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Is Chet Holmgren the Next Unicorn?

The Gonzaga freshman is truly a one-of-one, but should he be the no. 1 pick? We take a deep dive into Holmgren’s game to find out if what makes him different is also what makes him a risky selection or the most special player in the 2022 draft.

Megan Mraz

The novelty of “big guys with ball skills” has worn off in the past few years. As it turns out, many big men can do a good deal more than stand on the block with their hand up. And as a result, the idea of assigning skill sets to body types has become archaic.

It’s an amazing time for centers. The highs are extremely high, and because of that, the feeling of disbelief, that experience of seeing a unicorn for the first time, is harder to find. Surely a 7-footer can’t shoot a high percentage from 3 at a high volume. Surely a 6-foot-11 forward can’t be the most dominant driver in the game. Surely an awkward, plodding center with a less-than-defined physique can’t be the most creative offensive player on the planet. Surely that 300-pound man can’t move with the gracefulness of a gymnast and then finish with the power of a weight lifter.

These unicorns are now almost ubiquitous. Their games are still special, but they don’t technically fit the definition of “phenomenon” anymore. For every Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s a Thon Maker.

Chet Holmgren, though, is rousing that feeling of disbelief again. He’s a broadly skilled, towering oddity—a shot-blocking chanticleer. He’s on the radar for the top pick in the 2022 NBA draft, but is that deserved, given the challenges presented by his rail-thin frame? Is he destined to join the exclusive unicorn herd, or is he just another example of fashion over function?

Just like we did for Jabari Smith Jr. in January, here’s a very deep dive into the game of Chet Holmgren.

Framing the Future

Holmgren’s introduction to the mainstream induced a double take. During a summer camp scrimmage in 2019, a 17-year-old Holmgren flambéed Steph Curry at his own camp with his own move: a double behind-the-back cross, capped by a slithering drive to the rim and two-handed dunk.

The move itself wasn’t all that mystifying—youngsters these days can handle the damn thing. It was the frame and body type that executed it. The basketball world sang “Wait … what?” in confused harmony.

But this was merely the beginning. Chet was no one-off, one-hit wonder. He cemented himself on the scene as a legitimate player for Grassroots Sizzle during the summers and at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis alongside future top-five pick and current Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs. The two of them were made for prime-time television.

The Great Lank From the Great Lakes (made that one up just now) is not only tall, at 7 feet, but breathtakingly long: He was recently measured as having a 7-foot-4.5 wingspan and a 9-foot-6 standing reach. Even at that size, Holmgren has flexibility in his arms and legs and core strength that aids him as a ball handler. He also has immense balance and directional capability, or the ability to shuttle laterally as well as he moves forward and backward. He looks like he could be clumsy, uncoordinated, and glacially slow, but hoo-boy, that is not the case. He’s somewhere in the middle of the Recklessly Estimated Big Guy Speed spectrum, which is also something that I made up just now.

Holmgren is like a superhero whose life is simultaneously made remarkable and complicated by his gifts. Because as exciting as his physical tools are, his future is contingent on how his absurd frame matures.

You’ve probably noticed, but Chet is very thin. His shoulders and hips are narrower than the average NBA big, to the point that there is legitimate concern about how he’ll handle contact at that level. Are we capable of speculating on something like that? Not really. Are we going to do it anyway? Yes, and one way to do it is to look at some players with similar body types who have succeeded in the NBA.

If you go by the NBA’s own database (which reaches back to the 1996-97 season), Aleksej Pokusevski is the only player who measures at least 7 feet or taller and weighs under 200 pounds. Seeing as Poku is a future Hall of Famer, I can assure you tha—just kidding. The league has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but leaning on Poku’s volatile (and incomplete) precedent isn’t something I’d build my case on.

There are examples of skinny 18- to 20-year-old big guys entering the NBA and becoming hulking, statuesque deliverers of punishment. Anthony Davis was so skinny at Kentucky that he wore an undershirt to hide his rail-thin upper body, and by his 28th birthday he was drawing criticism for getting too big. Minus the criticism, similar story for Giannis Antetokounmpo. But both of these string beans have exceptionally broad shoulders. (Giannis looked like he had on football pads under his jersey.) Kevin Durant was also pushed around when he came into the league. But he, like AD and Giannis, is also a “twitchy” athlete.

