The Juxtaposition of Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren
It’s rare for me to have two centers towards the top of a draft, but Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren's versatility and uniqueness will be tough to pass on.
Over the last 20 years, no position has experienced as much disruption and skepticism as the center position has. What was once a position of prestige devolved into obsolescence with the advent and proliferation of "small ball." Surviving on the perimeter grew from a luxury into a necessity and brought us into the age of "unicorns." While that phrase is often misused, misleading, and applied to any seven-footer who shows a hint of mobility, we do seem to be entering an era where the center position is flush with versatility and a variety of styles. Few things highlight this idea as much as the juxtaposition of Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren, two of the top prospects for the 2022 NBA Draft.
If you're feeling less than amenable and want to nitpick with "well actually, Banchero is a power forward," then fine, congrats. However, playing as a small-ball center for long periods is absolutely in his future and possibly his best role. When you place the film and measurements of Banchero and Holmgren side by side, you struggle to understand how these two humans are the same species.
Before we dive into the film, let's discuss who these players are. I could drop comparisons like Banchero is late Lob City era Blake Griffin or Holmgren is what Kristaps Porzingis was expected to be but going in with those solidified views before they've faced consistent high-level competition feels outlandish and potentially misleading. Instead, I'm going to get a little weird with these comparisons.
I promise this isn't an insult, but Banchero reminds me of Shrek. "You just compared him to an ogre. How is that not an insult?" Well, for starters, Shrek was the star of four movies and one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Like Shrek, Banchero has a powerful physical presence and is willing to use unorthodox methods to get the job done. When Shrek singlehandedly dismantled Lord Farquaad's tournament, he didn't need to wash them away with a vat of ale or take them out from the top rope, but he has an appreciation for flair and the physical ability to do so. Similarly, Banchero doesn't need to dribble between his legs before crossing over into a step back to get a shot off. He does, though, because he can, and it is good practice for a skill he will likely need in the future to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
Additionally, Shrek has layers like an onion and a bit of an identity crisis. He's torn because he feels like he has to take the potion to become Prince Charming but also that he needs to go out of his way to be the ugly ogre the rest of the world views him as. In reality (I chuckled typing "in reality" when talking about an animated ogre), Shrek is a bit of both, which makes him unique. Banchero seems to be equally torn between two worlds. One is this physically imposing big man, and the other is a point forward with skill, flair, and perimeter skills.
While Banchero is this mix of skill and power, Holmgren is a mix of length and finesse. Holmgren has limbs that seem to go on forever, akin to Mr. Fantastic if he failed to fully retract. Mr. Fantastic is known for his brilliance and elongation ability. Both of which routinely conquer problems he had no right to get out of. Similarly, Holmgren's length and awareness make him a special rim protector and scorer. Holmgren routinely blocks shots he has no business getting to and is excellent and feeling and countering his defender's momentum for an easy bucket. Like any great superhero, though, there has to be a weakness, which in this case is strength. If you're afraid that Holmgren will snap in half when you watch him play, you won't be the first with that concern. Holmgren's length is a tremendous asset, but it also is the route cause of his most significant liability. Holmgren will get displaced regularly, but these concerns will be largely assuaged if he can find his Ben Grimm.
One of the most significant selling points for Banchero is his combination of skill, size, and athleticism that could make him an exceptional scorer. Watching Banchero's high school film could be incredibly frustrating because he so infrequently imposed himself on his competition and instead chose to take a step back jumper or break them down off the dribble. While this led to me frequently rolling my eyes in frustration, it also gave me a tremendous amount of belief in his future development. Not to a point where I think he's going to be the next dominant off the bounce scoring forward, but if he has the awareness and willingness to try things out of his comfort zone now, then it gives him a great starting point for his continued development.
Banchero isn't a good shooter yet, and there will be many shooting struggles for him to overcome, but there is still a lot to be excited about. Banchero looks comfortable shooting out of various situations and has pretty consistent mechanics, despite some lower body variations. He will gladly pull up from the pick-and-roll, shoot off the catch, or knock down a step-back jumper. Banchero may not be a primary scoring option on an NBA team, but he could be a superb second option if his shooting results become more reliable.
