Unicorn status has been bestowed throughout the last decade upon NBA players with proportions so fantastical that we thought they only existed in fables. Whenever one of those hoops fantasies steps out of our imaginations and onto the court, it’s akin to witnessing a futuristic autonomous concept of a flying car go from R&D to the road testing stage.
Even before the Thunder could pull their Chet Holmgren’s model out of the lot for a test ride, he was recalled for the 2022-23 season. During Saturday’s CrawsOver Pro-Am event, LeBron James took off on a fast break. Holmgren backpedaled until he contested him at the rim. It was the sort of rim protection Thunder fans were looking forward to seeing from Holmgren in the regular season. Unfortunately, Holmgren limped off after James landed on his foot, and Holmgren underwent testing on Wednesday, which revealed torn ligaments in his foot. On Thursday morning the worst fears were confirmed when Oklahoma City ruled Holmgren out for the entire 2022-23 season with a Lisfranc injury.
Lisfranc injuries occur when bones in the midfoot are broken or ligaments that support the midfoot are torn. The Lisfranc injury that befell Holmgren could have happened to anyone who felt the full force of LeBron on their foot, however, Holmgren’s proportions make him even more susceptible. Larger players, especially those with underdeveloped lower bodies, have shown a greater propensity for orthopedic injuries than the average professional basketball player.
Therein, the downside of those mythical measurements. The ligaments and bones of prospects like Holmgren have to obey our universe’s physics. Sometimes they don’t translate perfectly. A unicorn with a horn on its head would probably just be a horse with a genetic defect.
In reality, the human body making quantum leaps forward is presented with one or two steps back. Seven-foot-tall, sub-200-pound human bodies aren’t designed to race up and down a hardwood court, colliding with some of the strongest athletes in the world for 40 minutes a night, 82 games a year without suffering some significant wear and tear. The NBA is getting better at managing these unicorn bodies. Each training staff analyzes the biomechanics of its stars at a level that would have been impossible a decade ago.
During Summer League, Holmgren’s scrawny legs foreshadowed his current predicament when a silhouette of his thin left leg and long foot created a stir.
Given his stature, his dad’s medical history, and the rate of Holmgren facsimiles having had their careers cut short, there is a legitimate reason for concern about the No. 2 overall pick missing his entire rookie season. Historically, Ralph Sampson and Kristaps Porziņģis possess the most similar physical dimensions to a long-limbed string bean prospect of Holmgren’s stature. Nearly 40 years ago, Ralph Sampson’s career was ended by knee injuries. Sampson was 7-foot-4, weighing in at 228 pounds during his rookie campaign with the Houston Rockets in 1983. Porzingis entered the league with the lower body strength of a flamingo. He’s beefed up significantly, but even he was already 223 pounds. Yet, orthopedic injuries of varying degrees have still been a recurring theme throughout this career.
At 7 feet tall and 190 pounds, Holmgren is a different breed of bony. Holmgren and teammate Aleksej Pokusevski are the only players in the league who stand 7-0 or taller and weigh under 200 pounds. The only other member of the 7-foot, sub-200 pound club is Boniface N’Dong who played 23 games with the Clippers in the 2005-06 season.
Without Holmgren, the Thunder have the most destitute roster in the National Basketball Association. The outlook on their upcoming season wasn’t all that rosy, to begin with. In a half-glass full alternate universe, Oklahoma City would develop Josh Giddy and Holmgren together, watch them form chemistry, and improve their dismal 2022 record by 8-10 games. Instead, the Thunder will begin the 2022-23 season with virtually the same roster they lost 58 games with.
The 0-60, cross-country rookie year tour introduction we expected from Holmgren in the fall is going to have to be scaled back even in 2023. Even then, Holmgren will likely return a year from now on a minutes restriction.
Next June, the Pegasus of unicorns, Victor Webanyama, is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Without Holmgren, the Thunder might be on a familiar road to the NBA basement. But even Wembanyama isn’t without his risk. He missed eight weeks this past season with a non-contact stress fracture in his fibula, which isn’t ideal for an 18-year-old giant. If the Thunder go dumpster diving again this season and attain the No. 1 pick, Wembanyama and Holmgren could become the NBA’s most precarious high-risk, high-reward duo in decades.