Chet Holmgren is finally healthy, and he’s already showing how he can take the Thunder to the next level.
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 selected ahead of Holmgren in the draft) also played. So were LeBron James and Jayson Tatum. There were no real stakes in the gym that day, but Holmgren simply has no way to turn back his competitive juices.
The gym was crowded and the floor was slippery from condensation. Still, with James attacking in transition and Holmgren left as the only defender, the young Oklahoma City Thunder big man fought with everything he had to deny the shot. Then he limped up.
Holmgren would be diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury and miss all 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 surge from guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. When the Thunder’s rise happened, it was easy to wonder how much better the team would have been with Holmgren in the lineup.
Holmgren is finally healthy, and he’s using the NBA Summer League to shake off the rust. On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Holmgren issued a warning shot about both his spectacular talent and the imminent ascension 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 display of the versatile skill set that makes Holmgren such a two-way force on the floor, aside from the fact that he missed both of his three-point attempts. They are going to fall eventually, and that will only make Holmgren even harder to deal with.
There is no easy historical comparison for Holmgren. At 7’1 with a 7’6 wingspan, he is completely comfortable handling the ball at the rim, taking threes and making quick pass reads. Holmgren is also excellent at traditional big man skills: He is a monster rim protector on defense and a skilled finisher around the rim on offense. He’s going to put tremendous pressure on the rim as a roll man, and he barely needs to jump for the dunk with a reported 9’6 standing reach.
Yes, Holmgren is still very thin, even after using his injury to put on muscle. There will be times when he gets pounded 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 broader scale, Holmgren emerges as one of the very best shot blockers in the NBA someday. He is extremely quick to the ball with his rotations, has great hand placement on his blocks and is never going to back down no matter who is attacking the rim.
It’s incredible to think that the Thunder’s surge last season happened without anyone resembling a real center on the roster. Of top eight players in total minutes at Oklahoma City, only Josh Giddey – a guard – was taller than 6’6. Now a team already stacked with big guards and wings adds a 7’1 monster inside who can put a lid on the rim and pound home any lob with his huge catch radius. Of course, Holmgren’s game is so much more diverse than that.
Holmgren may not score 30 points per game. game at any point in his career, but he will make a superstar impact regardless of whether he can stay healthy. Instead, Holmgren is this era’s preeminent super-big link, someone who will do all the little things to help teams win while standing taller and longer than anyone on the field. He will space the floor like a shooter, keep the ball moving like a passer, crash the glass and more than anything else provide elite protection on defense. The only other young player with such a diverse skill set is Victor Wembanyama, and the whole world already knows he’s an alien.
Mid-July is too early for bold predictions, but let’s just say that no one should be surprised if OKC makes another big jump 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 could take the team to the next level. It’s not out of the question to think that this team can compete for championships in the next few years.
Holmgren must of course stay healthy, and that is a big if. One of his greatest assets – his competitive spirit – could also be his downfall if he doesn’t learn to pick his spots. Hopefully a year away from the game has taught him as much. If he can do that, the Thunder have the piece their rebuild has been missing. There is no limit to what can come next.