The Overthinking of Chet Holmgren
Chet Holmgren is all but a lock to be selected inside the Top 3 on Draft night, but are we overthinking the potential "unicorn" as anything but the clear cut number 1 prospect?
Corey: Ever since greats like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the NBA, the positional landscape has shifted in seismic ways. Footers were supposed to plod around the paint operating on the block, not bring the ball up the floor or run off pin-downs. The evolution of the game wasn’t supposed to happen this fast, but basketball, like life, finds a way.
When Kristaps Porzingis arrived in New York, the term unicorn entered the lexicon. It was used as a way to express the rarity of bigs that could pass, dribble, shoot, and defend. Fast forward to today, and it feels like the term is thrown around more indiscriminately than an errant pass from Poku. If every modern big is a unicorn, are any of them?
The term unicorn should be used selectively, reserved for the truly unique prospects that grace the hardwood. If you can ask the question “have we ever seen a player like this before” and the answer is yes, then that player probably isn’t a unicorn.
Chet Holmgren IS a unicorn. But more importantly, Chet Holmgren’s combination of skill, length, versatility, and feel; embodies the pillars that represent the modern NBA.
Rucker: As fans of basketball, we start to find ourselves adapting. When the style of the game we love is changed, we slowly begin to adjust our eyes and thoughts to process this suddenly new world of possibilities. But there’s always the rare occurrence that happens in which we struggle to comprehend what is developing in front of us.
As Corey hinted before, basketball fans and evaluators tend to love the idea of throwing out the concept of a “unicorn.” The problem is, just like the mythical creature that is difficult to find, we continue to pair that term with an idea instead of a reality. The moment we find a tall basketball player with the ability to showcase another ability to go along with his frame, we tend to think that this is a “holy shit” type of moment.
But the true mythical creature has been finding a prospect that offers elite skills in a number of areas. The true “unicorn” is finding a young player that has the potential to transform the NBA with his uniqueness. We’ve seen it happen with players like Giannis, but it didn’t just happen overnight. While Antetokounmpo himself became a player that has rattled the cages of opposing teams in the NBA with his ability to become a dominant force, what if there’s another level to that type of danger? What if a player in a similar mold to the Milwaukee Bucks superstar could take the way the game is played and suggest the possibility of unlocking another level of madness?
Corey: We bring up players like Giannis and Durant not as a means of placing enormous expectations on unproven prospects but as a way to pilot us through this new terrain of uniqueness we see as we watch the way the game has evolved. Sometimes taking the next step is scary.
Chet scares us because he represents something that we haven’t seen before. A frame that frail isn’t supposed to be worthy of the number one pick. But looking at the slight frame isn’t digging deep enough. There is no true NBA doppelganger for Chet. There is no precedent to help tilt the scales in one direction or the other. We’ve seen dudes that may resemble aspects of Holmgren being passed through the league, but those guys didn’t come equipped with the complete skill set or, more importantly, the mentality that Chet has at his disposal.
Shawn Bradley may have physically looked like Chet, but he couldn’t dream of playing like him. Bol Bol may have a similarly diverse skill-set, but he doesn’t have the same drive or feel for the game. Porzingis can shoot it like Holmgren, but he doesn’t have the same fluidity moving around the court.
A lot of the discourse around Chet reminds me of the pre-draft discourse around Luka Doncic. Now I know what you’re thinking, so let me be very clear: I’m not saying that Chet is a Luka-level prospect, but the way that we talk about Chet so rarely pertains to on-court dialogue. Rarely do I see someone question his sometimes slow trigger from behind the arch or the need to improve upon his first step burst. The dialogue is just so rarely about hoops. It’s easy to get in your own head looking at Holmgren at surface level, but this is a situation one shouldn’t overthink.
Rucker: The problem with “new” is that we immediately find ourselves nervous. So our first natural instinct is to try to find a comparison to prevent us from having a panic attack. The same situation comes into place when having to discuss a Draft prospect. We dive immediately into an individual, and the first question that usually comes to mind is: “So, what NBA player does he remind you of?”
The realization is that some of these athletes that are coming into the NBA with each passing year are becoming less and less similar to the players who came before them. Every year, a new wave of individuals gets prepared to take the leap to the next level of basketball glory. But there’s a new wave of athlete that is taking over the game.
That’s exactly where Chet Holmgren comes in. As Corey stated before, Chet represents something that we’ve never seen before. The truth is, Chet also represents something that every NBA fan base has felt before.
