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Chet Holmgren and Kenneth Lofton Jr. Aren’t As Different As They Seem

The longer you look, the weirder NBA summer league gets. But the Thunder’s lanky star and the Grizzlies’ bowling-ball forward have more in common than it would appear.

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The novelty of the matchup draws you in: Kenneth Lofton Jr., a 6-foot-7, 275-pound bowling ball out of Louisiana Tech and Chet Holmgren, a rail-thin 7-footer with a 7-foot-6 wingspan from Gonzaga—physical anomalies on opposite ends of the NBA ecosystem, facing each other at NBA summer league.

The same night the Thunder selected Holmgren with the second pick, Lofton went undrafted, eventually signing a two-way deal with the Grizzlies. Holmgren’s size and defensive instincts could force NBA offenses to reorient how they function, but last week it was Lofton, the charming and hopeful side act, a big man up against long odds, forcing Holmgren, the darling of Las Vegas, to adjust.

Lofton gave Holmgren two body blows to the chest en route from the free throw line to underneath the hoop, discombobulating his long limbs, and gaining the angle for a lefty layup that gave Memphis its first two points of Salt Lake City summer league. This is the strange beauty of summer league: potential NBA royalty and fringe oddities taking the same court, a potpourri of hope, expectation, and body type. By the end of their first matchup, the question lingers: If Holmgren is taking the NBA to new heights, could Lofton take it to new widths?

Both are descendants of game-changers. Lofton is a point guard turned interior player, built like a tight end, making up for his lack of height with sheer girth. He can shoot, handle the ball, and bully weaker players inside. His teammates, David Roddy, the Grizzlies’ 2022 first-round pick, and Xavier Tillman, a third-year big man, are versions of him that fit more neatly into the NBA’s Overton window, which has expanded in recent years in part thanks to a pudgy, 6-foot-7 second-rounder turned perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate named Draymond Green. Lofton, the stockiest of the bunch, is their next logical extension. Holmgren’s smooth shooting and unblockable release point inspires visions of Kevin Durant, who recently gave him his blessing, and Dirk Nowitzki. He also stands on the shoulders of the skinny skeletons of players like Kristaps Porzingis who didn’t fulfill the promise of their unicorn moniker.

To change the NBA ecosystem, Holmgren and Lofton first have to find a way to survive in it. It doesn’t matter how interesting either player is if their peculiarities are too exposable to allow their strengths to matter. And I’ll put the obvious caveat here: It’s just summer league. Lofton finished that first matchup with 19 points, six rebounds, and three assists. (He’s averaged 11 points and 7.3 rebounds in Las Vegas summer league overall.) And while Holmgren finished 3-for-11 in his second summer league game, he found some counters, which bodes well for his ability to hold up against his positional opposites in the big leagues.

After Lofton’s initial layup, Holmgren screened and popped for Josh Giddey, who fed him for a 3 over Lofton’s stubby-armed contest.

Lofton nailed a triple of his own, including a 28-foot side-step 3 reminiscent of James Harden—a player he watches closely.

Lofton continued his onslaught to the rim, but Holmgren found a way to fight back, absorbing Lofton’s bumps while keeping his arms extended, denying the ball and poking away his dribble. Even Holmgren’s struggles hint at how he can dominate in a league where other would-be unicorns have been pushed out of the frame.

In the third quarter, Holmgren helped on a driver in the paint, enticing a kick-out to Lofton in the corner. With one turn and a pivot, Holmgren teleported to the 3-point line, lunging out and getting a fingernail on Lofton’s 3, pulling off the elite defensive skill of seemingly being in two places at once. In his debut, he blocked six shots, setting a new record at the Salt Lake City summer league.

It’s easy to imagine Holmgren next to Aleksej Pokusevski, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Oklahoma City’s trove of plus-wingspan youngsters deflecting shots and passes, sucking up space, pushing attackers away from the rim, forcing shooters to expand their range, and changing the geometry of the court. It’s also easy to imagine teams like the Grizzlies countering by crushing their spindly frames with brick wall–esque screens, finishing through the Thunder when they can’t jump or reach over.

For all of Lofton and Holmgren’s differences, they share a lot of similarities. Neither looks like he should be able to grab rebounds in the NBA, dribble behind their back in transition, and set up shooters, but both can. Both are intelligent defenders. Both can shoot. While they’re markers of a league that’s getting weirder and more creative, their skill set is far more important than their body type.

Judging by their rosters and draft histories, the Thunder and Grizzlies look like they have a type, but I wonder whether they’ve accumulated these players because it’s the opposite. As I wrote in May, the Grizzlies are steadfast about sticking to their draft evaluation process over conventional ideas about what an NBA player should look like.

The Grizzlies have a ton of bruisers, but they also have skinny 6-foot-11 Santi Aldama, who scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Wolves this weekend. Oklahoma is littered with lanky players, but it also just extended Lu Dort, a relatively stumpy 6-foot-3 athlete with the strength in his hips to keep up laterally with any ball handler.

Holmgren and Lofton are built to attack each other’s vulnerabilities, but their opposing skill sets also make it easy for them to coexist. That’s what they did on Team USA. The 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup final against France was dubbed as a showdown between Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-2 big with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, the current consensus no. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. But it was Lofton who emerged through the trees.

Lofton set up shop in the post and Holmgren fired him entry passes that only he could feed over Wembanyama’s extended 9-foot, 7-inch standing reach. Holmgren’s shooting ability kept Wembanyama hovering around the perimeter, giving Lofton space to work inside. Lofton also attacked Wembanyama’s body the same way he attacked Holmgren’s in Salt Lake City, bumping him out of the way in the third quarter for a layup. In the fourth quarter, drawing a double-team, Lofton handed the ball off to Holmgren for an easy driving layup. After Team USA won, Holmgren won MVP. Channeling his predecessor Durant, he called Lofton the “real MVP.”

Holmgren and Lofton are interesting because they can force the game, and each other, to change. Holmgren’s giant first step could force Lofton to trim down, while Lofton’s elbows could shove Holmgren straight into the weight room. Holmgren will swat away shots for the rebuilding Thunder, while Lofton’s blows are more likely to make their mark on G League opponents with the Memphis Hustle. As the NBA has evolved, it’s made room for both these types of players to push it further.