Chet Holmgren flashes potential, shows flaws in Summer League
By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer
SALT LAKE CITY — Those who are skeptical Chet Holmgren is destined for NBA stardom point to his physique, 195 pounds stretched over a 7-foot frame and a 7-foot-6 wing span.
Those who are optimistic about his chances understand, because they initially had the same reaction.
It’s what you can’t see by just looking at his narrow hips and shoulders and pipe-cleaner limbs that won them over.
“First time you see him, all you see is how skinny he is,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Then you see how he can shoot it and pass it and put the ball on the floor, and you’re like, ‘OK.’ It’s his competitiveness, his toughness — just looking at him, you may not see that right away. But he has it. That’s why I think he has a chance.”
Does Chet Holmgren’s Summer League debut prove doubters wrong?
Chet Holmgren shined in his NBA Summer League debut, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and six blocks. While many scouts cited his size as a big concern coming into the league, Colin Cowherd is not concerned.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are counting on it. They made Holmgren the second overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, just behind No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero, who went first to the Orlando Magic, and just ahead of Auburn forward Jabari Smith, taken by the Houston Rockets.
Holmgren provided evidence for both critics and advocates in his first taste of professional competition in the Salt Lake City Summer League.
Confronted by one of the biggest bodies the NBA has to offer, 7-foot-6, 311-pound Tacko Fall, Holmgren produced the stat line of Thunder GM Sam Presti’s dreams: 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting, which included four three-pointers, a perfect 5-for-5 on free throws and a half-dozen blocked shots.
Fall’s only basket in four attempts came after Holmgren denied him at the rim and Fall recovered the ball for a put-back dunk. And although he was the only player in the game to break 20, it never looked as if Holmgren was hunting for shots. He was just as content to drive into the paint and kick the ball back out for one of his four assists or set and re-set screens for teammates, more than once appearing to take more of a hit than deliver one.
When he wasn’t in the game, no one celebrated a Thunder 3, dunk or defensive stop more enthusiastically and before he ducked into the locker room afterward, he high-fived every member of the coaching staff.
The game announcer twice identified him as third-year center Aleksej Pokusevski after making a basket; rather than take it as a slight, Holmgren was amused.
“That’s twindom,” he said, referring to their similar looks. “I’m sure it’ll happen again at some point.”
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Holmgren also downplayed his performance.
“I’m always going to say I could do better,” he said. “It’s pretty impossible to have a perfect game, and that’s what you’re striving for. So, it’s back to the gym, have to be better tomorrow.”
He was not. While the Jazz were repeatedly surprised by Holmgren’s wing span, resulting in blocked jumpers as well as layup attempts, the Grizzlies utilized quicker releases and higher arcs. Holmgren finished with only a pair of blocked shots, both of them on hurried attempts as the shot clock was about to expire, and neither of them coming until well into the second half.
“I think everybody knows he has a reputation for being a great shot-blocker, so I’m sure they all watched the game,” said Grizzlies assistant coach David McClure, who is in charge of the summer league squad. “We obviously brought what happened last night to their attention.”
Holmgren’s lack of a refined post game also prevented him from exploiting a Memphis lineup that featured a 6-8, 280-pound undrafted center in Kenny Lofton, Jr.
Against the Jazz, Holmgren operated offensively almost exclusively on the perimeter and Fall could not post him up at the other end, but that might have more to do with the former’s lack of footwork or shooting touch. Kofi Cockburn, the Jazz’s undrafted 7-foot, 293-pound center, twice bulldozed Holmgren for easy finishes at the rim.
Lofton, who goes simply by “Junior,” was an entirely different story. His stocky appearance and limited hops belie a highly developed inside-outside offensive arsenal. He spent four years in the USA Basketball program, where he won a gold medal playing with Holmgren on the Under-19 World Cup team.
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That familiarity was on full display in Salt Lake City. Lofton was not the least bit intimidated, using his girth to bump Holmgren off balance and slip in shots off the glass before he could recover. He also crowded Holmgren beyond the 3-point arc, limiting him to one make in six tries while burying a pair himself, including one as the shot clock expired from 30 feet.
The Thunder still won thanks to overall superiority in rebounding and 3-point shooting, but Lofton, having outscored Holmgren 19-11, clearly was in better spirits when he approached his USA teammate on the court after the final buzzer.
“I look at everybody the same,” Lofton said. “We’re friends off the court, but on the court it’s time to compete and dominate. But it’s just one game. Chet is going to be a great player. He can play one through five, he can mainly do everything in the book, and no one can take that away from him.”
That didn’t stop Lofton from giving him a little something afterward. “I just asked him if he liked that shot from half court,” he said laughing.
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A Western Conference scout seeing Holmgren for the first time in person did not come away overly impressed.
“I don’t see how he doesn’t struggle,” the scout said. “He played almost like a 2 (shooting guard) on offense, and he has to play 5 (center) on defense. He tried to go by guys and couldn’t. And I’m sure everybody is going to get physical with him.”
Holmgren does have some unique physical advantages as well. He has a smooth shooting stroke, and he gets surprisingly low for a big man, both defending on the perimeter and on his drives, making him far less likely to get picked than your typical 7-footer off the dribble. Same goes for the balance and footwork on his spinning drives.
The Thunder’s second-year forward, Josh Giddey, is not worried about Holmgren figuring out how to utilize his offensive skills, but he, too, acknowledged that opponents are sure to test Holmgren’s physical resilience.
“Offensively, he’s going to have no problems,” Giddey said. “The one thing might just be with the bigger bodies, how well can he keep being physical with them. The NBA is a grind. (Joel) Embiid and those type of guys. That part he’s going to have to get used to as he plays more games.”
The Eastern scout in Holmgren’s corner, though, took both his reluctance to celebrate his success against the Jazz or shed his unhappiness over Lofton’s success as the exact attitude he will need to flourish. If Holmgren has any ego or expects any sort of star treatment as this year’s second overall pick, it is not apparent.
Asked how much he planned to play for the Thunder’s summer-league team — the top half-dozen picks rarely play more than the first three or four games — Holmgren essentially said it was not up to him.
“I’m a professional basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and I listen to the higher- ups,” he said flatly. “If I’m told to go out and play, I’m going to lace ‘em up, whenever, wherever.”
When a writer — not me — noted that the array of offensive skills Holmgren displayed were not readily apparent during his one season at Gonzaga, a subtle invitation to confide that the college game or the Bulldogs’ system held him back, Holmgren refused to bite.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Holmgren replied. “I would just say I put in a lot of work into my game this last offseason, and I’m trying to show that on the court while staying within the team. It’s not necessarily about me going out and trying to put on a personal skills challenge show or anything. I’m just trying to play within the team and hope to win the basketball game.”
So what is going to win out, Holmgren’s frighteningly willowy build or his frighteningly unique skills? Summer League competition isn’t going to determine that.
But it will assuredly provide a few clues. Some might say it already has.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds,” the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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