Holmgren is very fluid and mobile for his size, and he processes the game quickly, but physically, he ain’t twitchy; he’ll never make a living off of his 0-to-60 burst from a resting position. But this is far from the end of the world. Keep in mind that these are special, special examples. In a way, his gait-to-size combination and shoulder and hip widths more resemble a young Shawn Bradley, although Bradley, at 7-foot-6, was significantly taller than Holmgren. Bradley was thin for a prospect, and by his 28th birthday, even he’d added noticeable weight.

This issue matters because Chet’s strength and weight disadvantage is already frequently used against him. This is a problem because it’s a much too convenient method of negating all of the positives that we’re going to discuss.

The idea of Holmgren handling the ball in the open court is fun, but when pressured, he rarely accelerates through the initial bump, getting easily tangled and looking like he stepped in quicksand. You rarely if ever see him finish with power through contact. He routinely gets screened out of plays, and when Chet is even remotely crowded on the glass, he can struggle to repel opposing players. He can also get buried under the rim, even by smaller players.

The optimistic flip side of this is that Holmgren is no wilting flower. For someone so wispy thin, he seems to be an extremely tough player who not only endures physicality but embraces it. He can often stir images of Davis or Evan Mobley at the college level: physically compromised but very much willing to put up a fight and capable of making a play on either end of the floor.

As Michael famously once told Dukie over some target practice: Somebody’s always gonna try you. This is especially true for someone as unique and as well-known as Chet. Memphis, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, did just that.

Jalen Duren, another highly touted 2021 recruit, is a behemoth of a dude who’s drawn (mostly physical and honestly a bit ridiculous) comparisons to Bam Adebayo. Watch him try to get under Chet and ram him like a snowplow. Holmgren quickly goes from angling himself to resist the (powerful) advance to walling up to deny the shot. Duren takes a terrible angle with his right hand, but the point stands. This guy battles.

Later in the game, Holmgren anticipated this happening again and awkwardly tried to take a charge. Some saw this as a weak move, but having watched him play through the years, I saw something different: Chet doesn’t really do flopping. He’s not avoiding anything. I mean, look at this clip—he’s terrible at it! This is a competitive, chip-on-his-shoulder player who brings the fight to whoever he’s squaring off against.

Chet doesn’t need to become an immovable, rippling slab of iron to succeed in the NBA. He just needs to get strong enough to trade on the skills that he has. I suspect that he’s like KD in that he may always be thin, but the toughness and the skills that we’re about to discuss give me confidence that he’ll figure things out.

No Way Holmgren

Sometimes in life, it’s not about the energy you burn to pursue something, it’s about knowing exactly where to be and when. That’s Chet to me. Aside from just being preposterously long, his combination of mobility, awareness, and opportunistic action is a big reason why he was able to rack up 117 blocks this past season. It’s also why Gonzaga’s 91.2 defensive rating and allowed paint field goal percentage were both in the 99th percentile of the country this season. He’s a major deterrent not only because opponents are daunted by the sight of that superb wingspan, but also because of his mind.

With his build and physical tools, we don’t see him flying in from the rafters to make those jaw-dropping out-of-area rejections that some rim protectors do. He’s a calculating player with schematic versatility and the ability to switch, hedge hard, and quickly recover; as a result he has an opportunity to be a floor-raising defensive player who can affect the offense.

Holmgren is similar to Mobley in that he’s generally risk-averse on defense: He doesn’t take a lot of chances because he doesn’t have to. His hip mobility—both his change of direction and how carefully he’s able to shuffle his feet to mirror drivers—allows him to stay down until there’s a play on the ball that he can make.

It’s a common argument technique to concede or offer smaller points that’ll make one’s opponent feel better about themselves, because the person conceding these points knows that they’ll ultimately hammer the other person with a point that will win the argument. Chet often does this when he’s on an island with a driver who thinks they’re about to make something happen. He knows that he’s long enough and mobile enough that he can come beyond the 3-point line and still stay down when the offensive player throws a hesitation at him and wait until they’ve committed to getting off a shot.

Watch Holmgren orchestrate this second-chance action against Texas Tech. He manages to respond to the shot fake without overreacting, stay down, shuttle with the drive, and then show off his ambidextrousness to make the shot nearly impossible to get off.

That mobility is aided by his ability to quickly survey a situation. Chet’s sharp eye is most evident to me when he quickly goes from reading a two-on-two action in front of him (pick-and-rolls, handoffs, etc.) to a three-on-three situation (Spain pick-and-rolls, multiplayer misdirection handoff actions) and often stifles attempts without fouling.

