If the Spurs’ preseason opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder was any indication, the future of the big man is looking bright. However, even if it may feel like Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren are here to bring about evolution, the reality is they are still unicorns of a rare breed, and if anything, they might be even more rare in the future.
YouTube content creator JxmyHighroller released a video looking at the history of size and physical prototypes of the NBA, and it turns out it’s not the size of the league that’s changing, but rather the distribution of the size and how it’s used and valued. Back 20-30 years ago, there were five designated positions with dedicated roles. The point guard handled the ball, wings/forwards did the shooting, and the center guarded the paint and rebounded, hence why we haven’t seen big men like Wemby and Chet (and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, etc.) until recently: they weren’t allowed to do things like handle the ball and shoot threes, so they just didn’t.
Now, in a trend that generally started with LeBron James, teams are letting their best player handle the ball, even if they aren’t guards, and with the evolution of the game (three-second rule, more three-point shooting, etc.), versatile wings with handles have generally become the players with the most touches per game. And if that so-called best player doesn’t have that versatility, they are taught it. (Think of training camp videos showing Jaylen Brown trying to improve his handles, especially with his left hand. If he’s going to be the highest paid player in NBA history in today's game, he needs to be able to handle the ball better.)
So what makes Chet and Wemby so special? They just so happen to have the versatility and handles of wings combined with rare height. For Wemby in particular, he also has a coach in Gregg Popovich who is willing to make players learn the skills they need to play position-less basketball. Look no further than him starting the season with Jeremy Sochan as “point guard”. Pop sees that starting unit’s height as the team’s biggest strength, so he’s rolling with it and making the players in that unit learn and adapt to unusual roles.
Like Jimmy said, it’s not the size that’s changing, but how it’s used and valued, and this season’s Spurs are the perfect example. You can check out his video below, and if you don’t already follow him, you should.