Standing at 7 feet, Chet Holmgren is 14 inches taller than the shortest active NBA player, but exactly the same weight. In a 2019 Bleacher Report profile of the rapidly rising prospect, writer David Gardner suggested that the then-high school junior would need to “put on at least 30 pounds” to be an effective center. Two years later, Holmgren is the top freshman in college basketball—and has bulked up five pounds, from 190 to 195. He looks like dough that has been stretched with a rolling pin, perhaps a soon-to-be baguette. He looks like a prepubescent Gumby who suddenly hit a growth spurt. He looks like a skyscraper that architects designed but couldn’t build because they put a model in a wind tunnel and it cracked in half. He looks like an NFT image of a basketball player—and his value is probably just as confusing to traditionalists.
Holmgren was the top recruit in the Class of 2021, and will probably be the top pick in the 2022 NBA draft. He joins a Gonzaga program that has had the most efficient offense in college basketball for three years running. The Zags went 31-1 last season and played in the national championship game, and they did it while being led by point guard Jalen Suggs, Holmgren’s high school teammate. (Apologies to the poor Minnesota high schoolers who had to go against two five-star recruits at once; Suggs and Holmgren won back-to-back-to-back state titles for Minnehaha Academy from 2018 to 2020.) Suggs was the no. 5 pick in the 2021 draft, and now Holmgren replaces him on campus—not just spiritually, as the new star for the Zags, but to a certain extent functionally. Holmgren seems intent on helping run the offense.
Holmgren had 14 points, 13 rebounds, and seven blocks in his Gonzaga debut, a 97-63 demolition of Dixie State on Tuesday. You’d expect those kinds of numbers from a 7-footer with milelong arms, especially against an outmatched opponent whose roster had no players taller than 6-foot-9. But Holmgren also racked up six assists, often bringing the ball up court and dissecting Dixie State’s zone. Gonzaga likes to play fast, and Holmgren likes to initiate fast breaks. Sometimes he goes coast-to-coast:
Gonzaga-Eastern Oregon Top 3 Plays— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) November 1, 2021
15 seconds into the game, Chet Holmgren shows off why he's so talented: blocked shot in transition -- defensive rebound -- coast-to-coast layup (with a nice duck-in from Timme). pic.twitter.com/79gXupy8YZ
And sometimes he slings perfect outlet passes downcourt:
Guessing nobody's watching Gonzaga beat Dixie St, but Chet Holmgren is doing Chet things: 11 pts, 10 reb, 4 ast & 5 blocks in the 1st half pic.twitter.com/kkM8gb2VCP— Draft Dummies (@DraftDummies) November 10, 2021
Watching Holmgren is captivating. He’s predictably been called a unicorn, but at least unicorns look strong. They have hooves and muscular bodies that can trample people; Holmgren is a 7-foot string bean. You’d expect someone as wiry and gawky as he is to be completely uncoordinated, but the opposite is true. His shooting, ballhandling, and passing are remarkably precise, and he’s stunningly agile, to boot. Holmgren drills 3s and ditches defenders with crossovers. He famously crossed up Steph Curry at Curry’s SC30 Select Camp—a matchup of two stringy perimeter players, one of whom happened to be a 7-footer heading into his junior year of high school. (Holmgren also blocked one of Steph’s layups and hit a 3 over him.)
It feels like Holmgren should eventually come up against players who will bully him—but it hasn’t happened yet. When going against the world’s best young talent at the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup, he was named MVP. In 2020, ESPN2 aired a matchup between Holmgren and fellow five-star prospect Emoni Bates as part of its high school basketball showcase. Holmgren had 31 points, and took Bates off the dribble and dunked on him.
"It's all this!"— ESPN (@espn) November 13, 2020
Chet Holmgren showing his heart in this exhibition game pic.twitter.com/WEi39mN50t
It’s easy to imagine a Shaq-type big man dunking on Holmgren and Holmgren instantly vaporizing, like a gallon of mayo hit by a 1,000 mile per hour fastball. But perhaps Holmgren is the future of basketball: a 7-footer who can shoot and make plays for others, all while neutralizing opponent attacks with his infinite wingspan.