Unfortunately, his shooting and ball-handling results can vary widely. Here, Banchero produces one of his perplexing possessions. Banchero uses an in-and-out dribble that trips him up a bit. He then uses a crossover that is too far in front of his body and a series of between-the-legs dribbles into a mediocre step-back. Banchero used all of these moves to cover about six feet of space, create zero space from his defender, and air-ball a long mid-range fadeaway. Hopefully, this is Banchero just trying something out and not taking what he thinks is the best shot possible.
While Banchero's scoring game has tremendous upside, his passing is a unique skill that I expect to immediately translate. Banchero is very patient with the ball, has excellent vision, and is an accurate passer. When defenses collapse or double him, Banchero has no issues finding an open teammate.
Here, Banchero initiates his post-up with a rip-through jab step before spinning baseline. Banchero's defender does a quality job of not giving Banchero a great angle. Banchero could try a wild scoop shot, but as he comes out of his spin, he sees the weak side defender slide over to completely remove the baseline. Banchero doesn't hesitate, changes the angle of his pass, and splits the defenders to find his cutting teammate.
Banchero's passing ability combined with his athleticism and scoring will help the versatility of any offense he's a part of. Banchero can regularly punish defenses for overcommitting by finding open shooters out of the post or spark an offense with his grab-and-go ability. Like his shot attempts, Banchero isn't afraid of a splash of flair. He is creative, patient, and reliable as a passer, a skillset becoming a greater necessity for big men.
Despite his physical prowess, Banchero is more of a mystery on defense. He has the physical tools to be great and has shown flashes of it, but he frequently is a step behind with his processing. He doesn't do a great job of anticipating rotations and has inconsistent results when defending the pick-and-roll. Banchero's defensive inconsistencies may be a symptom of him simply not being fully locked in for entire games against lesser competition and inferior athletes. It could also be something he merely develops more with more experience, better coaching, and further exposure to better competition. Regardless, Banchero will have to prove to be a more consistent and more reliable team defender, or playing him as a small-ball five will be a struggle.
My final concern is something I've hinted at throughout this, which is Banchero's aversion to contact. I want to believe that it is a result of Banchero wanting to expand his on-ball skillset with dribble moves that require complicated footwork and ball-handling skills because we rarely saw Banchero impose himself against lesser athletes. Banchero could easily post-up, use a drop step, and finish through his defender in nearly every game he played. Instead, he frequently opted for the one-footed fadeaway or the step-back jumper. We've seen some clips of Banchero being more eager to impose himself during his brief time at Duke so far, but if Banchero's lack of physical play in high school is a symptom of him not willing and unable to play that style, there will be a brutal learning curve.
Holmgren has long been viewed as one of the best prospects because of his unique measurements and legitimate two-way impact. Holmgren's body looks like something out of a science fiction story with limbs that go on forever but the weight of a point guard. Despite his gangly frame, there is nothing awkward or uncoordinated about Holmgren's movement. Holmgren is a fluid athlete who can survive in all three areas of the floor but has the rim protection instincts of a traditional center.
Holmgren's ability to be a dominant rim protector should highlight his defensive impact from day one. With his tremendous length, Holmgren can block and contest shots that very few players can. Holmgren's rim protection impact doesn't come from him purely chasing every block, either. He is a disciplined defender who rarely bites on fakes or leaves his man open for uncontested tip-ins.
Holmgren is excellent at locating the ball before swiping it away. He doesn't contest a shot without a plan but instead is patient and disciplined with his hand placement to ensure he doesn't wildly slap down on the ball. Holmgren is also relentless with his rim protection. He makes multiple efforts and refuses to give up anything easy at the rim. Holmgren is also already elite at staying vertical at the rim. So many players, especially young ones with tremendous length, want to rack up their block numbers and end up swiping at the ball and committing fouls. Holmgren is more focused on deterring over-blocking. He knows that he doesn't have to block every shot to be a great rim protector. Instead, he disrupts every shot by staying vertical, contorting his body to mirror the offensive player, and then trying to block the shot if the opportunity presents himself. His level of disciplined and verticality is rare for someone his age and a promising precursor for his future rim protection impact.