Fear. The fear that taking a swing on the “unknown” can translate into setting back a franchise for years to come. The fear that if your team overthinks it and passes up on this player, it could be a decision that haunts the organization for the next decade. Holmgren has all of the characteristics that will have fans quick to point out previous comparables. The truth is that Holmgren could be the very unicorn that we’ve all been chasing.
The defensive dominance is legit. The awareness and basketball IQ are remarkable. The offensive upside is terrifying. Chet Holmgren might not just be a unicorn; he could be a mythical creature from another dimension. He has the tools and upside to turn into a psychotic two-way machine.
Corey: But a lot of prospects have “tools”—Cam Reddish and Kevin Knox had tools. Having the tools isn’t enough. When you’re picking inside of the Top 3, you need the prospect to not only have the tools but understand how to operate them.
I think what is so intriguing about Holmgren the prospect is that he didn’t just show flashes of his potential. He was legitimately great as a freshman, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his pre-college career. Even more intriguing is that Holmgren only got to show some of what he’s truly capable of at Gonzaga.
But before we break down Chet’s offensive capabilities, I think we’d be remiss not to articulate how special Chet is as a defensive prospect.
The playoffs always offer important insights into what kind of players can and can’t play in a playoff setting. As a big, are you scheme versatile enough to not get played off the floor when great NBA coaches make game-to-game adjustments? Holmgren is scheme-proof.
When Robert Williams’s knee has looked spry enough, he’s been wreaking havoc on the defensive end against the Warriors. He’s flying around the floor, rotating out to shooters, and then coming over from the weakside and putting a lid on the hoop—just becoming a deterrent from finishing around the rim, using his agility and length to make things difficult for the Golden State offense.
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Chet roving around the floor, operating in a similar fashion.
Chet is one of the most freakishly impressive shot-blocking prospects I’ve ever scouted. His length scares the shit out of downhill attackers, but it’s his knack for perfectly timing contests that makes him so proficient at it.
Holmgren isn’t just a rim protector; he’s a rim intimidator. Often times guards will enter the paint with the idea that they will get a shot up before realizing the error of their ways, and either Nash dribble back out to the perimeter or completely just pick up their dribble in a precarious position forcing a tough non-penetrating pass back out to the perimeter. Both scenarios end with no shot attempt and a huge chunk of the shot clock being burned.
The rim protection is an integral part of what makes Chet special, but what makes a modern NBA big man is the ability to guard out to the perimeter.
Steph Curry changed the dynamics of how bigs guard ball screens. When Al Horford played a drop at the three-point line, Steph rained threes. It wasn’t enough to play all the way up to the three-point line—you have to be able to play at the level of the screen no matter where that level actually begins on the floor.
Chet isn’t as fluid as Evan Mobley is out on the perimeter, but he’s still a special mover for a prospect with his physical attributes. And while not every NBA player can stretch the floor as Steph can, Chet’s go-go gadget arms afford him some breathing room when playing in a drop so that he can get a clean contest on shooters while still giving them enough cushion to play the big for the roll.
I touched on it earlier, but Chet’s feel on the defensive end is special, so when he’s forced into a scenario where he has to guard two, he excels at playing the cat and mouse game. Guards fear shooting over his length, and his timing to recover back to the roll man is exceptional.
Basketball’s Mr. Fantastic proved time and again how versatile he is. While Rudy Gobert’s defensive issues in the playoffs are overblown, I’d be hard-pressed to see the same conversations about Chet down the line. Shifty guards like Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams made Chet look silly on a few occasions, but as a whole, his ability to guard in space out on an island is not something a team can go to in an attempt to play him off the floor as he’s fully capable of getting low and wide and moving his feet fluidly enough to stick with guards and wings and force them into inefficient shots over and around his outstretched arms.
But look how skinny he is! He’s gonna get killed in the post!
My dudes, this is not the 1990s. Shaq, Pat, and Hakeem ain’t walking through that door. If your team’s game plan is to go at Chet down low and take advantage of his weight on the block, well, all I’ll say is good luck! Memphis went into Duren early and often in their tourney game and watched him get his shit sent directly back to him. UCLA tried to go to the post against Chet as well, with similar results.
See, the thing about Chet is that he may be skinny, but he’s a bad motherfucker. You go into his chest, and he’s going to go right back at you.
Will Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic be able to bully ball Chet? Yes, of course they will. But we’re talking about maybe two guys in the entire league. And as my friend Larry Tumminia said on a recent episode of the Draftdaq NBA Draft Podcast, and I’ll ask you the same thing Rucker, “how the hell are they going to guard him?”
