When did you become aware of Chet Holmgren?
If you are a college basketball coach, it was probably around 2018, when he was a 15-year-old freshman at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. He was 6-foot-10 then, and made a habit of putting up gaudy box scores on a team that also included Jalen Suggs, the point guard who would later precede him at Gonzaga by a year and now plays for the Orlando Magic. If you are just a person who spends time on the sports internet, you may have met Chet the following year, in August 2019, when he crossed up Steph Curry at Curry’s summer camp and then cruised to the rim and dunked.
If you remained Chet-ignorant at that point, you perhaps learned about him over these last nine months, during either his single season at Gonzaga or his entrance to the NBA Draft as a 7-foot-1 guy who runs like an elk, jumps like he’s on a trampoline, and can also dribble and shoot.
Is Chet the league’s next unicorn? Would all of these headlines ask that very same question if he weren’t the league’s next unicorn?
Our first summer of Chet is now in full swing. The Oklahoma City Thunder took Holmgren second overall in last month’s draft, one spot lower than many people thought he should be picked (and one spot higher than Jabari Smith, who some pundits think was the rightful No. 1). In his debut at the NBA Summer League on Tuesday, he scored 23 points, acquired seven rebounds, and distributed four assists. Most of those points came on picturesque jumpers from distance, with one high-flying dunk thrown in for variety:
All of that was fun. He also blocked six shots, a Summer League record, which is indeed a thing the NBA tracks. Holmgren has a thing for blocking historic proportions of shots in his first game with a team. In his debut at Gonzaga, he swatted seven to tie a program record. (He tied that record again later in the year.)
So, that’s the ceiling: a big man with speed, a handle, and a 7-foot-6 wingspan. In his second Summer League game, we got acquainted with the floor. On Wednesday night, the shots weren’t falling, and Chet finished 3 of 11 from the field. He also got bodied under the rim in more or less the way that you’d expect an extremely skinny big man—he’s listed at 195 pounds and appears several clicks ganglier than rookie year Kevin Durant—to get bullied by a bigger NBA player (or in the case of Kenneth Lofton Jr., an NBA aspirant).
But even so, the floor for Chet is going to involve a lot of good stuff. He still double-doubled, with a not-horrendously-inefficient 11 points and 12 rebounds. And the point here is not to quibble with inconvenient data points that mess with our thesis. It’s Summer League, a time to be excited about endless possibility. You can look at Holmgren and see almost anything you want, sometimes without straining:
Chet is no longer the future. Chet is happening now, and the early returns are fun. That does not necessarily mean that he will play out a long and prosperous career as some amalgamation of Joel Embiid, Kobe Bryant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But he is a professional playing against professionals, and he looks the part. As Chetmania sweeps the streets, one thing is a virtual certainty: We are going to see what is possible from an NBA player whose body and range of skills have never made sense.
At Gonzaga, he put up 15 points and 10 rebounds per game in just 27 minutes, carrying the ball up the floor sometimes and nailing 3s. He was even more of a menace close to the basket, going 129 for 175 on 2-pointers, a 74 percent make rate that placed him second in all of college hoops. In one respect, Gonzaga’s system showcased the full range of Holmgren’s talents. The Zags play at a breakneck pace, so Holmgren was four-fifths a great basketball player and one-fifth a track star. It all worked well enough that Gonzaga should have won the national title. (I will keep picking them to do that every year until they finally pull it off.)
But Chet was not the Zags’ No. 1 scoring option. That was center Drew Timme, who used up about 30 percent of the Bulldogs’ possessions (and whom Holmgren will stand up for at the slightest provocation). Holmgren wasn’t even the clear No. 2: His usage rate was a mere 22 percent, basically in line with a couple of teammates. This system worked great for Gonzaga, at least until the latest in a long line of devastating NCAA Tournament losses. But it robbed the world of the full Chet experience. I want Chet running the floor and playing his own brand of position-less basketball, as he did in Spokane, but I am even more interested in watching him get fed a steady diet of basketballs that he can try to dunk and sky-hook over NBA big men who might have 30, 50, or 70 pounds on him.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, is poised to showcase the full range of Chet. The world is destined to see if Chet, at all of 200 pounds or whatever he weighs in at after the Thunder ply him with a diet of ice cream for breakfast, cheeseburgers for brunch, prime rib for lunch, and spaghetti for dinner, can be a true NBA center with a body type that people with his job description just don’t have. Lucky for him, a “true NBA center” circa 2022 is rarely a back-to-the-basket bulldozer. But he will still have to operate in the half court, and against men who are much larger than him. Gonzaga’s lightning-fast system does not exist in the NBA, where every team plays at pretty much the same speed. (On pace terms, the fastest operating NBA teams take about 100 possessions per game, and the slowest take about 95. The gap between Gonzaga and a slow-paced college team is well into the double-digits of possessions, despite the game being eight minutes shorter than the NBA’s.) So, we will get to see Chet banging around with dudes, even though he did not have to do much of that to post big figures in his Summer League debut.
Also—and this is a fundamental point here—the Thunder are not going to be good this year. Pre-Chet, Oklahoma City acquired a couple of potential franchise cornerstones in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. Beyond that, the team’s future promise is almost all tied up in rookies—the team brought in three non-Chet draftees this year: Ousmane Dieng and, incredibly, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams—and a staggering number of future first-round draft picks. The Thunder’s primary goal this year is to see what all these young guys can do. Chet carrying a huge load on his bony shoulders is all part of the plan.
The greatest hope for the people of Oklahoma is that Chet gives the Thunder something loosely approximating what Durant gave them for eight seasons (plus one with the Seattle Sonics, may they rest in peace), and that he manages to win the championship that Durant did not get until he joined the Warriors. But before we start measuring his ring finger, let’s revel in the Chet science experiment. NBA big men are all incredible athletes now, and most of them can step out and shoot a bit. Nikola Jokic and Embiid have been setting the sport ablaze for several years. But neither of them carries the distinctive, Chetty look that Chet carries while he plays his own position, which I will call “the Chet.” He stretches the limit of a “stretch five,” almost literally.
It’s not irrational to gaze upon Chet with fear—to worry that he will get perpetually injured and be Greg Oden rather than, say, Embiid, who also got hurt a lot but then found some durability and became an elite player.
But that is not fun. Another way to look at Chet is to acknowledge that we almost never see players who are even remotely like him, and we have never seen a player who is exactly like him. He is one of one, whatever that turns out to mean. America may or may not become a nation of Chet devotees. But at this moment in history, it is not possible to be a basketball fan without being Chet-curious.