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NBA

Who is Chet Holmgren, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s No. 2 NBA Draft pick?

AS’ Juanma Rubio profiles Chet Holmgren, a player who boasts boundless potential - but also comes with plenty of risk.

Update:
AS’ Juanma Rubio profiles Chet Holmgren, a player who boasts boundless potential - but also comes with plenty of risk.
Arturo HolmesAFP

Chet Holmgren can’t buy certain models of Nike shoes, because there isn’t a size that fits his feet. He finds a comfortable aeroplane seat hard to come by and began wearing the 34 shirt because it happened to be the only one that would fit him at Minnehaha Academy, the prestigious high school where he played alongside close friend Jalen Suggs - a player who, like Holmgren, went on to star for Gonzaga Bulldogs in the college game.

Suggs, a 6ft 5in combo guard, played for the Bulldogs in the 2020/21 season before being picked fifth in the Draft by the Orlando Magic, where he endured a difficult rookie campaign in the NBA. Following in his footsteps, Holmgren went to Gonzaga in 2021/22, and has been drafted at number two. He’ll play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was the Magic who had the number-one selection, but they chose Paolo Banchero. Holmgren and Suggs were one pick away from their dream of playing together once more.

Risk factor sees Holmgren drafted at No. 2

Holmgren was a serious contender to be the first pick, because he has a range of qualities that mean the sky is the limit for him. He’s one of those unicorns that are produced in the basketball of today, a game all about fluid positions and versatility. What to do with a player who’s 20, 7ft tall, has a 7ft 6in wingspan and moves like a point guard with ball in hand? Literally anything you want. But: what to do with a lad who weighs just 195lb, has stick-thin arms and legs and, in general, a physique that won’t transition easily to professional basketball?

That was the debate. Holmgren is so good that he was never going to fall far down the Draft. But whichever franchise selected him would have to have the guts to be patient with his physical development. Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr (the latter was picked at number three), appeared to be steadier bets. When it comes to Holmgren, the possibilities are endless; but the risks are greater.

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Holmgren’s first steps in basketball

Holmgren’s father played for the University of Minnesota, where knee injuries scuppered his career. When his son grew to over 6ft by the age of 11, he sought to give him a good basketballing education. But he chose to be his father rather than his coach. He showed him the basics at home, but left the hard work to Brian Sandifer, a man whose ability to mould young basketball players is well-known in the Minneapolis area. Under Sandifer’s tutelage, Holmgren admits that he ended up in tears after many training sessions (“but I always come back, I take on the challenges”). Sandifer had him work alongside point guards and shooting guards, including Suggs. That’s how he learned how to defend against backcourt players, to attack by dribbling and moving himself around the whole court.

Holmgren spent much of the early period of his youth basketball career either on the bench, or practising his shooting and dribbling for hours on end. In his first year at high school, he averaged 6.2 points and three rebounds. Before his second year, he only had two college scholarships on the table. He upped his figures to 18.6 points and 11 rebounds, and by his final season, he had become a national sensation: an average of 21 points and 12.3 rebounds. He now had 30 colleges chasing him.

Like Suggs, he chose Gonzaga. He averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. His team topped the AP ranking, won the West Coast Conference and headed into March Madness as the number-one seed and chief favourite for the title. But a year on from the crushing disappointment endured by Suggs’ Bulldogs (an unbeaten season ruined by defeat to Baylor in the championship game), Gonzaga proved unable to bounce back. A tough Arkansas team did for the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16. Having racked up 19+17 in the first round, plus five assists and seven blocks, Holmgren could only muster 11 points and 14 rebounds. He was left with a bitter taste in the mouth… but was now headed to the NBA.

Holmgren’s NBA trajectory is hard to predict

The Thunder have picked up a unique player. The danger is that his physique can’t handle the NBA, or that trying to add greater bulk to his frame deprives him of his natural speed and agility. The talent and the wingspan are there. He bounces, passes, shoots, creates, dribbles, scores and defends wonderfully, with a real capacity for intimidation influenced by his long arms, and also his sense of timing. Holmgren is one of the Draft prospects with the greatest potential, but also the clearest risk, that have been witnessed in recent years. There’s no telling what he might do in the NBA. That’s why he wasn’t number one… but also why he didn’t fall any further than number two.

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