Rucker: *Lights a Cigar*
Ah yes, now we’re getting to the fun stuff, folks. First of all, let me just go ahead and second what Corey said about the “Thin Man.” Don’t let the frame fool you—Chet is one of the best defensive prospects you might come across in years to come. At the beginning of the year, I asked an NBA scout who I trusted their thoughts about Chet. “More defensively ready than Mobley was.” I also jokingly asked: “You worried about the frame?” To which I got a very blunt response of “GMs who overthink the frame are ones that get fired.”
It’s one thing to be skinny. It’s another thing to know your “weakness” and welcome every single one of your opponents to challenge it like you’re a waiter leading them to a dinner table. That’s the mentality that Chet Holmgren has. He shows you his most vulnerable point on the basketball court, and he dares you to exploit it.
But ENOUGH WITH THE DEFENSE COREY. As you hinted at the end, these folks want to talk about buckets. It’s one thing for a player listed at 7’0” to have the potential to space the floor with his outside shot. It’s another thing for that same player to look to have the ability to become an absolute sniper from deep.
Let me get this out there before we continue. No, he’s not Kevin Durant. Enough of that s**t. There’s one Kevin Durant.
There’s also one Chet Holmgren. At the beginning of the year, I realized that I needed to put out a potential headache before it blossomed. I needed to see what all the hype was about with him. Scouting on film and scouting in-person are two different worlds, so I traveled to get an up-close and personal look at the Gonzaga product. After watching Holmgren go through a number of pregame workouts, I understood what all the buzz was about for him. Yes, I truly believe that Holmgren was only able to showcase just a teaser of what ability he has on the offensive side of the ball during his freshman year.
Sure, the three-point shot is going to have fans salivating at the idea of a lengthy floor spacer with NBA range. But it’s the entire package coming together that suggests a player with dominant upside is just brewing like a mad scientist’s experiment.
Holmgren can make a defensive stop, secure a rebound, turn into a floor general and quickly make two moves before finishing on the other end with authority.
I’m also a firm believer that Holmgren has some face-up game in the mid-range that is just waiting to be unleashed at the next level. There are flashes of brilliance when it comes to his footwork and feel on the offensive side of the ball. While Chet showcased an impressive feel when it came to transition opportunities throughout the year, he also teased us with some sprinkles of it in the halfcourt. It suggests the idea that the talented big man could be a more focal point of an offensive moving forward, especially as his game continues to develop.
Alright, Corey, let’s finish this with one simple question…are we overthinking Chet Holmgren?
Corey: The simple answer is yes, Rucker. Well, not us necessarily; I think we’ve been driving full steam ahead on the Holmgren bandwagon all draft cycle. There has been a segment of the internet, though, that has met Holmgren with extreme skepticism. Maybe that grouping ends up being right about Chet. Maybe he is too frail to handle an 82-game season. Maybe he’s just Bradley with a jumper. But I’m not counting on it. My chips are on the table. I think Holmgren is the goods. The fact that Holmgren can go coast to coast, stop on a dime, and smoothly knock down above the break threes is wild to me.
The way that this dude can attack a close-out, spin off either shoulder, and finish at the cup gives me extreme optimism that with the benefit of a spaced-out NBA floor, he’s going to be given the opportunity to bring that stuff out of his bag way more often.
You mentioned that Chet is the ultimate basketball mad scientist experiment. I think you’re right, but more importantly Chet is a turning point for the big man position. The gate to the Upside Down where Victor Wembanyama is patiently lurking. The only question left for me to answer now, as spoken by the legendary Jeff Goldblum: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Most casual fans fall for certain players and bash them for their own personal reasons. So last year Bouknight was actually seen as a top 5 choice while Giddey came in 10th in the consensus mock. If you read the comments on most mock chatter Chet is viewed overwhelmingly negative while Duren is predominantly positive. Why? As skinny as Ingram was and is he didn’t get the same abuse and his frame hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the league’s best.
When Bill Russell came into the NBA in 1956 he was by far the most dominant player in college but gms were skeptical of his shooting skills, and he actually went second to Red Auerbach, and the Celtic dynasty had started. As you aptly showed us Chet has the skill mixture, drive and personality to turn OKC into a dynasty as they are assembling the other pieces before our eyes. Whoever they get at 12 or higher—Daniels, Sochan, Sharpe or Branham, maybe Williams will be immediately rotational. The 19, 20, and 21 kids from last year will be much more physical and smarter as that’s what happens as you mature.
I hope it’s Chet but I’m not at all certain that the Magic won’t grab him first. Thanks for the terrific coverage.