Being able to quickly assess these plays is crucial for a modern big. On this play, Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard arrives way too early to tag the roller and gets back-cut by his man. But even though the pass is made at the last second, Chet quickly walls up and eradicates it. He even throws in a perfectly placed baseball hit-ahead pass to Julian Strawther for a layup.

There are definitely times when a finisher envelopes him in the air like a hand draped over a fist in a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors, but Chet is especially gifted at staying long when he needs to. When he walls up drivers, he’s great at keeping his amazingly long arms straight without swiping down, and when he’s moving toward a shooter to make a one-handed play on the ball, he’s very frequently moving across their body and not into it.

Movement plays a big part in how Holmgren can be challenged. We really saw that on display in Gonzaga’s last game of the season against Arkansas, when the Hogs seized every opportunity to drive straight at Chet’s body (although each and every one of those calls was horse shit and those officials should be embarrassed). In a low-movement, low-speed situation, like a post-up or a second-chance effort near the rim, Chet is so long and so good at targeting the ball without fouling that he can absolutely erase people. In those situations, he’s like a soaking wet blanket thrown over a whimpering camp fire.

If he’s moving parallel with a ball handler dribbling off of a screen, or monitoring both the handler and the roller together, he’s a nuisance. According to Synergy, he allowed only .304 points per possession in roll situations, which was in the 96th percentile of college basketball this past season.

For that reason, and because of his ability to switch beyond the 3-point line without being totally vulnerable, I don’t see Chet as the type of rim protector that a team would want to camp near the rim. He’ll most likely need a solid-bodied 4 who can space the floor on offense to maximize his presence and guard more physical players on the other end. The playoffs have shown us that even with an elite rim protector, teams need impactful defenders on the perimeter and at the point of attack. Chet seems like a hybrid species who falls in between: He comfortably roams the paint, the midrange, and 3-point line bothering and affecting actions with his length, while also providing help to his teammates and effectively recovering when a play is being made at the rim.

Chetty Chetty Bang Bang

It’s worth noting that Chet was one of the most efficient college players in the country this past season. He was second in all of college in hoops in BPM, and he was in the 96th percentile for half-court points per possession. Those buckets came at all three levels—he showed terrific touch and craftiness around the rim with either hand, and his range stretched out to the perimeter. He’s the type of no-waste player who makes the advanced stats nerds rub their hands together so hard that they burst into flames. He’s an appliance that any team would love to have in their offensive kitchen.

Through no fault of his own, his offense during his time as a Zag was also hilariously compartmentalized. His shot chart looks like a Skee-Ball board—if he wasn’t finishing at the rim or in the paint, he was shooting above-the-break 3s. The width of the floor seemed horribly unexplored within his role.

CBB Analytics

Most of this was driven by the presence of second team All-American Drew Timme, the mustache-stroking post-up menace starting alongside Holmgren. I can’t fault Mark Few for selling Chet on this pairing. There’s no denying that Timme is a bucket machine on the block. And the combination of Timme and Holmgren was a one-two punch that few teams at the college level can contend with. I just don’t know that it served Chet.

This was a mostly one-way relationship. Chet often covered for Timme on defense and spaced for him and fed him the ball on offense. If Chet ever wanted to operate near the basket, Timme, a non-shooter, often kept an extra defender close by. As tough to stop as he is on the block, Timme wasn’t exactly returning the favor with his passing.

Because his youth coaches intentionally kept him on the perimeter, even after his growth spurts, Holmgren is immensely comfortable beyond the 3-point line. His release could probably stand to speed up a bit, sitting somewhere between one and two motions, and he usually needs a load-up and dip to generate the needed power. That should also improve as he adds strength. He’s shown that he’s capable of shooting after some basic movement: rolling and replacing from low to high, relocating after the catch to shed a defender.

For all of the issues Timme presented, his presence in transition did very frequently draw the attention of the defense, allowing Chet to trail the action or initiate the break and take a shot like the one above. Nearly a quarter of his 3-point attempts were in transition, and he went 15-for-26 on those attempts.

