby came in at 19 years old, hailed as the best prospect since LeBron, and immediately became the engine for a rebuilding Spurs team. The 7’4″ French phenom is averaging more points, rebounds, steals and blocks than all other rookies, and he’s fifth in assists. San Antonio is still struggling to win, but Wembanyama is pushing them in the right direction, especially after his shift to center and Tre Jones’ inclusion in the starting unit.

Per game statistics:

20.4 points
10.1 rebounds
2.9 assists
3.2 blocks
1.1 steals

3.2 turnovers
28.5 minutes
46.5% FG (16.2 attempts)
29.4% 3PT (4.9 attempts)
80.4% FT (4.8 attempts)

In the blue and orange corner: Chet has bounced back in a major way from the injury that cost him the season after he was drafted, elevating the Thunder toward contender status with his blazingly efficient scoring and all-over defense. He’s not just putting up decent numbers on a good team, he’s a big reason his team has made the leap to being as good as they are.

Per game statistics:

17.1 points
7.3 rebounds
2.8 assists
2.6 blocks
0.6 steals
1.7 turnovers
30.2 minutes
54.1% FG (11.9 attempts)
38.5% 3PT (4.1 attempts)
77.9% FT (3.4 attempts)

Holmgren certainly benefits from the talent around him, and the extra year with an NBA weight room and training staff also helps, but that shouldn’t count against him. Is Tim Duncan’s ROTY illegitimate because he joined a team with David Robinson? Is David Robinson’s ROTY illegitimate because he did two years of military service before he joined the NBA at the ripe old age of 24? No, that’s just how it goes. Their rookie campaigns are still obviously impressive and worthy, and Chet’s is too.

Consider that only a handful of ROTY winners have shot better from the floor OR from three than Holmgren is shooting right now. The only players in the NBA this season exceeding Holmgren’s 17 points on 54% FG and 38% 3PT are his stud teammate Jalen Williams and Domantas Sabonis. On the other end he’s the anchor of a top-10 defense and near the top of the league in stocks.

Holmgren is a machine that turns simple actions into points, a lanky lob threat and laser-guided long-range launcher. He seems to be the perfect Robin for an MVP-level Batman in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a missing piece in a talent-filled puzzle that looks more like a contender with each passing day.

Wembanyama, on the other hand, became the cornerstone of the franchise as soon as the Spurs won the draft lottery. He usually has to be Superman for his team to have a chance, and on any given night it’s not clear who his trustiest sidekick will be. That means he takes more shots and worse shots, and mostly in losing efforts. Plenty of guys in similar situations have earned Rookie of the Year, and voters tend to understand the context of a talented teenager joining a team that lost enough games to draft them. 29% from three isn’t great, but it’s the same as LeBron and KD and Paolo Banchero as a rookie and Wembanyama is improving.

Wemby would be the first rookie since Blake Griffin to average 20 and 10, and Griffin was also the last rookie to go to the All-Star Game. Only six rookies have averaged 3 blocks per game since the NBA started counting them, and David Robinson is the only one who also averaged more than a steal.

Wembanyama has shot 15 or more field goals in 24 of his games, while Holmgren has done it just eight times. Wemby bears the eighth-highest usage rate in the league at 30.7%, below SGA and Anthony Edwards but above De’Aaron Fox and Trae Young. Holmgren checks in at 21%, closer to the Andrew Wiggins and Andre Drummonds of the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just speaks to the notable difference in role and workload.

Neither of these players needs any bulletin board material, but that doesn’t stop them from seeking it. A worthy foe can help a competitor lock in just that little bit more. When Wemby was asked several weeks ago if the All Star voting and Rookie of the Month loss to Holmgren served as extra motivation he said, “Every game is a statement now.”

They don’t seem to have personal beef, or a personal relationship of any kind. Their conflict is pure and simple, a classic old west ‘this town ain’t big enough fer the two of us’ type of thing with some ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ sprinkled in there. It’s a classic recipe, and a tasty one. These are giant monsters who want to meet in the center of the city and trade punches until only one of them is left standing.

As their duel continued late into a blowout win for the Thunder, the differing styles and approaches and situations for these two took center stage. Chet drilled a pick-and-pop three over Wemby’s outstretched arms, then on the next possession Wembanyama put his head down and drove through Holmgren for a poster dunk.

The next time on that end Chet battled and poked away the entry pass to Wembanyama before driving coast to coast for a layup. Holmgren got a switch on a smaller defender and sliced in for a thunderous jam, then Wemby took it right back at him and followed his own miss for a score. Wemby posted him up and swished a fadeaway jumper, then put his shoulder in his chest and tried to throw him through the rim, but the ball rattled out.

It felt like Chet was hunting mismatches, and Wemby was hunting Chet. Sharing that observation drew a variety of strong reactions on the relative goodness and badness of those things from interested parties in San Antonio and Oklahoma and beyond.

It’s a basketball Rorschach test. Holmgren’s supporters cited this as evidence that he plays smarter and more efficiently and that’s why his team wins more, and Wemby’s fans were thrilled with the ruthless display of aggression from the guy who is bigger and more dominant playing like he knows it, even though a win for the team never really seemed in reach.

Chet’s savvy doesn’t make Wemby foolish or selfish, and Wemby’s tenacity doesn’t make Chet a coward. Both are cool and good, actually.

The Spurs didn’t lose by 26 because of Wemby, they lost by 26 because this is mostly the same roster that went 22-60 a season ago. Notably, his point guard Tre Jones was out. The Thunder didn’t win by 26 because of Chet, they won by 26 because this is mostly the same roster that went 40-42 a season ago. Notably, his point guard SGA had 32 points and 10 assists. One group is further along in their rebuild than the other and has a lot more experience and talent up and down the roster.

The individual stat lines and result of the game serve as a pretty clean microcosm of the whole season: Wemby put up bigger numbers as his team’s best hope, and Chet played his smaller but still vitally important role quite well as his team won by a lot.

Wemby: 24 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, 1 steal, 3 turnovers, 9-18 FG, 0-3 3PT, 6-8 FT

Chet: 17 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal, 3 turnovers, 7-13 FG, 2-4 3PT, 1-3 FT

So is Chet or Wemby the Rookie of the Year? There’s plenty of season left but it seems like most San Antonians have their minds made up, as do most Oklahomans. The hoops fans and media members without a unicorn or alien in the race will pick their favorite based on their own personal thoughts on these guys and this award.

Some will argue they should split it, and that might sound ridiculous, but it’s actually happened twice before. More ridiculous would be pretending either of these guys isn’t already spectacular, and failing to fully appreciate the earliest chapters of this special matchup.

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