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Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson among 5 most anticipated rookie duels

Circle the dates for Victor Wembanyama vs. Brandon Miller and a showdown between Amen Thompson and Ausar Thompson.

Several key rookie debuts are set, teeing up the competition for Kia Rookie of the Year.

Everyone looks forward to those nights when the league’s heavyweights — Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry — go toe-to-toe in the regular season. The same sort of anticipation can accompany the first meetings of the league’s newest, youngest talents.

Individual matchups that might define the NBA over the coming decade will be on display for the first time with these rookies. How they fare head-to-head will affect their rungs week-to-week in the Kia Rookie Ladder and eventually their cases for Kia Rookie of the Year consideration.

Here are five eagerly awaited games pitting top newbies:

Victor Wembanyama (37 points) and Scoot Henderson (28 points) didn't disappoint in a 2022 matchup in Las Vegas.

1. Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson
Spurs at Trail Blazers | Dec. 28 (10 ET, NBA League Pass)

For the most tantalizing context in which to view the initial, this-time-it-counts NBA showdown, you need to go back to October 2022. That’s when Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92 team lined up against Henderson’s G League Ignite squad in Henderson, Nev. The two 18-year-olds put on a show for the ESPN audience and more than 120 NBA scouts said to be in attendance.

Henderson scored 28 points in 28 minutes, with five rebounds, nine assists and two steals in securing the victory. Wembanyama played 37 minutes and, sure enough, scored 37 points. He added four rebounds, a steal and five blocks. At the time, there were some arguing that Henderson might eclipse his counterpart as the season unspooled. But Wemby said, “If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.” And he wasn’t wrong.

Victor Wembanyama finished with 9 points in a Summer League game vs. Charlotte and fellow rookie Brandon Miller.

2. Victor Wembanyama vs. Brandon Miller
• Hornets at Spurs | Jan. 12 (10 ET, ESPN)

It doesn’t get much simpler than the No. 1 pick in the Draft against the No. 2 pick. Sure, Miller was a distant second in Draft order — nobody was leapfrogging the 7-foot-3 Frenchman — but he impressed the Hornets enough to move him ahead of Henderson, who went No. 3 to Portland.

Miller’s shooting was cockeyed in Summer League but his coach there, Charlotte assistant Marlon Garnett, felt the instant expectations led to undue criticism. Even Wembanyama got torched after a shaky debut game — the Spurs and Hornets were the marquee game on Summer League’s opening night — before he silenced critics with his second and final summer performance.

Get to know the Thompson twins and their unique NBA journey.

3. Amen Thompson vs. Ausar Thompson
• Rockets at Pistons | Jan. 12 (7:30 ET, ESPN)

Better grab a scorecard. Some confusion might set in when the twin brothers battle with their respective teams. These guys have been nearly joined at the hip all their lives, from birth in San Leandro, Calif., through Pine Crest High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on to the Overtime Elite semiprofessional league in Atlanta last season.

The price they paid for being the first brothers drafted in the Draft’s top five — Amen at No. 4 to the Rockets, Ausar immediately after him to the Pistons — is that they’ll be separated by serious miles for the first time. “The longest we’ve ever been apart is two days,” Ausar said before the Draft. Each 6-foot-7, Amen is more of a point guard, while Ausar is a traditional wing who was named MVP of their league last season. Fans might enjoy comparing when they get on the same floor, but for the two bonded brothers it’s always been about sharing.

Former teammates in France, Victor Wembanyama and Bilal Coulibaly will square off as opponents on Jan. 20, 2024.

4. Victor Wembanyama vs. Bilal Coulibaly
Spurs at Wizards | Jan. 20 (7 ET, NBA League Pass)

The third natural opponent for Wembanyama among Class of 2023 rookies is Coulibaly. The 6-foot-6 wing with the 7-foot-2 wingspan went six picks after his fellow Frenchman and Metropolitans 92 teammate.

Coulibaly didn’t generate nearly the buzz his buddy did but he had some strong showings in Las Vegas: 19 points with four rebounds, three assists and four blocks against OKC’s entry, and 10 points, six boards, four assists, three blocks and two steals against the Spurs. Shooting is missing from his skill set for now, but the Wizards were thrilled with his summer work and willingness to guard every position. Though probably not Wembanyama.

Hornets forward Brandon Miller will be a part of several key rookie showdowns in the 2023-24 season.

5. Brandon Miller vs. Scoot Henderson
Hornets at Trail Blazers | Feb. 25 (9 ET, NBA League Pass)

This is a natural grudge match, just one spot down from any delusions about being the first player picked. Both Blazers’ fans and Hornets’ fans heard enough about the pair to be intrigued and ready for a rush to judgment. Had Henderson gone No. 2, he would have possibly overlapped with LaMelo Ball’s role as Charlotte’s backcourt star and offense initiator.

By going to Portland, Henderson essentially triggered the Damian Lillard trade drama that dominated a lot of summer headlines. In a Vegas game that Henderson missed after a shoulder injury ended his summer play, Miller scored 26 points against Portland, a big improvement on his previous inconsistent foul-a-palooza performance.

Bonus matchup: Wembanyama vs. Chet Holmgren

Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 Draft, missed the entire 2022-23 season because of a Lisfranc fracture to his right foot. That meant no rookie season, but he got to rehab with OKC and is gearing up for what will be his rookie season come this fall.

This showdown against Wembanyama takes place with the added spice of it being an In-Season Tournament game. These two rookies hail from two different Draft classes, but both will be closing in on about a month’s worth of NBA on-the-court work when this one tips off. Should be plenty intriguing, too, as this could be a head-to-head matchup that matters should both end up as top candidates in the Kia Rookie of the Year chase.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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