Two rookie unicorns represent the latest stage of a stylistic evolution

With the 2023-24 campaign approaching, we’re diving deep into some of the players we’re most interested in watching. Next up: a pair of unique rookie big men with transformative potential.

Previous entries: Austin Reaves.

This annual “most interesting players” exercise has never included rookies before, but unusual times call for unusual measures. It’s been a long time since a player has come into the league carrying as much hype as Spurs prodigy Victor Wembanyama. Few players, if any, will be watched with more intrigue and scrutiny this season than the fluid, uber-skilled, 7-foot-5 Frenchman with a standing reach that equals the height of an NBA basket.

There’s no real precedent for what the 19-year-old might be. Is he an elongated Kevin Durant? A nimbler Hakeem Olajuwon? A taller Rudy Gobert with guard skills? Wembanyama’s promise is so tantalizing that his arrival helped prompt 74-year-old coach Gregg Popovich, who was once expected to retire alongside Tim Duncan, to ink a five-year extension with San Antonio seven years after Duncan called it quits. The big man’s star power is so instantly magnetic that he was being accosted in public by other celebrities before ever stepping foot on an NBA court.

Wembanyama is such an outlier that he both literally and figuratively dwarfs fellow rookie Chet Holmgren, another evolutionary phenomenon who stands 7-foot-1 (with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) and possesses a suite of ball skills. Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in 2022, is belatedly beginning his career in Oklahoma City after sitting out last season due to a foot injury. But neither that delay nor the concurrent arrival of an even more unique big man should quell the excitement for a player who could be a transformative talent in his own right. Holmgren isn’t on Wembanyama’s level as a prospect, but he too offers a highly anomalous combination of size and two-way versatility.

The two of them are worthy of attention this season not just because of their ability, but also because they reflect the direction the NBA is moving. While the latter 2010s were defined in part by the league’s fixation with small ball, the early 2020s have seen that trend boomerang. Smallness itself was never really the goal, anyway; the idea was simply to put as much skill on the floor as possible. It just so happened that the game increasingly placed a premium on skills – speed, ball-handling, shooting, passing – that were the domain of smaller players. The natural next step was for bigger players to collectively close the skill gap.

The notion that centers were going the way of the dinosaur was overstated to begin with, but it’s fully dead and buried now. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have won the last three regular-season MVPs, and in the two years before that, the award was won by another nominal “big man” in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic just put together a legendary playoff run that culminated in a Nuggets championship and Finals MVP honors, two years after Antetokounmpo did the same for the Bucks.

Garrett Ellwood / NBA / Getty Images

Heck, the term “unicorn” was introduced into the NBA lexicon (and continues to be used) specifically to describe gigantic players with guard skills. Now even the most offensively limited centers are able to make instantaneous reads and connective passes on the move. Big men haven’t adapted to the modern game so much as they’ve redefined it.

Wembanyama, and Holmgren to a lesser extent, look like something close to the final form of that stylistic evolution. They’re enormous, portable rim-protectors who can close space in a blink and affect shots even from compromised positions. At the other end, they can face up, shoot off of movement, roll, pop, drive on closeouts, score out of the post or in isolation, run the break, and create for others.

While people will be intently watching to see what Wembanyama can do, plenty also will be looking to suss out what he can’t do. Even for such an advanced prospect, there will assuredly be rookie moments that hammer home the challenge of adjusting to NBA game speed, especially for a young big man. In between eye-popping flashes that will feel like portents of the league’s future, he’ll blow his share of defensive rotations, get cooked by guards on switches, get his pocket picked, and get dislodged by stronger players. Skeptics will seize on those moments and present them as evidence that the hype was overblown.

Even for true believers, there may be an impulse to find holes to poke in the rookie’s case as a potentially game-changing all-time great. What might trip him up? Where will he need to improve in order to fulfill his immense promise? How badly will he need to bulk up? Can he do so in a way that strikes an ideal balance between strength and agility? How viable is his 3-point stroke? What’s his ideal offensive role even going to look like? When you’re as big as Wembanyama, you’re invariably viewed under an even bigger microscope.

Winning the Wemby lottery obviously radically changed the Spurs’ long-term outlook, but it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he can transform them. The proud franchise that made the playoffs 22 seasons in a row between 1997 and 2019 has since spent four straight years in the lottery.

San Antonio has assembled an intriguing collection of young talent with Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham, and Tre Jones, but that group just narrowly avoided finishing dead last in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2022-23. For the team to reclaim respectability, Wembanyama will have to be an immediate stabilizing force at both ends while the other young guys take steps forward. That feels plausible, if not exceedingly likely.

Holmgren won’t face nearly the same level of scrutiny since he was never gassed up to the same extent. But in a way, there’ll be just as much pressure on him to perform at a high level from the jump because he’s rejoining an ascendent team that looks primed to take a massive leap.

The Thunder caught the rest of the league flat-footed last season with their tenacity at both ends of the floor, which manifested in an all-drives-all-the-time offense and a hyperactive-but-connected defense. The one thing they were sorely lacking was a legitimate big man in the middle, someone who could provide a legitimate roll threat at one end and impose rim deterrence at the other. Holmgren looks like that potential missing piece.

Chris Gardner / Getty Images

Without him last season, their offense had to rely on guard-guard screening actions, and their defense had to send waves of help at the nail and on the back line. Holmgren can help simplify things at both ends without compromising the team’s identity or stepping on the toes of burgeoning young creators like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Josh Giddey. He’ll make their lives easier, especially if the long-range shooting prowess he flashed in his lone season at Gonzaga translates to the NBA. If he hits the ground running, the Thunder could realistically win 50-plus games next season.

Even more so than Wembanyama, Holmgren will face questions about how much bulk he can or should add to his extremely slender frame (he weighs only 195 pounds, lighter than most point guards). The fact that he’s yet to play an official NBA game and has already dealt with a season-ending lower-body injury already has everyone’s antennae up. Even healthy, he isn’t yet built to defend NBA centers. He may never be. Settling in as a power forward wouldn’t be damning, but it’d put a lot more pressure on his offensive skill development.

While Holmgren and Wembanyama generate buzz with their loud tools, their big-picture outlook will be just as contingent on their ability to make quieter, more nuanced refinements to their games. This includes their footwork in the post, pacing on the roll, ability to screen effectively, ability to hit cutters from the high post, ability to map the floor and call out defensive coverages, and grasp of positioning and timing in drop. Some of those feel-based components will be evident right away. Many will not.

In any case, everything they exhibit on court as rookies will feel simultaneously meaningless and momentous. Meaningless because their careers have only just begun; momentous because every moment will be amplified by the power of extrapolation. Part of the excitement in watching them will be all the things that are left to the imagination.

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