Why Victor Wembanyama will win NBA Rookie of the Year honors over Chet Holmgren?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 29: Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs blocks Chet Holmgren #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 29, 2024 at the Frost Bank Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photos by Darren Carroll/NBAE via Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO — With the NBA season down to its final 20-plus games, Thursday night’s meeting at Frost Bank Center between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder looked as if it would have a greater impact on this season’s NBA Rookie of the Year race than anything related to the upper reaches of the Western Conference standings.

Who would win the third individual head-to-head between star rookies Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio’s 7-foot-4 French center, and Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City’s 7-1 post man drafted in 2022 but still a rookie because of an injury that cost him the entire 2022-23 season?

Wasn’t the game itself destined to be another easy win for the Thunder, just like their 36-point blowout of the Spurs on Nov. 14 in Oklahoma City and the 26-point crushing of them in San Antonio on Jan. 24?

What transpired before another sellout crowd was the end of the rookie race with a bit of impact on the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western playoffs.

Wembanyama led the Spurs to a spirit-lifting 132-118 victory over the first-place Thunder while also presenting clear evidence to any remaining on-the-fence ROY voters that he deserves every first-place vote.

Wembanyama’s final production — 28 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, five blocks and two steals — wasn’t the proof as much as the totality of his game, especially at both ends in the fourth quarter. That period began with the Spurs clinging to a 98-96 lead and ended with a convincing, 14-point victory.

Playing the entire final stanza, Wemby owned it almost as thoroughly as 39-year-old Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James had the previous night when he poured in 19 fourth-quarter points to bring the Lakers back from 21 down for a win over the LA Clippers.

Two unicorns, born 20 years apart.

With an 11-48 record entering Thursday’s game, the Spurs had experienced more than a few seemingly winnable games that went wanting in the pressure of the fourth period. Such was the case last week in five-point losses to both the Sacramento Kings and Lakers as they continued a nine-game rodeo road trip that ended in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

How was Wembanyama able to write a happy ending against OKC in his team’s first game in its home arena since Feb. 3? By channeling his inner Kobe Bryant, the late Lakers Hall of Famer who was one of the all-time crunchtime greats and an early muse for a pre-teen Parisian basketball phenom now known as Wemby.

“It’s a lot of mental,” Wembanyama said “You know, Kobe said to win a game, it mostly takes shots, big shots, because they don’t call, like, any fouls. It’s not as much the physical battle. Even though in defense it’s 90 percent effort, but offensively it’s a lot of mental.”

While Wembanyama made only two shots in the fourth, both of them 3-pointers, the Spurs ran their offense through him for the bulk of the period. He also had three of his seven assists in the fourth and two of his five blocks.

“He is not afraid to put himself out there,” Hall of Fame Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He will take shots and he is not afraid. He is not worried if he misses it or what the consequences are or anything like that. He likes those moments.”

That, too, is very Kobe.

Before the game was over, Wembanyama had made a little more NBA history: He is the first player ever with over 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and five 3-pointers in a game.

Afterward, he did an impromptu on-court interview for the sellout crowd of 17,207, letting Spurs fans how he felt about being in front of them for the first time in nearly a month.

“I really missed this s—,” he told them before calling for a quick “Go Spurs Go” chant.

A few of his teammates were still within earshot when Wemby had the “pardon my French” moment.

“I think just let him be him,” guard Tre Jones said, laughing at his 20-year-old teammate’s scatological faux pas. “We don’t want to change that. Look where it’s gotten him to this point.”

As for the ROY race, Jones and the rest of Wembanyama’s teammates seem surprised anyone would believe it remains a race at all, no matter what Wemby himself asserts.

“I feel like it’s been over,” guard Devin Vassell, who scored 28 points, “but night in, night out, the stuff that he does, the impact that he has on both ends of the floor … big shot after big block, after whatever the case may be. I mean, he doesn’t even look like a rookie.

“I mean the shots that he shoots, the confidence that he has in his game is second to none, truthfully.”

Wembanyama, though, reminded everyone that more than 20 games remain for both teams. That, he insists, means it’s too soon to call it over.

For his part, Holmgren also had his moments Thursday, mostly in the first quarter, when he outscored Wembanyama 11-2. By halftime, he had 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting and seemed intent on making his case for ROY votes.

But the second half belonged to Wemby, who makes no excuses for wanting an honor that now seems certain to be his as long as he plays at least 12 more games to reach the NBA’s 65-game minimum for awards eligibility.

“It’s very important for me because I’m convinced that the best way for me to help my team is by being also individually performing on a whole season,” he said. “So, yes, individual awards like Rookie of the Year, are very important for me.”

It was clear Thursday that both rookie 7-footers were pumped for another chance to compete against one another. As long as both players remain healthy, NBA fans will be watching this rivalry for a very long time. Someday, longtime Spurs fans may be asking themselves how their rivalry compares to that of Hall of Famers David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.

All four of those great 7-footers have championship rings and this latest pair of 7-foot superstars, the so-called thin towers, seem destined for the same.

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