Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren, two 7-footers who could take the big man position—and the game of basketball—to entirely new heights, began their NBA careers on the same day, in the same place.
On October 9, 2023, the eyes of the basketball world were fixed on the Paycom Center, adjusting to their first glimpse of a promise that had been heavily anticipated but eluded comprehension until it was witnessed: a blend of size, speed, flexibility, instincts, and IQ that could alter the geometry of the court, with mind-boggling wingspans infiltrating lanes once considered to be open.
Early in the first quarter, Wembanyama dropped the first jaw, swiveling his right foot from behind the 3-point line all the way to the free throw line to strip unsuspecting Thunder rookie Cason Wallace. After dunking the ball, Wembanyama flexed the 210 pounds of muscle tightly wound around his rail-thin, 7-foot-4 frame.
Seven-foot-1 Holmgren then dribbled the ball up the floor, directing Wallace to the left wing like a floor general. In the ultimate inversion, he drove off a screen set by 6-foot-4 Lu Dort, crashing into Spurs big Zach Collins’s chest before adjusting in midair, drawing a foul, and finishing the layup:
As he got up off the ground, Holmgren also flexed his lanky, skeletal physique, a reminder of a lesson forever entrenched by the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic: Game-changing dominance rarely comes in conventional shapes and sizes.
“I plan to play a long time,” Holmgren said after the preseason game. “And I’m sure [Wembanyama] does too, so there’ll be no choice but to go back and forth. I’m excited for the future down the road, as well.”
Nature has a way of birthing answers to its biggest quandaries. A decade ago, the pace-and-space revolution threatened to render big men, with their typically plodding feet and limited range, extinct. But the bigs adapted. Supernaturally athletic 7-footers with guard skills, dubbed unicorns, emerged and came of age. They have won the past five MVPs. Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo hoisted titles. Durant, a skinny 7-foot legend, proved you don’t have to pack on pounds to keep up with the physicality of the NBA.
Wembanyama and Holmgren, nailing 3s on offense and using their 8-foot and 7-foot-6 wingspans, respectively, to block 3s with their long, bony fingertips on the other end, can reach for even more. Facing off for the first time in the regular season on Tuesday, the two massive Rookie of the Year front-runners are bound to be compared for the rest of their careers. But they both have bigger ambitions, with league-altering implications. Borrowing from the past to forge a new present, Wembanyama and Holmgren have the potential to force the game to adapt to them.
The first few weeks of the season have been a fact-finding mission for Wembanyama and Holmgren, who have both made an immediate impact.
Wembanyama is averaging 19.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks for a rebuilding Spurs team. Holmgren’s averages—16.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.3 blocks—are slightly muted by comparison, but he’s a cog on a playoff contender that’s desperately welcomed his rim protection, rebounding, and floor spacing.
Wembanyama has played at the 4, next to Collins. Instead of being flanked by a pick-and-roll playmaker, 6-foot-8 Jeremy Sochan is starting at point guard. The hope, according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, is to eventually leverage that length to close gaps and fluster opponents with deflections and steals. But as of now, that vision largely exists in his imagination. The Spurs, who boast an average defense when Wembanyama is on the floor, give up 125 points per 100 possessions when he sits, easily the worst mark in the league.
Wembanyama is a touch more fluid than Holmgren, approaching scoring with the expansive ambition of a Renaissance painter. “He’s got a lot of courage,” says Tim Martin, Wemby’s trainer. “That’s what makes him great. You see the one-footed 3-pointer and stuff like that.”
Holmgren, who plays center for the Thunder, is stronger, benefiting from the year spent in the NBA weight room after he got hurt in August 2022 and missed the 2022-23 season.
Wembanyama can shrink in the face of physicality, while Holmgren is a fearless, blunt-force instrument, inviting contact on his drives to the rim, contesting multiple shots in the same play with the dogged repetition of a defender that’s pridefully resistant to seeing his opponent put the ball in the basket. His jawline has already absorbed elbows from some of the NBA’s best. He has also contested more shots than anybody else in the league.
There are symmetries, too. Together, Holmgren and Wembanyama have made more 3s than the other 21 rookies to average two blocks per game attempted in their debut seasons combined. The NBA has never seen anything like their unprecedented combination of skills, raising exciting but intimidating new developmental questions. How, in essence, do you train a new-age unicorn?
