Gonzaga was down eight points to Alabama late in the second half of a game in early December. Chet Holmgren was posting up a guard a foot shorter than him. All his fellow Zags big man Drew Timme had to do was loft a simple high-low pass over the head of the defender. But his pass hit the rim instead. The next time Gonzaga was on offense, Holmgren drifted into the corner to create space for Timme to roll to the basket. The ball came to him but he air-balled the 3.
Zags coach Mark Few had seen enough. He took out his star freshman at the next dead ball and kept him on the bench for the final six minutes in a game they lost 91-82.
This season has been more difficult for Gonzaga than last, when it started 31-0 before losing in the NCAA championship game. The Zags have already lost twice in nonconference play. Their players don’t fit quite as well together. Holmgren has stuffed the stat sheet, averaging 13.3 points on 62.5 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 3.6 blocks per game, but he doesn’t have the role you would expect for a potential no. 1 pick. He’s only their second-leading scorer. His job is to complement Timme, a junior center who was a second-team All-American last season.
Timme isn’t as talented as Holmgren but that means only so much. He’s a larger-than-life figure at Gonzaga, with more skins on the wall. Holmgren has to find a way to make it work with him. Timme is a traditional post scorer with great touch who can power his way through double-teams and dominate the vast majority of college big men. But he’s not much of an outside shooter (0.8 3-point attempts per game) or passer (2.2 assists on 2.4 turnovers).
Holmgren has to space the floor for Timme and can’t depend on Timme to set him up for easy shots. The dynamic between them is similar to the one between Domantas Sabonis, a former Gonzaga big man, and Myles Turner, in Indiana. Playing the Turner role is hard. Just ask Turner, who publicly complained about it a few weeks ago. Holmgren doesn’t get the ball where he wants and never knows when he will get it. There are times when you can forget that he’s even out there. He took three shots against Texas in a game Gonzaga won by 12.
Like most young big men, it’s much easier for Holmgren to play around the basket. His 3-point shot is mostly theoretical at this stage of his career. He’s shooting a decent percentage (37.1) on a limited number of attempts (2.9 per game) this season. But his free throw shooting (71.1 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) doesn’t indicate that he will suddenly become Karl-Anthony Towns.
Holmgren has been incredible when he has gotten to play inside. He’s shooting 77 percent from 2-point range on 5.1 attempts per game. Those numbers are padded by blowouts against teams like Dixie State and Merrimack, but Gonzaga has played four teams who have been ranked in the top 10. Holmgren shot 16-for-22 from 2 (72.7 percent) against them.
It’s hard to compare his numbers at this point in the season to elite big men in past drafts because he has played in only 12 games. But these games might be the best sample we get for Holmgren. Gonzaga has become a blueblood program that regularly gets the top recruits in the country, but it still plays in the West Coast Conference with a bunch of small private schools. They have to play a tougher nonconference schedule than Power Five schools like Duke and Kentucky because their conference schedule is so much worse.
Holmgren is in a unique situation. He has a smaller role on offense than any of the big men who have gone in the top three going back a decade, but he has also been more efficient within that role:
Lottery Big Man 2-Point Performance
He’s turning lemons into lemonade and finding ways to be productive. Gonzaga hardly runs any plays for Holmgren. It’s not just Timme who gobbles up his touches. They have another potential lottery pick (sophomore Julian Strawther) and four more guards (seniors Andrew Nembhard and Rasir Bolton, and freshmen Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman) who need the ball in their hands. The Zags can run offense through every player in their rotation, a huge luxury for a college team, but that also means they all have to sacrifice, none more than Holmgren.
He has the offensive profile of a scrappy role player who scores off his own energy. He doesn’t have enough isolation attempts or plays as the roll man to even qualify for the leaderboard among NCAA players (per Synergy Sports):
Holmgren’s Shot Selection
|Shot Type||Percentage of offense||NCAA Percentile|
|Shot Type||Percentage of offense||NCAA Percentile|
He’s been great in that role for the same reasons that he was the no. 1 player in his high school class. Everything about Holmgren is unique. He’s a unicorn among unicorns. He uses his incredible wingspan (7-foot-6) to make up for his impossibly skinny frame (7 feet and 195 pounds), and he has the skill and toughness to finish over the top of stronger defenders. He first became famous as a 17-year-old for beating Steph Curry off the dribble at an All-Star camp, and that skill has translated to the college level. He can dribble, pass, and score with the fluidity of a guard.
