However, the league may not be ready for Chet Holmgren’s extraordinary talents.
Holmgren, who is 7 feet 195 pounds, doubles as both an intriguing and intimidating NBA talent evaluator. For several years, it was on the radar as one of the top five picks. On Thursday, there is no doubting his pick in the top three. He’s one of the most skilled seven-footed strikers to enter the league, but even in the open and centerless NBA, there is concern about how his thin frame will hold up.
Holmgren is an elite potential client that most teams wouldn’t dare pass up, but they’re a bit intimidated by the process required to get the most out of it. It’s inaccurate to name Holmgren the project because his talent is so obvious. He moves and catches the ball like a goalkeeper. It protects the edge like the center. He made 39 percent of his three-point attempts during his only season at Gonzaga. He plays very hard. It is not soft at all. However, because he lacks big size, it takes imagination to predict his career.
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Holmgren is an important test of this creative age. Unleash its potential, and the team will have one of the most atypical two-way match nightmares the game has seen. You fail to get the best of him, and the entire game loses an opportunity to grow even weirder and more unpredictable.
It is rumored that Holmgren prefers Oklahoma City, which ranks second. With the first pick, Orlando is said to be leaning toward Auburn striker Jabari Smith Jr., another player who’s tall and slender but fit in the great forward shooting mold we’ve seen before. Duke striker Paulo Banchero, who would go to Houston with pick #3 in this scenario, would likely have the upper deck for the three players with his 250-pound frame and offensive ammunition that easily translates to the next level.
Holmgren is right in wanting to play for Thunder. Oklahoma City is committed to rebuilding the patient, giving him time to work on his body and adapt. He has a cute young goalscorer in Shay Gilgus Alexander, who shares the backcourt with star field vision for Australian Josh Gedi with a height of 6 feet 8 feet. Most importantly, General Manager Sam Presti is a relentlessly thoughtful team builder who would introduce Holmgren into a culture of player development and professionalism. Fifteen years ago, Presti drafted Kevin Durant with the No. 2 pick. Durant is an all-time great player with a different game, but he came to the NBA as a skinny, skilled kid one year after college and needed time for his body to catch up with his talent. He’s still skinny, but he’s 25 pounds heavier and much stronger than the player who couldn’t lift the 185 pound bench press during the draft pickup.
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Some of the things Presti did to build a team around Durant could apply to Holmgren. The differences are that Durant came in at the beginning of Operation Presti, not in the middle of the rebuilding process, and Holmgren’s profiles were more of a first defense player than KD.
It’s hard to imagine a path to greatness for Holmgren that doesn’t include consistent appearances across the entire defensive team. If it wasn’t for a bullet blocker with a knack for switching and wreaking all kinds of havoc, it wouldn’t reach its full value. The violation will be a work in progress.
Holmgren was judicious playing in Gonzaga, a balanced program that had the first choice of all-Americans at Drew Timme. Holmgren averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks. He shot 60.7 percent, worked in attacking range and scored mostly from roaring play and open jumps. Given Holmgren’s effectiveness with Bulldogs, Coach Mark Few noticed the adjustment he had to make to the physical college game.
“It took me a while in the first week, two weeks, a month to really really understand,” Little said during the NCAA tournament. “His game is not about scoring. It affects the game in so many ways that it is likely to make an argument that it affects the game more on the defensive end than it does on the offensive end. …
“You get guys who are 50lbs more or have the body, so sometimes it’s hard to show all that skill out there, but at the same time it still gives you the ability to stretch the floor. He’s very clever when we can find him around the edge. He can take the ball out of the cup and he leads a break, and then he gives us all the time an entity that we didn’t have on the defensive side. We’ve never used drop cover like you see a lot of people do in the NBA, but we were able to do that with Chet exclusively.”
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Even if he is destined to become a star, Holmgren may need up to three years before he becomes the perfect offensive man. Experimentation will be key to this process. If Presti drafted Holmgren, Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault has shown a knack for developing players and bending his philosophies to make better use of his roster. Daigneault, 36, is one of those new thinkers who have taken charge of the NBA’s sidelines. If Holmgren takes first or third, Orlando has a similar young coach in Jamal Mosley, and Houston coach Stephen Silas is good at managing talent in institution building as well. However, organizational patience is the question for Orlando and Houston.
About Holmgren, Little said, “He has an impact on the game that is sometimes difficult to measure.”
For such an unnaturally slim frame, Holmgren moves with surprising ease. It doesn’t look gritty, it doesn’t look unbreakable. He looks as relaxed as he does extraordinary. His body needs work, and perhaps the minds of the employees who craft it deserve the most scrutiny.
If this is the age of odds in the NBA, someone should be able to conjure up the form of stardom for Holmgren.