Both their trainers were deeply influenced by early aughts run-ins with Holger Geschwindner, Dirk Nowitzki’s legendary lifelong trainer. Adam Harrington, who worked with Holmgren this summer, played for the Mavericks in 2003, and Martin, who trained former Mavericks wings Josh Howard and Devin Harris, couldn’t help but watch Holger’s unorthodox methods with fascination.
Harrington, a role-playing stretch big born 15 years ahead of his time, started jumping into drills after crossing paths with Geschwindner. He spent most of his career overseas, but kept in touch with Geschwindner, frequenting the gym with him often, both when he was playing and when he was working as a trainer.
Back then, neither Harrington nor Geschwindner knew they’d be conduits in the evolution of the game, conferring the dark arts of the modern big man trade to teenage prodigies. Nowitzki was one of one, and before the title that vindicated his style, the German 7-footer was accused of being soft, criticized for preferring his patented baseline fadeaway over brutish drop-steps.
According to Ian Thomsen’s The Soul of Basketball, Geschwindner intervened when the Mavericks, concerned the big man’s body wouldn’t hold up in the paint, tried to intensify Nowitzki’s weight-lifting regimen. Instead, the 7-footer wore a 22-pound vest while performing drills that upped the difficulty level of every task.
“First he develops the technique he needs in order to carry the weight, and then he will add the weight. In the States they do it the other way: They increase strength without the technique,” Holger told Thomsen, predicting that this tendency was a culprit for injuries.
With the vest hanging over his slender frame, Nowitzki could perform one-handed free throws, and the same 360-degree, one-footed spin before taking a free throw line jumper that has become a staple of Durant’s idiosyncratic pregame routine.
In 2014, when Harrington became a shooting coach for the Thunder, he passed along Nowitzki’s techniques. Back then, Durant would regularly get his shot swiped on the way up by smaller defenders. Harrington helped him build variability into his shot pocket, so the 7-footer could more reliably get his shot off against bigger and smaller players.
Martin, who has Wembanyama working on the same thing, says, “[Durant] virtually has no shot pocket. Being a right-handed shooter, he could shoot from his left hip, his left ear, his belly button, his right ear.”
One of the warm-up drills Martin has Wembanyama do to expand his God-given flexibility is a classic Holgerism: With his toes pointed toward the baseline and the ball at his left hip and the basket to his right, Wembanyama tries to score, rotating his torso to the rim and bringing the ball from his left hip to his right shoulder, without moving his lower body.
“Not being squared and not being balanced on anything is kind of what the focus is, because 98 percent of shots from a player like him that’s the leading scorer or what have you, is going to be off balance,” explains Martin.
This summer, in a practice gym with Harrington and Durant, Holmgren was awed at his inability to block Durant’s shot—a novelty for a player so accustomed to swatting jumpers.
The first time Harrington put Holmgren through Durant’s modified Holgerism, a 15-minute activation warm-up turned into a 40-minute workout. Harrington put Holmgren in increasingly unstable situations, challenging him to shoot without being fully squared up. “I want you to keep it here balanced and I want you to feel how much power you have in this position,” Harrington told him. The rookie’s curiosity was piqued. He asked questions, wanted to perfect drills, asked to do them over again. “I could see the wheels turning,” recalls Harrington. By the end, Holmgren told Harrington to text him and let him know every time they’d be inviting young players to work out this summer.
Durant resists the idea that he’s a blueprint for the two transcendent rookies, adding that if anything, Holmgren’s energy and enthusiasm fed him on the court. He doesn’t see himself—or anybody else—in Wembanyama’s game, either. “I know we’re both skinny and I’m sure he said he watched me,” Durant said, “but he’s his own player. I’m sure he’s watched many great players and tried to emulate everybody. He’s gonna create his own lane, much different than anybody who’s ever played.”
Durant cleared that lane, like Nowitzki did for him, allowing Holmgren and Wembanyama to start one giant stride ahead of the game.
Wembanyama’s and Holmgren’s unique frames are their greatest ally and most overt vulnerability, a source of both feverish excitement and franchise-deflating terror.
Wembanyama has already suffered a stress fracture in his fibula and missed time in 2022 due to a psoas injury. In the summer of 2022, just weeks before training camp, Holmgren suffered a Lisfranc injury after planting his right foot awkwardly while defending LeBron James on a drive (a lesser-discussed fact: James missed the layup). Players complained of the floor being wet, and the game eventually got canceled, but Holmgren lost the first year of his career as a result of the injury. The names of other extraterrestrial bigs whose careers were derailed by injuries come to mind: Yao Ming, Greg Oden, Bill Walton—just to name a few.
