If there’s anything the most recent NBA champions taught us, it’s that the center can still be the focal point of an offense. Sixty-six-million years ago, Michael Jordan’s arrival was a terraforming meteor that ended the age of the pivots and began the reign of guards. Prior to His Airness, NBA champs were headlined or co-starred with Naismith Hall of Famers Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Willis Reed, Wilt Chamberlain, or Bill Russell.
We’ve entered the Bigs 2.0 age in the NBA. The small ball age led to the Embiid and Jokic saga. Even small-ball folk heroes like Golden State tried unsuccessfully to get ahead of the curve by squeezing James Wiseman into their death lineup. 2023’s Joel Embiid-Nikola Jokic MVP trilogy might seem like the peak, but Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren look like the next generation. This isn’t Marc Gasol re-training himself to be a stretch-5 offensively. These days, bigs look natural dominating from all over the floor.
Technically, both are rookies this season because Holmgren missed the entire 2021-22 season rehabbing a Lisfranc injury, but the Rookie of the Year race is poised to be a big-man showcase. Prepare yourself for the onslaught of annoyingly reductive finger-pointing at voters, the fugazi sports talk table slapping and a rush of bad takes on their long-term projections.
On the plus side, both are emblematic of the evolution of offenses. Offensively, Wembanyama and Holmgren operate on the wing, bring the ball up against pressure, and perform surgery from the mid-post. At one point in their meeting Sunday, Wembanyama and Holmgren were trading treys. Even Giannis and Embiid can’t do that.
Wembanyama’s birthright is to rule the NBA. And on Sunday night, we got a glimpse of a Wembanyama, who is stronger after gaining approximately 10-15 pounds this offseason and rested after skipping the FIBA World Cup. In 19 minutes of action, he affirmed his status as a gravity-altering center, scoring 20 points and blocking a single shot. In 16 minutes, Holmgren’s offering of 21 points, nine rebounds a block was a teaser for what he has to offer.
That term used to be one reserved for floor spacers of great repute like Steph Curry or Damian Lillard, but Wembanyama dramatically shrinks the floor. The brief split seconds that NBA players have to get their jump shots off become nanoseconds when Wembanyama is ball side.
Wembanyama is a product of two eras. The 3-point shooting big man and positionless basketball’s algorithm produced an evolutionary solution we didn’t realize was possible. Wembanyama can switch onto anyone and still contest or worse, swat the air pressure out of the game ball. Defensive floor shrinking is an art. But Wembanyama’s size, agility, instincts, and reach are next-level stuff.
Peep Big Vic getting crossed, recovering after a Jalen Williams crossover, and not just affecting Williams’ left-handed lay-in from his right side without drawing the foul, but rejecting his deposit. At times, he go-go gadgets those arms to reach down into the lower atmosphere to pluck possession from slashers or probing ballcarriers. Peep how far away Cason Wallace was from Wembanyama when he got his Klepto fingerprints on the rock on this penetration dribble in the first quarter.
Holmgren is a bit more static offensively than Wembanyama’s freakishly pinpoint ball handling and aerodynamic finishing ability. However, Holmgren’s hand-eye coordination and reaction time on shot-blocking attempts and lateral agility make him an apex predator on switches as well.
At the offensive end, Wembanyama and Holmgren are deflating presences. Defensively, they cover so much ground that they’re penumbras casting their shadow to just beyond the arc as well. Picking a Rookie out of the Year from this air will be tough, as long as they’re eligible under the NBA’s new rules. Even if they don’t play the prerequisite 65 games this season, the projected No. 1 pick in 2024 is French big Alex Sarr. What’s old is new again. The NBA terrain is the big man’s domain once again.
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