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Victor Wembanyama’s case for Rookie of the Year keeps getting better

The Frenchman has had a phenomenal January. 

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Hand to heart: Did you ever think Victor Wembanyama wasn’t going to win the Rookie of the Year award? Barring a major injury, I certainly didn’t. I thought if there’s a chance to give it to him, he’ll get it. Because, let me put it this way, I think it’s against the league’s interests if he doesn’t, isn’t it? And, frankly, I still think he’s going to win it in the end.

Of course, if the season was going to end this month, there is a guy who’s probably slightly more deserving of it. That guy is Chet Holmgren, who, in his first active season in the league, is the third or maybe even second-best guy on a .705 team in the loaded Western Conference (having just typed that sentence, it actually feels strange to make an argument for someone else).

Some of the NBA analysts’ elite pretty much have Holmgren penciled in as ROTY. The Ringer founder Bill Simmons in late December said on his podcast that he’s definitely going to vote for Holmgren, if OKC are a top three team in the West. Even one month later, isn’t it still a bit early to say that?

Let me emphasize right now I’m truly, truly amazed at how good 21-year-old Chet Holmgren is at NBA basketball. I’m actually a fan! And I’ll be thrilled to follow his career to find out how far the guy can take his game. And I’m particularly thrilled because it’s easy to see a major rivalry with Wemby — a rivalry that could become one for the history books!

Still, right now we’re now right around the halfway point of the season. Which means there is as much basketball to be played as there has been played. Holmgren might hit the infamous rookie wall, as might Wemby. Or Wemby might just get much better as the number one option that he is, and he’s trending in that direction, while Homlgren might continue greatly impacting OKC’s postseason-ready game as their third option.

One thing to note is that some influential voices around the NBA are putting the word in for Wemby. Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA insinuated the Thunder would be an even better team if they had Wemby instead of Holmgren. Shaq clearly said ROTY has to go to Wemby. Gratned, neither of them is known to be high on analytics, but then again, at least one guy who makes his money by seriously evaluating players is starting to come around on Wemby.

Despite acknowledging the award should right now go to Holmgren, Sam Vecenie on his Game Theory podcast today said the following: “If you made me bet what I will think at the end of the season, I would bet that I would have Victor number one for Rookie of the Year.”

But let’s not bet, let’s look at what the figures say. And to do that, I’ve divided Wemby’s season so far into three stretches: Stretch one is from his 1st game to his 19th. Stretch two is from his 20th, since when he’s been primarily utilized as a center, to his 29th. Stretch three is from his 30th, which is since when Tre Jones has been in the starting lineup, to his 38th. (Hell’ be playing his 39th tonight.)

Since Wemby’s defensive performance definitely won’t be the reason that might keep him from winning ROTY (Vecenie currently has Wemby in the All-Defensive Second Team), I’m focusing on his offensive contributions, particularly on scoring efficiency. After all, scoring efficiency is the primary reason why many currently have Holmgren above Wemby.

Except otherwise noted, all figures are per basketball-reference.com.

In stretch one, Wemby averaged 18.9 points in 30.1 minutes, while shooting 43.2% from the field (7 makes from 16.2 attempts), 26.5% from deep (1.4 / 5.2), and 81.7% from the charity stripe (3.5 / 4.3).

In stretch two, when he is moved to the five in Zach Collins’ absence, his total scoring average remains the same, 18.9 points in 28 minutes. However, we see a significant increase in efficiency. Wemby is now shooting 47% from the field (7.1/15.1) and 35.6% from three (1.6/4.5). Frankly, the efficiency uptick is probably due to shooting luck from beyond the arc, since he is unable to keep up the 35.6% in stretch three — which is when things nevertheless are really starting to turn around.

He is already on a minutes restriction when Jones moves into the starting lineup against the Bucks on January 4, which is why Wemby has only averaged only 25.5 minutes ever since. But he’s been scoring more and more efficiently than ever before: 25.2 points on 52.6% from the field (9.1 / 17.3), despite cooling off from beyond the arc to 29.5% (1.4 / 4.9). He’s also going to the line more often, hitting on 84.7% from his 6.6 attempts per game.

If you take Wemby’s 25.2 points, divide them by the 25.5 minutes he averages in stretch three, and then multiply the result with 30.2, which is his minutes average before being put on restriction, he’s averaging a staggering 29.8 points per 30.2 minutes.

Now let’s have a look at Holmgren. Interestingly, he has also averaged 30.2 minutes so far, just like Wemby before his minutes restriction. But unlike Wemby, there were no significant positional or starting lineup changes for him.

In his 44 games this season, Holmgren has spent 100% of his time at the five. He also never had to start without a point guard: SGA, a score-first point guard who’s also a proficient playmaker (6.4 assists per game), has started next to Holmgren in 43 games. (And let’s not forget about Josh Giddey, who’s a very good playmaker, and who has also started in 43 games next to Holmgren.)

So far, Holmgren has averaged 17.1 points, while shooting 54.1% from the field (6.4/11.9), 38.5% from deep (1.6 / 4.1), and 77.9% from the charity stripe (2.6/3.4). His very good true shooting percentage of 63.9% is largely due to two types of shots.

Per NBA.com, of his 11.9 field goal attempts per game, 5.8 are from less than 10 feet, which he makes at a very good 69.3% clip, and 3.8 are catch-and-shoot threes, good enough for 41.8%. The latter is really his only high-volume shot with which he does significantly better than Wemby, who’s at 25.8% from 3.2 catch-and-shoot attempts from deep per game. What drags Wemby’s efficiency further down, however, are his 3.2 attempts from mid-range per game. He only converts them at around 30% — it’s really a shot he should cut down on.

Still, when you consider Wemby’s striking average points total since Jones has moved into the starting line-up — again, 29.8 points per 30.2 minutes — we’re in a territory in which efficiency isn’t the be-all/end-all anymore. More efficient or not, Holmgren is only averaging 17.1 points per 30.2 minutes.

In the end, who’s going to win Rookie of the Year will be determined in the second half of the season. And Spurs fans, despite what many analysts are saying, have plenty of reason to hope Wemby’s going to win it because he’s starting to show he might already be the better individual player.

Meanwhile, let’s lean back, enjoy what could be an epic battle, and hope these two wonderful players stay healthy, so they hopefully match up in the playoffs many times when they’re both in their primes. We only got to see Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett match up twice in the postseason, and I definitely want to see Wemby and Holmgren take on each other more often.

And I don’t want to be in front of my TV set over here in Germany when it happens. I want to be in San Antonio. At least once.