Chet Holmgren couldn’t help himself. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft was just months away from starting a highly anticipated rookie season when he showed up to Seattle to play in Jamal Crawford’s pro-am run. Paolo Banchero (the only player picked ahead of Holmgren in the draft) was playing, too. So were LeBron James and Jayson Tatum. There were no real stakes in the gym that day, but Holmgren simply has no way of dialing back his competitive juices.
The gym was overcrowded, and the floor was slippery due to condensation. Still, when James attacked in transition and Holmgren was back as the only defender, the young Oklahoma City Thunder big man fought with everything he had to deny the shot. Then he came up limping.
Holmgren would be diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury and miss the entirety of what should have been his rookie year. The Thunder thrived anyway, jumping from a 24-win team to a 40-win team behind a superstar leap from guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As the Thunder’s surge was happening, it was easy to wonder just how much better the team would have been with Holmgren in the lineup.
Holmgren is finally healthy, and he’s using NBA Summer League to shake off the rust. On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Holmgren issued a warning shot on both his spectacular talent and the imminent ascent of the Thunder. This is the player Oklahoma City has been waiting for.
Holmgren finished the night with 25 points, nine rebounds, five blocks, and two assists on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor. It was mostly a full showcase of the all-around skill set that makes Holmgren such a two-way force on the floor, save for the fact that he missed both of his three-point attempts. Those are going to fall eventually, and it’s only going to make Holmgren even tougher to handle.
There is no easy historical comparison for Holmgren. At 7’1 with a 7’6 wingspan, he’s fully comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter, taking threes, and making quick passing reads. Holmgren is also excellent at traditional big man skills: he’s a monster rim protector on defense, and a skilled finisher around the rim on offense. He’s going to put an enormous amount of pressure on the rim as a roll man, and he barely has to jump to dunk with a reported 9’6 standing reach.
Seems good to have a center who can basically dunk without jumping pic.twitter.com/JvOrc9cf6C— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) July 13, 2023
Yes, Holmgren is still very thin even after spending his injury year bulking up with muscle. There are going to times when he gets dunked on and the clip goes viral on social media — but that’s only because Chet tries to block everything and doesn’t care about being embarrassed. On a wider scale, Holmgren projects as one of the very best shot blockers in the NBA one day. He’s extremely quick to the ball with his rotations, has tremendous hand placement on his blocks, and he’s never going to back down regardless of who is attacking the rim.
It’s incredible to think the Thunder’s rise last season happened without anyone resembling a real center on the roster. Of the top eight players in total minutes on Oklahoma City, only Josh Giddey — a guard — was taller than 6’6. Now a team already stacked with big guards and wings is adding a 7’1 monster inside who can put a lid on the rim and dunk home any lob with his enormous catch radius. Of course, Holmgren’s game is so much more diverse than that.
Holmgren may not score 30 points per game at any point in his career, but he’s going to have a superstar impact regardless if he can stay healthy. Instead, Holmgren is the preeminent supersized connector of this era, someone who will do all the little things to help teams win while being taller and longer than anyone on the court. He’ll space the floor as a shooter, keep the ball moving as a passer, hit the glass, and more than anything provide elite paint protection on defense. The only other young player with a skill set this diverse is Victor Wembanyama, and the whole world already knows he’s an alien.
The middle of July is too early for bold predictions, but let’s just say no one should be surprised if OKC takes another big leap up the standings this year. They already have a superstar in Gilgeous-Alexander, and the rest of their young core is developing wonderfully around him. The addition of Holmgren can take the team to the next level. It isn’t out of bounds to believe this team can compete for championships in the next few years.
Holmgren has to stay healthy, of course, and that’s a big if. One of his greatest assets — his competitive spirit — can also be his downfall if he doesn’t learn to pick his spots. Hopefully a year away from the game taught him that much. If he can do it, the Thunder have the piece their rebuild has been missing. There’s no cap on what could come next.