Holmgren managed to shoot 39 percent from 3, despite being somewhat up and down. There were stretches when he was blazing hot. During the middle of the season, from December 18 to February 15, he hit 54.3 percent of 46 3-point attempts, and if that percentage had held from wire-to-wire, I think we’d be talking about one of the most uniquely tremendous two-way college basketball seasons of all time. But he seemed to lose confidence and missed 25 of his final 32 attempts.

I feel confident about Chet’s ability to be, at bare minimum, a competent spacing player in the NBA. He’s shot the ball well at every level so far. His ability to do so at the next level will be a key to his overall success. Consistency will determine whether he’s an accessory to good offense or central to it. The better he shoots, the harder teams will close out on him, and that will give him opportunities to handle the ball.

We also love for our rangy bigs to be “vertical spacers”—which is just a snooty way of saying catching a lob pass—because it enables playmaking teammates. Chet is special in that he’s capable of floating between the weak-side corner, where he can hit from 3, and the dunker spot. This was one area where he and Timme frequently connected as defenses collapsed on the middle. Holmgren has great hands, timing, and reach, but vertical spacing is very often about horizontal speed. The quicker a screener does their job, the faster they’re able to release and get to spots on the floor within their catch radius. For that reason, he’s not as constant of a threat.

A defensive player of this caliber who also spaces the floor with some shooting versatility is already a good NBA player. You could stop there, but things start to get really interesting when we look for signs of what he could do as a creator for his own shots.

We didn’t see a ton of that at Gonzaga, but when we did, there were enticing glimpses of who Holmgren could become. Because of his shot speed and vulnerability in straight-line drives, dribble pull-ups are tougher for Chet to get off. Not the end of the world, but not a ton of 7-footers are even taking those shots.

Chet, like every taller player with perimeter aspirations, has mentioned Kevin Durant as an influence, and I think that’s visible in his isolation game.

His handle is fluid and comfortable for a player his size. We saw how useful that can be when he repeatedly attacked and drew fouls on Victor Wembanyama in the final of FIBA U19 tournament last summer. It’s a tool he could use against opposing bigs in the future.

Chet loves to get to his fadeaway in that 10- to 15-foot range. He has a preference for spinning over his right shoulder, although he’s shown on occasion that he can spin to his left. These shots can come after drives off the catch, usually needing the momentum to create some contact and separation, but I love when he calls his own number and flips from facing up to backing his defender down. He’s good about quickly surveying the floor for potential doubles before taking off.

As he progresses and as he’s entrusted with more offensive freedom in the NBA, I expect this shot to become more of a staple for him. He just makes it look too easy.

These self-created plays will create opportunities for him to grow as a passer. He did show passing touch throughout the season, placing entries to Timme over the top, often into relatively tricky windows. Because he was a size anomaly in the West Coast Conference, we also saw plenty of plays when teams brought help and he hit cutters and weak-side shooters over the top. He’s even flashed some signs of low-angle dimes that might enable him to be an elbow creator in the future.

Put it all together and you get two sides to discussion of Chet’s offensive game. On the one hand, you like to see would-be potential stars have their aggressiveness reined in rather than roused in the first place. He had a tendency to fall in line and at times disappear. Just how much should we penalize him for that?

On the other hand, Chet’s willingness to function within the flow of a strong college offense, without bullheadedly charging after his own looks, could be seen as an indicator of unselfishness, maturity, and hoops IQ. As his circumstances change, so might he. We’ve seen players shift gears like this in the past, particularly underclassmen on good teams who get to cookin’ once they enter the NBA. Franz Wagner and Scottie Barnes did that just this past season. It’ll likely take some time, but there are clues here that indicate Chet could eventually do the same.

Projections and Conclusions

For such a high-impact defensive player, Chet is one of the most offensively capable prospects to enter the league in quite some time. His ability to succeed at the next level really comes down to the physical questions. It’s the question mark in his latte foam. There are nits to pick about his consistency as a shooter or his IQ as a passer, but his skill set is broader and at a better starting point than some of the most significant players in this mold through the past 20 years.

Since the 2007-08 season, only seven players have posted seasons when they recorded a block percentage and box plus-minus scores of more than 10 while hitting true shooting marks of 65 or greater. Chet handles and shoots the ball better than anyone in this group.