“Generally speaking,” says Eric Leidersdorf, director of biomechanics at P3, Peak Performance Project, “the longer your limbs, the longer your femur, the longer your shins, the longer your lower extremities, the harder it tends to be to control where those joints track in space.” The harder it is, in other words, to keep a knee from bending too far the wrong way, or an ankle from turning inward.
The evolution of the modern big man is a story that can be told through biometrics, through the gradual valuation of lateral movement over verticality. There was a time when the likes of Dwight Howard, 265 pounds with a 40-inch vertical, was the pinnacle of NBA athleticism. The elite rim protection he offered became less valuable as guards expanded their range and exploited the quickness advantage they had over most bigs. The ability to switch out on the perimeter and move well laterally became more important than verticality.
Last summer, P3, a sports science company that helps elite athletes understand and optimize their bodies, began compiling a database on the 7-footers—including college athletes and overseas players—that have walked through its halls. The company’s analysis shows that on average, big men have gotten about five to six pounds lighter since 2013.
Leidersdorf watched the duo’s preseason debut from P3’s offices in Santa Barbara. Despite spending his entire career studying the best athletes in the world, he was stunned by Wembanyama’s flexibility, the way he stretched out and made the most of every inch of his 8-foot wingspan: At the bottom of a lunge, with one knee touching the ground and his other foot just barely planted on the ground, Wembanyama sprang down and back up instantly, then caught the ball 40 feet from the rim and dunked it in three giant strides.
“Beyond just the length, how they utilize it within movement is probably about the first thing that we tend to look for. The angles that are achieved through the hip at that point, which allow him to cover as much ground as he does,” says Leidersdorf. “Think about it like doing splits, where both of your legs are just straight out to the side. When we think about an athlete’s ability to abduct the hip like that, those tend to be some of the most effective side-to-side movers that we work with.”
That’s no coincidence. Wembanyama’s flexibility is a testament to genetics and a regimen that aims to stretch the most he can out of himself. In the summer of 2021, Wembanyama went to Germany and worked with Geschwindner, who put him through the same workouts once designed to maximize Nowitzki’s flexibility, including an exercise where he would traverse the court in 12 long strides (although Wemby can probably do it in fewer). Holger also had Wembanyama perform deep knee bends and squats, according to Marc Stein.
It’s a gift that also helps him on the defensive end. Take this play against the Heat, where Wembanyama, with his feet square to the baseline, twists in midair to block Haywood Highsmith’s runner:
And then there’s Holmgren, who sprints from one end of the sideline to the other against the Cavaliers, covering two 3-point attempts in one possession, a monument to length, mobility, balance, and IQ:
All the blocks were cool, but this may have been my favorite Chet play from last night. Closes out on two shooters in BOTH corners within two seconds of each other. Awesome awareness and hustle. pic.twitter.com/jmdFkWbyg5— Royce Young (@royceyoung) October 28, 2023
Knee extension velocity, which measures how quickly and aggressively players go from bent to straight knees when they’re jumping, is historically a place where guards have excelled. But Holmgren ranks in the 81st percentile of players whom P3 has measured, and in the 92nd percentile of bigs. “Modern-day bigs are starting to mimic the same movement patterns of guards,” says Leidersdorf.
Flexible joints correlate with quick lateral movement, which has become increasingly important in a switch-heavy league. Hypermobility, though, has opened up new questions about injury management.
Stretching those limbs out to their logical extreme, says Leidersdorf, comes with a mechanical risk. The best way to mitigate it, according to P3’s internal research, is by being functionally strong in those positions. “If you have really strong glutes and hamstrings, then you can reach these wild positions without your knee twisting a whole lot,” he says.
The trick will be supplementing their joints with just enough muscle mass to stay stable through elastic movements, without going overboard and compromising their mobility, or overtaxing their thin frames, and potentially increasing the risk of injury.
“It’s important not to lose your mobility,” Wembanyama told ESPN after he was drafted. “So bulking up is not a good word. It’s being more stable, more strong, more solid. When you watch me in the past three years, I haven’t grown much—maybe an inch—but when you watch me three years ago, visually, I don’t get the same feeling of stability. I look way more stable now than years back. This is the way to keep going. I don’t need to bulk up. I need to get my core stronger. I need to get solid.”
After a late October game against the Clippers, hordes of reporters squeezed into a tiny room to wait for Wembanyama, who had to duck under the doorframe before sitting down in front of the microphones. It was the 19-year-old’s first time under the glaring lights of Los Angeles, but he was calm, pondering questions and answering intentionally, the space between his words strengthening his command over the room.
He has the charisma of a potential superstar, something those close to him have described as a combination of patience, attentiveness, and curiosity.
“I’ve always said Vic’s just the type of player where, let’s say I’m saying, ‘Hey, make five swishes,’ he’ll make five, but if it doesn’t feel right, he’s going to keep going until he gets it right,” says Martin.
Wembanyama wants to toggle between multiple positions, becoming as unguardable and versatile as his potential suggests he can be. He is an attentive student of history, going beyond Durant and Nowitzki to Jack Sikma’s reverse pivot and how it helped him get off quick, open jumpers, to the way Hakeem Olajuwon would shift immediately after catching the ball, to compromise his defender’s balance. He watches how Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade mastered the art of pacing their dribble pull-ups, to fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert’s screen-setting expertise. He’s been working on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous skyhook since he was a kid—a shot that, if he ever masters it, would make him unguardable. “Pretty much anybody that he’s watched play,” says Martin, “he’s taken something from.”
Wembanyama’s eyes light up when he’s in the mid-post because of the creativity it offers. “You catch the ball, there’s about 150 different things you could do,” says Martin.
But it’s a place that he is increasingly being pushed out of. Opponents can’t run him off the court, like they did with big men of the past, but old-school bruising—slapping the ball out of his hands and pushing him out of the paint—is proving effective.
Wembanyama’s average shot distance, 14.7 feet from the rim, has gotten farther as the season has progressed. And unlike Holmgren, who is shooting a sizzling 50 percent from beyond the arc, defenders will live with letting Wembanyama shoot. His 3-pointer, a work in progress, is accurate only 29.8 percent of the time, but he keeps firing away, in part because it’s often the only option he has. Half of his 3.8 turnovers per game, top 10 in the NBA, come from lost balls.
Holmgren’s first clash against the reigning Finals MVP offered a similar education. After bumping Holmgren off his spot all night, and scoring 24 of his 28 points against him, Jokic saved his final blow for the rookie in his press conference: “He’s a really talented guy, but this is his first year. He’s still learning the game, how quick it is, where is an advantage, where is a disadvantage. He needs experience. I think he needs to be a little bit fatter, to be honest.”
“It’s hard,” Holmgren laughed after his next game, “to get fatter when you’re not fat. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.”
It’s a refrain Holmgren has been hearing since he shot up to 6-foot-9 as a freshman in high school. Opposing coaches, recalls his AAU coach Larry Suggs (father of Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs), would implore their players to run over the skinny kid in the middle of the paint.
But he had developed a knack for shot blocking as a youngster, often playing against bigger opponents who were four grades older. He honed his lateral quickness in practices spent trying to stay in front of Jalen Suggs and Tyrell Terry, future NBA guards.
On the other end of the floor, the friends who laughed when the coach told them Holmgren was the team’s shooting guard would be stunned to silence when he came off flair screen after flair screen and nailed triples.
Suggs’s philosophy as a coach, serendipitously for Holmgren, was geared toward fun more than fit. “Everybody should learn how to play basketball: shoot, dribble, and pass. You can’t say hey, just because you’re tall, I’m not gonna put in time. Everybody’s gonna learn to play the guard position.”
All the while, the elder Suggs harbored hope that Holmgren—then the same size as his teammates—would end up as tall as his father, a true 7-footer who played college basketball for the Minnesota Gophers. He told Holmgren he could be as good as Durant one day. “You’ll be successful,” he told him, “because you’ll be 7 foot tall but you’ll be able to dribble and play like these guys.”
When the growth spurt hit, in his freshman year, Suggs told Holmgren they’d try to put on a pound a month. “Then it might be easier to take it off if you need to. If you put on too much too fast, you can mess your knees up. We’re not going to appease anybody else, just because they feel like they want you to put some muscle on,” Suggs told him.
Holmgren has taken those words to heart, saying on the All the Smoke podcast that the muscle would come as he got older. He gained 15 pounds during the pandemic, entering Gonzaga at 195 pounds, and has added another 13 since entering the NBA—the same kind of incremental growth that bolstered Durant’s functional strength without compromising his mobility, and helped Antetokounmpo, who was 190 pounds when he was a rookie, morph from Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk.
Until then, the giants of today will continue to dole out wisdom in the form of body blow after body blow, in the hopes that one day, Wembanyama and Holmgren will be strong enough to bear the weight of the future—whatever it may look like—on their own bony shoulders.