Chet Holmgren is the NBA draft's most intriguing prospect

Chet Holmgren is the NBA draft’s most intriguing prospect

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In the modern and democratized NBA, skill matters most. That’s the appeal, this intriguing new reality that anyone, at any size, can play anywhere on the floor as long as his game matches his aspiration.

Nikola Jokic, the reigning two-time MVP, is a 284-pound point center. Stephen Curry, now a four-time champion, is the only superstar in league history under 6-foot-4 to steer a dynasty. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic — they’re essentially combo guards with the size of traditional power forwards. Sometimes, defenses will put their tallest player on the point guard. Sometimes, offenses will put their shortest player closest to the basket. What position you’re playing doesn’t matter as much as what you can do. With rules abolishing excessive contact and allowing for freedom of movement, the NBA has adjusted to the physical and athletic evolution of its players and enhanced the sport by embracing fluidity.

Yet the league still might not be ready for the unusual talent of Chet Holmgren.

Holmgren, at 7 feet and 195 pounds, doubles as intriguing and frightening to NBA talent evaluators. For several years, he has been on the draft radar as a certain top-five pick. On Thursday, there’s no question he will be selected in the top three. He’s one of the most preposterously skilled 7-footers to enter the league, but even in an open-minded and positionless NBA, there is concern about how his thin frame will hold up.

Holmgren is an elite prospect whom most teams wouldn’t dare pass on, but they’re a little intimidated by the process required to make the best use of him. It’s inaccurate to call Holmgren a project because his talent is so clear. He moves and handles the ball like a guard. He protects the rim like a center. He made 39 percent of his three-point attempts during his lone season at Gonzaga. He plays with great intensity. He’s not at all soft. Still, because he lacks bulk, he takes imagination to forecast his career.

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Holmgren stands as an important test for this creative era. Unlock his potential, and a team will possess one of the most atypical two-way matchup nightmares the game has seen. Fail to get the best out of him, and the entire game loses an opportunity to grow delightfully weirder and more unpredictable.

Holmgren is rumored to prefer Oklahoma City, which has the No. 2 pick. With the first pick, Orlando is reportedly leaning toward Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr., another tall and lean player but one who fits a sweet-shooting combo forward mold that we’ve seen before. Duke forward Paolo Banchero, who would go to Houston with the No. 3 pick in this scenario, probably has the highest floor of the three players with his 250-pound frame and an offensive repertoire that easily translates to the next level.

Holmgren is right to want to play for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is committed to a patient rebuild, which would give him time to work on his body and adjust. He has a nice young scorer in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who shares the backcourt with the stellar court vision of 6-foot-8 Australian Josh Giddey. Most importantly, General Manager Sam Presti is a relentlessly thoughtful team builder who would insert Holmgren into a culture of player development and professionalism. Fifteen years ago, Presti drafted Kevin Durant with the No. 2 pick. Durant is an all-time great with a different game, but he came to the NBA as a superskilled skinny kid one year out of college who needed time for his body to catch up to his talent. He’s still slender, but he’s 25 pounds heavier and much stronger than the player who couldn’t lift the 185-pound bench press during the draft combine.

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Some of the things Presti did to build a team around Durant could apply to Holmgren. The differences are that Durant came at the start of Presti’s process, not mid-rebuild, and Holmgren profiles as more of a defense-first player than KD.

It’s hard to picture a pathway to greatness for Holmgren that doesn’t include consistent appearances on the all-defensive team. If he’s not a shot-blocker with the versatility to switch and cause all kinds of havoc, he won’t reach his full value. The offense will be a work in progress.

Holmgren was wise to play at Gonzaga, a balanced program that had an all-American No. 1 option in Drew Timme. Holmgren averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. He shot 60.7 percent, operating within the offense and scoring mostly off hustle plays and open jumpers. For as efficient as Holmgren was with the Bulldogs, Coach Mark Few noticed the adjustment he had to make to the physical college game.

“It took me a while the first week, two weeks, month to just really truly understand,” Few said during the NCAA tournament. “His game is not about scoring. He impacts the game in so many ways that you could probably make an argument. He impacts the game more on the defensive end than he does on the offensive end. …

“You get guys that outweigh him by 50 pounds or are physical, and so sometimes it’s hard to truly manifest all that skill that’s in there, but at the same time he still gives you the ability to stretch the floor. He is very adept when we are able to find him around the rim. He can take the ball off the glass and lead a break, and then all the while he is giving us an entity we haven’t had on the defensive end. We’ve never used drop coverage like you see so many people doing in the NBA, but we’ve been able to do that with Chet pretty exclusively.”

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Even if he’s destined to become a star, Holmgren may need up to three years before he is an ideal offensive go-to guy. Experimentation will be key to that process. If Presti drafts Holmgren, Oklahoma City Coach Mark Daigneault has shown a knack for developing players and bending his philosophies to make better use of his roster. Daigneault, 36, is one of those fresh thinkers taking over the NBA sidelines. If Holmgren goes No. 1 or No. 3, Orlando has a similar young coach in Jamahl Mosley, and Houston Coach Stephen Silas is good at managing foundation-building talent, too. Organizational patience is the issue with Orlando and Houston, however.

Of Holmgren, Few said, “He has an impact on the game that is hard to measure sometimes.”

To have such an abnormally skinny frame, Holmgren moves with stunning ease. He doesn’t appear gangly, doesn’t appear breakable. He looks as comfortable as he does unusual. His body needs work, and perhaps the minds of the staff drafting him deserve the most scrutiny.

If this is the NBA era of possibility, someone should be able to conjure what stardom looks like for Holmgren.

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