I am a recovering Bol Bol stan. Manute’s massive-yet-scrawny son was a five-star prospect in the Class of 2018. Like Holmgren, Bol was the star of viral videos from AAU games, with fans marveling over the giant with guard-type handles and range and Go-Go-Gadget-type dunks and blocks. But an ankle injury ended Bol’s lone season at Oregon after just nine games. He went from being a top-five recruit to the 44th pick in the 2019 draft. After missing most of his rookie NBA season, Bol has scored just 115 points in his three years with the Nuggets.
Holmgren doesn’t have quite the same basketball lineage as Bol—Chet’s dad played for the University of Minnesota, but was not a legendary NBA shot-blocker—but his highlight videos are just as good. He has everything: His wingspan is reportedly 7-foot-6, two inches longer than anybody’s in the 2021 NBA draft combine. He shot better than 50 percent from behind the arc at the FIBA U19 World Cup. It takes him three dribbles to get from half court to the hoop.
In high school and AAU clips, Holmgren comes off like a god. He is taller, faster, and more skilled than his competition. After winning three state titles with Suggs, he won a fourth consecutive championship in April. (Minnehaha replaced Suggs at guard with two of Master P’s sons, Hercy and Mercy Miller. This doesn’t have anything to do with Holmgren, but I thought you’d like to know.) Holmgren had 18 points and seven assists in that state title game; the other team scored 29 total points.
Still, virtually every breakdown of Holmgren as a prospect comes back to one main point: The kid has to gain weight. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz called Holmgren “paper-thin”; SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell wrote Holmgren “badly needs to add strength”; RealGM’s Rafael Uehara said the concerns about Holmgren’s frame are “truly significant”; 247Sports’ Travis Branham noted Holmgren is “very far behind many of his peers” physically.
There just haven’t been players like this. Holmgren has been compared to Kevin Durant by both draft analysts and college coaches, as KD’s frame was also widely questioned coming out of college. But Durant was drafted at 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds—two inches shorter than Holmgren and 25 pounds heavier—and he’s since bulked up to 240. The only NBA player with a similar body type to Holmgren is Aleksej Pokusevski, the 7-foot 190-pounder who has become something of a folk hero with the Thunder, if not yet a productive player. Holmgren weighs almost 100 pounds less than Przemek Karnowski, the husky big man from Gonzaga’s 2016-17 team that went 37-2 and lost in the national championship game.
For all the doubts about Holmgren’s lanky frame, though, most analysts believe he will be a star. Yes, ESPN, SB Nation, and 247Sports all pointed out how thin Holmgren is—but all of them also project him to be the top pick in the next NBA draft.
What if Holmgren just doesn’t bulk up? What if this is the way his body is supposed to be, and adding weight would mess with his speed and make him more prone to injuries? Holmgren has emerged as a bewildering offensive force and spectacular rim protector not just in spite of his frame, but in many ways because of it. His agility is one of his greatest assets, and he routinely blocks players who thought they had open looks after pushing him around. What if he thrives by breaking the mold instead of conforming?
Gonzaga feels like the perfect place to answer these questions. The Zags have an actual center, Drew Timme, a folk hero in his own right, who will demand the attention of opposing teams’ tallest and strongest defenders. The Zags also play at one of the fastest tempos in the country, meaning Holmgren can work in transition instead of settling into half-court sets. And while Gonzaga is part of the West Coast Conference, it’s made a point of scheduling aggressively. It will play three teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll in the first three weeks of the season: no. 5 Texas, no. 2 UCLA, and no. 9 Duke. The showdown with Duke will pit Holmgren against the other player with a shot at becoming the no. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft: Duke’s Paolo Banchero, a perimeter-based big who has 55 pounds on Holmgren.
Watching Holmgren feels illicit and terrifying. We’ve never seen anything like it, and it seems bound to end in disaster. The question is whether Holmgren is doomed or everybody else is.