What makes Holmgren really special is that he combines his size and skill with a high basketball IQ and an unselfish mentality. He moves the ball even though he would be well within his rights to shoot every time he touched it. A good comparison is Duke freshman Paolo Banchero, the other early front-runner to be the no. 1 pick. Holmgren averages slightly more assists per game even though Banchero takes almost four more shots. He hands out one assist for every six times that he shoots, while Holmgren gets one for every four. The benefits of that approach go beyond Holmgren creating more for his teammates. It also makes the shots that he takes easier because defenses know he can punish them when they send help.
The result is a hyper-efficient offensive player who makes the most out of his limited number of opportunities. Holmgren has a 70.1 true shooting percentage. He’s essentially been a 7-foot version of Tyrese Haliburton at Gonzaga.
There’s no way to know whether Few will develop Holmgren’s role as the season goes along. He will have time to experiment in WCC play but he also won’t need to change much because the Zags won’t be pushed. We may never get to see how Holmgren would fare as a primary option in college. And that makes it harder to figure out how he would if he were to become one in the NBA. There’s no way to evaluate Holmgren without some amount of guessing. You are taking a hypothetical off a hypothetical.
There are good reasons to be skeptical. A lot of big men have to add weight to succeed in the NBA, but Holmgren is an extreme example. He should get stronger as he gets older but he may not get much bigger. He’s built like Aleksej Pokusevski, who is still mostly a question mark in his second NBA season. And while Holmgren is a good athlete for his size, he doesn’t move as well as 7-footers like Evan Mobley. He uses his length and smarts to make up for his lack of elite strength and speed. There may be a diminishing margin of return for that as he faces better competition.
NBA teams may have to lean more on what Holmgren did before he came to Gonzaga when evaluating him. He was the MVP of the U19 world championships this past summer, leading Team USA to a gold medal in narrow wins over Canada and France. The team was stacked with future first-round picks, but there was no question about who the best player was. Holmgren, once again, was hyper-efficient within a smaller role, averaging 11.9 points on 62 percent shooting, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.7 blocks per game. Like all unselfish big men, he’s somewhat at the mercy of his guards. Holmgren had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4-to-1 in the tournament. He gave up the ball but it didn’t always come back to him.
But when the gold medal was on the line, his teammates knew where to go. The U.S. was down 68-64 to France with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter when Holmgren took over. On three straight possessions, he drew consecutive fouls at the rim on Victor Wembanyama, the early front-runner to be the no. 1 pick in 2023, and scored again on a drive. When he was done, the U.S. had a lead it would never give up and Wenbanyama was on the bench in foul trouble. But describing what he did doesn’t do it justice. It has to be seen to be believed (or not to be):
It’s easy to write that off as something that won’t work in the NBA. It doesn’t look like anything we have seen before. The 7-foot guard is new in the history of basketball and Holmgren doesn’t play like the few who came before him. He doesn’t have the athleticism of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo or the shooting ability of Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. He’s not blowing by anyone or raining jumpers from all over the floor. What Holmgren does is more deliberate and methodical. He’s leveraging his length by getting to spots where he can score, even if he’s not getting there very fast. It doesn’t look like it should work. But it has worked—at every level that he has played so far.
That’s the difference between Holmgren and Pokusevski. No one had heard of Poku two years before he was drafted. He came out of nowhere and averaged 40 percent shooting in 12 games in a lower-level league in Greece. Holmgren has been a household name in NBA circles since he was 16. He’s as blue chip as it gets. All the pedigree in the world doesn’t mean a prospect won’t bust. But it does make it easier to believe in one without an obvious NBA comparison.
There’s not a lot of downside to Holmgren. Go back to that list of big men drafted in the top three. The only busts (Okafor and Bagley) were players who can’t defend. Holmgren is averaging 3.6 blocks per game. The even more impressive number is that he’s averaging only 2.1 fouls per game while doing that. Younger big men who block a lot of shots also tend to be the ones who commit a lot of fouls. The ability to do the former without the latter is an indication of an intelligent player who can walk the thin line between playing with aggressiveness and discipline. It’s a great sign anytime a prospect is in the same statistical company as Mobley and Anthony Davis:
Lottery Big Man Block Rates
|Player||Blocks||Fouls||Block: Foul Ratio|
|Player||Blocks||Fouls||Block: Foul Ratio|
Holmgren is so long and smart that he doesn’t need great speed. He’s the rare elite rim protector who can also survive on an island on the perimeter. There may be matchups against Goliaths like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic where he struggles, but he can slide over and defend smaller players in those games.
He has a high floor and an even higher ceiling. But there’s no way to know how high based on what he’s doing at Gonzaga. We are entering uncharted waters. Holmgren is a sample size of one. Just because no one has ever dominated by playing like him doesn’t mean that he can’t.