Holmgren won't be firmly entrenched at the rim, though. Holmgren can also occasionally defend on the perimeter. It shouldn't be the defense's first choice, but if Holmgren is forced to switch on the perimeter, he can survive for short bursts. Due to his lanky frame, Holmgren can struggle to react accordingly. He struggles with shiftier guards because his feet can't react quick enough. He will get blown past on occasion and lost on a well-executed step-back, but a lot of the time, he'll be able to recover using his length. When drawn out to the perimeter in the pick-and-roll, though, Holmgren will likely thrive in drop coverage. He positions himself well, has the length to disrupt passing lanes, and has the awareness to quickly react.
Here, Holmgren does just that. As the ball-handler comes off the screen, Holmgren ushers him towards the baseline without committing too far to either the ball-handler or back to his man. Once the pass is made back to the roller, Holmgren immediately flips his hips, takes one step, and is in position to cut off his man from the rim. The roller is smothered by Holmgren's length and turns the ball over.
As impressive as Holmgren's defense is, his offense is equally fascinating. Despite his height, Holmgren doesn't rely on physicality but instead on finesse and skill. He is a reliable three-level scorer who is a quality passer and has shown flashes of running the pick-and-roll. Offensive initiation will likely be more of an ancillary skill for Holmgren at the next level, but his teams can utilize it, especially in transition. Holmgren doesn't have the same level of passing ingenuity as Banchero, but he is more than capable of finding the open shooter or dumping it off to a cutter.
While Banchero has the edge on Holmgren in the passing realm, Holmgren is leaps and bounds ahead of Banchero as a shooter. Holmgren isn't quite at the level of a Bol Bol or Porzingis as far as lanky seven-foot shooters go, but it is a legitimate skill of his that will help imbalance defenses. Holmgren can shoot off the catch and is very comfortable shooting off the dribble. He has a high, smooth release that will be nearly impossible to block. Holmgren running inverted pick-and-rolls with a reliable shooting guard will be a nightmare for defenses to deal with.
Holmgren has also proven he is more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim as well. He needs to tighten up his handle as it can be loose and high (not unexpected for someone his size), but it is good enough for him to consistently get to the rim. Holmgren won't blow past defenders with his burst or break them down through a series of moves, but he is excellent at reading and countering his defender's momentum. When they reach, he crosses over and goes past them. When they flip their hips to turn and run, he spins back against their momentum to go the opposite direction. He is patient and deliberate with his movements. He doesn't have to get to the rim every time, but he can use his length to consistently finish over his defender as long as he gets close enough.
The most significant question mark will be Holmgren's ability to handle physical play. Defensively, Holmgren will have to do a lot of his work early in the possession by not giving up post position and doing a good job of fronting/denying his man. Holmgren also does a great job compensating for his lack of strength at the rim with his verticality. There will be struggles, though, and lesser skilled players who are more physical will sometimes have their way with him. We won't really know how it will impact him until we see a consistent sample, though.
Offensively, I have little to no concerns about Holmgren's lack of strength. He won't have much of a traditional physical post-game, but we've already seen how he can thrive on the perimeter. Holmgren has never relied on overpowering defenders to score in the post, so why would that be an issue or expectation now? Instead, Holmgren uses his length, fluidity, and touch to win his battles.
Here, Holmgren immediately faces up once he receives the post entry pass. Holmgren rips through towards the baseline, spins back towards the middle of the floor, and knocks down the fade away. The fluidity and intention with which Holmgren moves are perfect. The defender does a decent job of staying in position, but Holmgren doesn't need much space to get a quality look. He stays balanced, uses perfect footwork, and uses his length to shoot from a spot in which the defender has almost no chance to effectively deter him.
When it comes to the draft, I am always hesitant to highly rank centers. Not because I devalue the position, but because I think they have to show tremendous versatility on both ends of the floor to be worthy of an early lottery pick. Each year, this pool of prolific two-way centers grows despite none of them playing precisely the same style. The center position never died. It just went through a brief hibernation cycle to complete its transformation and produce more enigmatic prospects like Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren.