It almost feels too perfect. The scrawny, 7-foot, 195-pound sopping wet Chet Holmgren from Gonzaga playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s easy to imagine him sharing the court with Josh Giddey and Aleksej Pokusevski. Three caucasian dudes, all above 6-foot-8, and all with diverse skill sets and all skinnier than a bean pole. But what about on the court?
Thunder exec Sam Presti is known for mixing it up when building out a roster. He’s gone full tilt since the breakup of the underachieving Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden/Serge Ibaka group. He’s become a madman in his experimentation with positionless basketball. All three members of the current Thunder core: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, and Giddey, can’t be pigeonholed into a specific position. Each can go off-ball as a secondary playmaker, cutter, and spot-up shooter. Shai is the closest thing to a bona fide star, but they are still missing size up front.
This makes the likelihood of them selecting Holmgren all but assured. The Magic have signaled they will be selecting Jabari Smith at No. 1, leaving the Thunder to have their pick of the rest of the field. If they choose Holmgren, they will add a high-upside big with spacing capabilities, as he shot 39 percent from 3 in college. And with his 7-foot-6 wingspan, Holmgren can play the four and five positions, complimenting length and playmaking to all five positions on the court.
He is equipped with elite handling for a big, allowing him to shoot off-the-dribble and pull up from 3. We all know about his shot-blocking, as he averaged nearly four during his lone collegiate season at Gonzaga. This was good for first in the West Coast Conference and fourth across the entire NCAA. To show the full breadth of his unique game, he led the WCC in block percentage, defensive rebound percentage, box plus/minus, offensive and defensive plus/minus, offensive rating, win shares, defensive win shares, player efficiency, true shooting percentage, field goal percentage, and rebounds.
He led the nation in effective field goal percentage, 2-point field goal percentage (72.7 percent from two!), and defensive-rating throughout the NCAA. He was one of the most dominant two-way bigs in college history. The question is, will it translate to the NBA? Luckily for Chet and the Thunder, the NBA has transitioned away from the black-and-blue post-play of the 1990s. Today’s centers are lean and agile and can shoot 3s as efficiently as they block shots. Some of the best centers in the game are far from being physically imposing — Clint Capela, Nicola Vucevic, Rudy Gobert, and DeAndre Ayton. He will just have to circle two teams on the calendar, Denver and Philadelphia, when it comes to calling for double-teams and bracing for contact.
There will always be issues around Chet’s 195-pound frame. His body probably won’t ever fill out the way detractors would like. But he can survive in today’s NBA. Especially with the amount of time he will spend on the perimeter (guarding opposing centers and shooting 3s) instead of banging in the post like he would have in the 1990s against dinosaurs.
So what’s the good?
The best-case scenario is Chet dominates in the NBA as he did in the NCAA and becomes The Unicorn we all thought Kristaps Porzingus would be. A few traits will certainly translate immediately, including his shot-blocking, short-roll passing, and three-point shooting. And oh yea, his dunking. Chet completed 87.8 percent on 89 rim attempts and 66.2 percent on 68 paint attempts. Good luck stopping him with that efficiency and at his height.
If he can slot into the Thunder’s starting lineup and draw defenders away from the paint with his shooting, that’ll be a feast for Thunder guards to exploit mismatches and destroy single-coverage defenses on their way to the hoop. Oddly enough, his freshman stat line of 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, and 3.7 blocks feel very doable for his rookie season, especially if he’s inserted into a ball-sharing system the Thunder employ. While the 69.1 percent true shooting, 19.6 percent rebound rate, 12.6 percent block rate, and 21.6 percent usage probably won’t sustain in the pros, opposing centers will have a hell of a time guarding his size and shooting arch. Over his freshman season, Chet grabbed 317 rebounds, which is 101 more rebounds than the Zags’ second-leading rebounder Drew Timme, and 145 more than third place, Julian Strawther.
What’s the bad?
Worst-case scenario is Chet looks more like Pokusevski. The Serbian tree twig is a certified bum. He regularly gets punished on defense, pushed around in the post, and generally looks lost out on the court. Thunder fans can be a delusional bunch. As the youngest fanbase in the NBA, their understanding of NBA history before 2008 is typically nil. They still hold enthusiasm for “pOkU yEaR fIvE” while holding bated breath Chet doesn’t turn out to be Poku’s long-lost cousin. Chet’s lack of elite athleticism could hinder him from breaking double-teams and intense ball-denial. When driving to the rim, he’s predictable when going right. His spin move to his left is as predictable as Julius Randle’s. He’s got to work on his mid-range game and creation off the dribble. While his handle is elite for a big, his stiff, lumbering build is at its worst when trying to create off the dribble. Just look at his 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is decent for a center, but is likely to increase when he has the ball more in his hands as a pro. Turnovers will need to be kept in check as his ball-handling increases at the next level.
His 39.0 percent mark from 3 is inflated when you factor in the nine-game hot streak from Jan. 8 to Feb. 10. In that stretch, he shot 20-of-34 or 58.8 percent. That certainly helped boost his three-point shooting numbers to 40 percent overall. Compare that to the other 23 games he played, where he shot 21-of-71 from three or 29.6 percent. That gives a clearer picture of the inflated numbers behind his shooting ability. It also shows just how hot he can get from beyond the arch.
What’s the ugly?
To find the ugly, one only has to look at the injury history of seven-footers throughout NBA history. Chet is more mobile and athletic than Yao Ming, Greg Oden, Arvydas Sabonis, or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, three centers over 7-feet tall who had injury-plagued careers. But Ralph Sampson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kristaps Porziņģis are great comps for him. And all three of those players suffered career-altering injuries. Porziņģis and Sampson suffered theirs within the first three seasons of their careers. According to a 2014 article from FiveThirtyEight: “since 2000, 97 players 6-foot-9 and taller have been drafted by teams with lottery selections. These players missed 17.9 percent of their potential NBA games to injury. In comparison, the 95 players 6-foot-8, or shorter missed just 13.5 percent. The percentage of games missed generally increases as height increases. Players 7-foot, or taller have missed nearly 24 percent of their games.”
What can we expect from Chet?
Chet is not a high-ceiling, super-low floor like Poku. He’s clearly much more than that. At worst, he won’t be as dominant in the pros as he was in college while still providing starter-level play on both ends of the court. Think of a combination of Mitchell Robinson and Jonas Valančiūnas. On the high end, Chet could revolutionize the center position, stretching it further beyond the arch. Chet’s ability to fight through double screens, and stay with smaller, quicker guards on defense, makes him a juggernaut. Either way, the Thunder taking Chet fills their biggest roster hole while giving them another two-way force with mega upside. Plus, imagine the memes that will come of it.