SAN ANTONIO – Victor Wembanyama smiled late after rocking the rim with a two-handed jam on Chet Holmgren.
The Thunder center responded with a shove of his counterpart on the ensuing possession for an offensive foul. That’s about as chippy as the battle would get in an NBA Rivals Week matchup between the frontrunners for Kia Rookie of the Year.
Oklahoma City rolled past San Antonio 140-114 on Wednesday, marking the fourth time this season the Spurs surrendered 140 points or more in a game.
Here are five takeaways from the matchup.
1. Two more Holmgren-Wembanyama matchups remain
If those two clashes resemble these first two, there’s a good chance we’ll be eyeing the closest vote for NBA Rookie of the Year since 2022, when Scottie Barnes edged out second-place finisher Evan Mobley by 15 points.
Our Kia Rookie Ladder tracks similarly, as Wembanyama has held the top spot on six occasions while Holmgren led the Ladder five times.
Wembanyama outscored his budding rival Wednesday with 24 points on 9-for-18 shooting, pulling down 12 rebounds to go with four blocks and a steal. The performance marked the No. 1 overall pick’s 19th double-double.
Holmgren finished with 17 points on 7-for-13 from the field with nine rebounds, three blocks and a steal. It was the 20th game in which 21-year-old notched three blocks or more.
In the first matchup on Nov. 14, the rookies combined for a total of 17 points.
They both subbed out of this one for good with 6:47 left and OKC leading by 28.
2. Spurs can learn from OKC’s rebuild
Thunder general manager Sam Presti worked and learned in the San Antonio organization from 2000 to 2007. Right now, it’s the Spurs keeping a close eye on OKC, as it pushes through a rebuild it wants to sustain long term.
“When we started off, we knew what we were embarking on,” Thunder Mark Daigneault said. “We were trying to build an infrastructure and a foundation to last independent of the outcome of the games. That was important at that time because we weren’t winning a lot of games.”
San Antonio can relate.
Gregg Popovich and CEO R.C. Buford built a dynasty that won five titles and advanced to the postseason 22 straight seasons before hard times hit.
Presti started Oklahoma City’s rebuild in 2019 with Daigneault serving as an assistant for Billy Donovan. Daigneault took over as head coach in 2020, and the club currently sits in a first-place tie atop the West.
“Now, obviously we are winning more, and those things [from early on] ring true,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in a situation where the emphasis was changing in a reactive way. We just wanted a program that had principles that could transcend individual outcomes.”
3. Wemby wasn’t thinking about the Holmgren matchup
At least that’s the sentiment Wembayama tried to relay.
“My first goal is always to win,” he said. “And in a game like this, I don’t think about that, especially in a loss.”
That’s quite the change from Jan. 4, when the Spurs big man said in the aftermath of a big night against Giannis Antetokounmpo that “I know at the end of the day I’m going to get what I deserve, and every game is a statement from now on.”
This one should’ve been, too, right?
Wembanyama uttered those words, coincidentally, on the same night Holmgren won his second straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month. In fact, the comments came in response to a question about the OKC center winning the award two times in a row.
For his part, Holmgren also downplayed what’s clearly a developing rivalry.
“I can’t let that matchup try to take away from what the job was tonight, and that was trying to win a basketball game,” he said.
4. Spurs gradually lifting restrictions on Wemby
San Antonio’s approach to protecting the health of its No. 1 overall pick might frustrate the local fanbase. But erring on the side of caution is paying off.
Adhering to the medical staff’s recommendations, Popovich planned to push Wembanyama’s workload to 30 minutes (the blowout derailed that) after a month limiting his time on the floor while holding him out of back-to-backs. That approach frustrated the 20-year-old, but he understood.
Wembanyama played 27 minutes to start the club’s most recent five-game road trip and ended it toiling 28 minutes Monday in Philadelphia. That set up what was supposed to be an increased workload against Holmgren.
Popovich isn’t certain but mentioned “there is a possibility [Wembanyama] will be able to play the back-to-back this weekend,” starting Friday against Portland, followed by a Saturday clash with Minnesota.
Wembanyama had already tweaked his right ankle twice earlier in the season, before stepping on the foot of a Dallas ball boy just before Christmas. That triggered increased caution with the prized rookie.
The team’s rationale was repeated aggravation of the injury could make Wembanyama vulnerable to something more serious. So, the rookie played limited minutes for the next 13 games.
5. Missed time won’t affect Wembanyana’s prospects
No need to worry about how missed games might affect Wembanyama’s eligibility to win Kia Rookie of the Year. They won’t.
Yes, the league introduced a player participation policy ahead of the season. That legislation doesn’t apply to Rookie of the Year. At least for now, since they haven’t been named to an All-NBA team or All-Star Team yet.
In a Rookie of the Year race expected to come down to Wembanyama and Holmgren, it’s worth noting it’s a reach to ponder how the former’s monthlong minutes restriction might affect the outcome. In fact, you could probably argue that limited minutes have played a role in increasing Wembanyama’s efficiency.
Averaging 25 minutes in his previous 12 games going into Wednesday, the Spurs rookie averaged 24.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks, while shooting 52.5% from the floor, 33.9% from deep and 85.7% from the free-throw line.
Wembanyama averaged 30.5 minutes in 24 outings before the restriction, and averaged 19.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks, shooting 43.6% from the field and 28.1% from 3-point range.
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