Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Victor Wembanyama loses to OKC, but stays at No. 1

In the 2nd Victor Wembanyama vs. Chet Holmgren showdown, the Spurs rookie proved why he is tops in this class so far.

Victor Wembanyama came through with a solid individual performance in the Spurs’ loss to Chet Holmgren and the Thunder.

Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault tried to downplay the individual attention focused on his team’s game at San Antonio Wednesday night. “It’s a team sport, not tennis,” he said.

Nice try, but this is Rivals Week and NBA rivalries historically have been as much about player vs. player as team vs. team. A lot of times, the individuals provide the door into such clashes — think Magic Johnson and Larry Bird embodying the storied Lakers-Celtics battles.

With fascinating 7-footers Victor Wembanyama of the Spurs going against OKC’s Chet Holmgren Wednesday for the second time this season, the 1-on-1 competition was compelling. San Antonio is properly using Wemby at center now, so it was a more direct matchup than in their Nov. 14 meeting. Things even got a little chippy between them, especially late.

But with the Thunder already on their way and the Spurs presumably upgrading soon around their tent-pole newcomer, a rivalry of rising West powers could evolve.

Weekly recap

• Anticipated highly enough that this week’s Ladder waited for the results, the head-to-head didn’t disappoint. Last time, the rookies spun their wheels a bit. This time, they were front and center. Wembanyama put up 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, hitting half of his 18 shots. Holmgren finished with 17, nine and three, with a pair of 3-pointers. Their stats gaps were about what they have been this season, just enough to keep the 7-foot-4 Frenchman on the top rung.

• The first time the two met, Holmgren’s team won 123-87. This time, it was 140-114. At 31-13, OKC is 10 victories better than it was after 44 games last season. San Antonio, 8-36, is five games worse after 44. The elite rookies in NBA history typically have boosted their teams’ records, often by a lot. That’s just a fact. If nothing else, it shows that the Spurs got very bad to land Wembanyama and they’re still bad with him.

• Holmgren is the rookie leader in plus/minus (+242) and it’s not even close. The Warriors’ Brandin Podziemski is a distant second (+87). Wembanyama is fifth-worst at -169 in his 1,082 minutes on the floor. That means a net 411 edge for Holmgren. At least that’s not as dramatic as the 695-point gap between the NBA’s leader, Tyrese Maxey (+371) and dead-last Kyle Kuzma (-324).

Storyline to Watch

A bonus showdown? What we watched Wednesday whet our appetites for more, which the NBA schedule seemingly will provide on Feb. 29 again in San Antonio and April 10 in Oklahoma City. Nice touch, by the way, to have two unicorns meet in a Leap Year game. But if that’s not enough Wemby vs. Chet for you, keep an eye on the NBA Rising Stars tournament at All-Star 2024 on Feb. 16. It’s a funky format and there’s no guarantee either will participate, but last year the top two finishers in Rookie of the Year balloting, Orlando’s Paolo Banchero and OKC’s Jalen Williams, did play in the Team Pau vs. Team Joakim finale.

Latest rankings

(All stats through Wednesday, Jan.24)

Keep track of how our rookie rankings continue to evolve throughout the season.

1. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 20.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1

The Spurs youngster blocked four shots against OKC Wednesday, giving him 18 games with at least that many. That’s fourth-most by a player before turning 21. Shaquille O’Neal did it 30 times, Anthony Davis 21 and Josh Smith 20. Meanwhile, Wemby doesn’t turn 21 for another 345 days. The kid also got to see big-man greatness — Joel Embiid’s 70-point performance — up close as the opposing center at Philadelphia on Monday. He scored 33 himself.

2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 17.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 2 (2022)

In addition to the win Wednesday and a 4-0 week, Holmgren enjoyed a couple of honors. His Thunder teammates joined him at Minnehaha Academy over the weekend when the prep school retired his jersey (the team was in Minneapolis to face the Timberwolves). Then Holmgren was named as one of the 41 NBA players in the pool for 2024 USA Basketball. A cutdown to 12 for the Paris Olympics will come later. Holmgren played for the FIBA U-19 squad that took gold in the 2021 World Cup. And his college coach from Gonzaga, Mark Few, is one of Steve Kerr’s assistants on Team USA.

3. Brandon Miller, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

Boosted his scoring average by more than a point by averaging 24.3 on 57.4% shooting the past four games, including 14 of 31 3s. With Terry Rozier off to Miami, more offensive load may fall to the Alabama rookie.

4. Jaime Jaquez Jr., Miami Heat

Season stats: 14 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 18

Has missed five in a row with a groin strain, with the Heat going 1-4. His value to that rotation is clear, courtesy of Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press: Miami is 20-9 when Jaquez scores 10 points or more vs. 4-11 when he does not (including DNPs).

5. Dereck Lively II, Dallas Mavericks

Season stats: 8.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 12

The Mavs big got a graduate seminar last week against Lakers star Anthony Davis (28 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists). Mercifully coach Jason Kidd switched Maxi Kleber onto Davis in the second half. “With the ball [he] makes you just try to press up on him and make him get out of his game,” Lively said. “But it’s hard.”

The Next 5:

6. Brandin Podziemski, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.2 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 19

Solid off the bench (10 points, +19) vs. Hawks after Warriors’ sad layoff.

7. Jordan Hawkins, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.4 apg
Last Ladder: No. 8
Draft pick: No. 14

Tops all rookies with 87 3FG, takes 60% of shots from the arc and makes 39.4% of them.

8. Keyonte George, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 16

Dragged down by and contributed to 3-game skid (19% FG, 6.0 ppg).

9. Scoot Henderson, Portland Trail Blazers

Season stats: 12.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.7 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 3

Better results for Blazers (3-2 week), same inconsistency from young guard.

10. Ausar Thompson, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder: 10
Draft pick: No. 5

Detroit’s better FG% lately has opened up space for Thompson’s game.

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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 X.

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