In Great Company

Anthony Davis (12) Kentucky 16.7 65.4 7.5 13.7
Brandon Clarke (19) Gonzaga 15.4 69.9 12.1 10.8
Mark Williams (22) Duke 12.1 72.4 6.9 11.3
Jay Huff (21) Virginia 10.8 67.4 8.1 11.9
Chet Holmgren (22) Gonzaga 14.1 69.1 11.4 11.9
Udoka Azubuike (20) Kansas 11 68.1 7.4 10.9
Joel Embiid (14) Kansas 10.6 65.5 11.5 11.7

Let me put it this way: If I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Holmgren could add the necessary strength and continue to grow his skill set—as a floor spacer when necessary; as a clever low-angle and skip passer; as a switchable rim deterrent that can swing a high-level playoff series—I’d say he is hands down the no. 1 pick and a likely candidate to be an All-NBA player some day.

When I ran projections for what I thought his stat profile could be and compared them with what players 6-foot-11 or taller have done in the past—35ish percent shooter from 3, a little over a block and two or three assists per game, good but not outrageous offensive numbers—names came back that startled me and almost compelled me to throw my laptop into some holy water for fear of being struck by lightning. Even after softening the parameters a bit (6-foot-10 or taller, 30 percent or better from 3, one block and two assists per game), there are no shoddy players that fit that description. Assuming that my expectations aren’t totally in outer space, he is uniquely special.

Comps at that point become difficult, because rarely do big guys have their feet in both offensive and defensive worlds like this at 20 years old. You start talking about single-, double-, even triple-caveat comps, which get hilarious.

One name came to me in the middle of the night and caused me to sit up in bed in a cold sweat (that my buddy Kevin O’Connor, turns out, also thought of): Pau Gasol. Go take a look at what young Pau looked like when he was drafted in 2001. He was definitely a bit quicker and had a much wider frame, but, offensively, I just see similar offerings. Gasol was always a clever player with great touch and an ability to blend face-up offense with some off-the-bounce attacking, in addition to being a solid passer. He could score, but he hovered around 20 points per game even during the prime years of his career. A winning player.

If we knew that a player in this draft was going to be Pau freaking Gasol, I think we could all agree that that player should go no. 1.

My gut says that Chet lands somewhere below the high mark of Gasol but somewhere in the realm of a very good, versatile (but not dominant) scorer and a highly impactful, switchable paint protector who’s capable of bothering and contesting offense at all levels of the floor; “range of impact” is a phrase that I just keep coming back to. Holmgren is likely a critically important secondary star who spends his career being adored by hoop nerds and overlooked by a chunk of the basketball community because his production might not be eye-popping.

That’s a player who can bend and elevate most every situation. Ask any basketball team in the galaxy if they’re interested in those types of offerings or if that meshes with their current approach and they’ll likely slap you for pondering such a stupid question. Chet is to basketball scenarios as black truffle seasoning is to gourmands: You can sprinkle it on everything.

But where would such a versatile player fit best? I’ve thought about this a lot, but what if Chet and Cade Cunningham team up to form one of the strongest and smartest young two-way duos in the league? What if Chet, Josh Giddey, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are freaking teams out next season with their unorthodox pace and prodigious length? What if Jalen Green had Chet behind him and Alperen Sengun working as a fulcrum between them? I could even see Orlando shaking the big-guy tree again, because that’s what they do!

The other two consensus candidates for the top spot in this draft have real developmental questions, but both have bodies and skill sets that should set them up for some level of success. Jabari Smith Jr. is a 6-foot-10 elite shot-making prospect. I’m confident about that translating. Paolo Banchero has moments when it seems like he can do everything offensively; I’m fairly confident that he could become a do-it-all hub for an NBA team. Neither of those players check as many boxes as Holmgren does. And yet, both could have better careers if Chet is stuck with this physical limitation. They’re safer picks.

The skepticism about Holmgren’s game is understandable. If he stays as he is, he’s a useful player but difficult to build around. On the other hand, what happens if he doesn’t stay the same? Safer, conventional thinking, driven by things that we’ve seen before and ideas that we can wrap our minds around are naturally more attractive. Newer ideas are, naturally, unknown and a little scarier. But how many catastrophic mistakes in the NBA draft have been made upon the altar of safe thinking? Wanna ask the Phoenix Suns about that?

Around December, I decided that Chet’s upside was too significant to not have him no. 1. For me, Paolo has become the chief competition for that spot, but for now I’m sticking with Chet. I’ve waffled and hedged and fretted about that decision. I just can’t shake this feeling that I’ll regret changing my mind. I can’t imagine what will be going through the minds of the people who actually have to make this decision.