Victor Wembanyama has dominated so much of the rookie phenom discourse that Chet Holmgren’s gotten lost in the trees. Holmgren is finally emerging from the forest though. Scoring a commanding 36 points and hitting the game-tying three in an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors will open some eyes. Holmgren’s brilliance can 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 instance, against the Warriors, Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander resembled the tandem of the future.
The SGA-Chet Holmgren 1-2 punch has flashed its knockout power early. A year ago, Gilgeous-Alexander’s name was being tossed around in trade conversations amid queries over how much tanking he could tolerate.
Oklahoma City was one of the frontrunners to land Wembanyama. SGA’s breakout, Jalen Williams’ emergence as a do-everything wing, accelerated their ascension. Now Sam Presti lords over basketball’s best up-and-coming collection of neophytes. It’s beginning to look a lot like the Durant, Harden and Westbrook years again. On Sunday, SGA and the Thunder lineup showed how much can change in a year. Basketball evolves at breakneck speeds. Golden State’s advantages have been rendered obsolete.
When I wrote about the NBA’s defensive counter-revolution last month, Holmgren was who 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 played 84 percent of his minutes this season as the four in Oklahoma City’s lineup without giving up too much size because of his pterodactyl arms and is on the fringe 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, ranks inside the top-10 in defensive rating, offensive rating, and efficiency field goal percentage. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are keying up the return of the big man, but this week Holmgren flashed a more primetime ready game than Wembanyama, who is still finding his sea legs half the time.
The long and rangy players Presti has assembled in Oklahoma City are beginning 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 frail, but 7-foot wing’s frame. On switches, the 6-foot point god Chris Paul had to hold his own against Holmgren’s skeletal figure and an onslaught of long Thunder wings.
Bothersome length isn’t a new development. But a team of long, efficient floor spacers who can also be classified as legitimate playmakers and two-way disruptors makes Oklahoma City special. Those Thunder short-shamed the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry is still playing up to the billing as His Majest-3 behind the arc, but a 6-foot-3 combo guard alongside CP3. Klay Thompson is 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, but Curry is the rare example of an undersized player with nearly 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 roaming instincts were buoyed by a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a burly 6-foot-6 forward’s body. Holmgren looks like Draymond Green’s elongated skeleton, but he intimidates with a different level of verticality and agility that makes him a menace 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 into overtime, his length allowed him to pull-up over Andrew Wiggins’ contest.
In overtime, SGA scored 10 and used that length to reject a trademark Curry triple and secured their second win over the Warriors in three days. Golden State is getting phased out by basketball Darwinism and Oklahoma City is holding the crystal ball forecasting the future. It’s coming faster than we imagined.