Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren on the court. Oct 9, 2023; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) dribbles the ball during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember in 2018 when some people were upset that Ben Simmons won the NBA Rookie of the Year over Donovan Mitchell? We could have a similar controversy this season.

Victor Wembanyama is the clear-cut betting favorite to win the award. However, the ‘other rookie’ could take home the trophy.

Due to NBA rules, Chet Holmgren is technically eligible even though he was drafted in 2022 because he missed last season due to injury. This is the same loophole that applied to Simmons, who was selected No.1 overall in 2016.

The 7-foot-1, 207-pound Holmgren will make his regular-season debut on Wednesday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Chicago Bulls. Before Wembanyama, Holmgren was the physical anomaly we were obsessed with. We watched his videos with awe because most of us had never seen a seven-foot wing player who could handle the ball like that.

The 2021 No. 1 overall high school recruit enjoyed a productive one-year stint at Gonzaga before turning pro after his freshman season. Some thought he might be the top player selected in the NBA draft, but the Orlando Magic picked Duke’s Paolo Banchero instead. Holmgren went No. 2 to Oklahoma City.

There was still plenty of hype around Holmgren. However, everything changed when he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot after participating in a pro-am game in August 2022.

Holmgren’s setback reignited predraft concerns about his rail-thin frame. There’s a long and unfortunate history of NBA seven-footers who have suffered career-altering or career-ending foot problems. The list includes stars like Bill Walton, Aryvdas Sabonis, Yao Ming, and Greg Oden. Some have expressed concerns regarding Wembanyama too.

So far, the results have been encouraging. In the preseason, Holmgren averaged 16.3 points, 2.0 blocks in only 19.3 minutes per game. He shot 57.9 percent (6 of 12 from beyond the arc). Holmgren won’t have to carry the offense. The Thunder’s talented young core includes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, and Lu Dort. All of those guys are 25 or younger.

Holmgren’s biggest contribution could be on the defensive end. With his mobility and 7-6 wingspan, he has the raw skills to be an elite rim protector. The Thunder were 13th in the league in defensive rating last season but No. 22 in blocked shots (4.2 per game).

Last week, Oklahoma City showed some of its defensive potential in a 124-101 home victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, one of the favorites in the East, shot just 39.1 percent. For a youthful squad like the Thunder, this was a confidence booster. Oklahoma City enjoyed a 96-77 lead after three quarters.

“It’s great,” Holmgren said, according to The Oklahoman. “We’re going to see great teams like this all season long, so the earlier we get to see that type of competition and really sharpen our swords… It’s great to be able to see that early on and learn from it.”

Ultimately, rookie success for Holmgren might be judged by two things.

First, how many games does he play? Holmgren appeared in all but one of the five preseason contests. It seems probable that Oklahoma City will be careful about his minutes since Holmgren is coming off an injury and will be new to the rigors of an NBA schedule.

Second, how will Holmgren fare when matched up against Wembanyama? The NBA would love it if these gifted seven-footers could form a rivalry. They faced each other in the preseason, with the Thunder winning 122-121. Holmgren scored 21 points, while Wembanyama had 20.

The future of the NBA is here. Hopefully, both Holmgren and Wembanyama will be a big part of it for many years.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.