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Chet Holmgren Has Brought the Thunder to a New Level

OKC’s rookie phenom can go toe-to-toe with Victor Wembanyama when it comes to big plays, but he’s also doing something few rookies, including Wemby, ever have: helping to power one of the best teams in the NBA

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama played basketball against each other this week. Not the first time that’s happened. There was the championship game of the 2021 U19 FIBA World Cup, a matchup this preseason, and a duel in the in-season tournament in November. In that World Cup title game, Wembanyama outplayed Holmgren but the United States beat France. In their preseason matchup, they both scored the ball well. In their November tilt, they both laid eggs. Wednesday night’s game was different. Yes, it was mainly uncompetitive. The Thunder are far better than the Spurs and ran them off the court. People were not really focused on that, though. They were keyed in on the Chet vs. Wemby kaiju battle within the game. There was lightning from both throughout, but it was the six-minute stretch at the beginning of the fourth that resonated most heavily. For those six minutes, they went at each other like it was slightly personal. For those six minutes, it was drugs.

Wembanyama finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and four blocks. He was 9-for-18 from the field, 0-for-3 from distance, and 6-for-8 from the line. Holmgren finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. He was 7-for-13 from the field, 2-for-4 from 3, and 1-for-3 from the line. When they both subbed out of the game with 6:47 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder were up 28. They’re duking it out for Rookie of the Year, both having big-time debut campaigns, while playing in two vastly different contexts. Wembanyama’s on a minutes restriction, getting a ton of shots, and has put together plenty of eye-popping sequences. Holmgren’s averaging 30 minutes a game, has been a better, more efficient shooter, and is the second-best player on a team sitting at the top of the West. Their situations could not be more different. Wembanyama is wondrous, flabbergasting. He is going to bring fireworks. Holmgren isn’t opposed to pyrotechnics, but what stands out with him is the steadiness, the consistency.

Holmgren has done what few rookies can—driven winning. He is one of the major reasons the Thunder find themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings. Through 44 games they’re 31-13. Last season at this time they were 21-23. The year before that they were 14-30. The turnaround has been severe and rascally. Holmgren is not the only reason they’ve made a leap. There are several. To list a few:

A. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can shapeshift, mutate, go spectral.

B. They’re second in the league in 3-point percentage.

C. The Kardashian Kurse does not extend to undies.

D. Jalen Williams is an artist.

But the do-it-all freak-limbed live wire is the rug that ties the room together, the New Minnesota Miracle Man who, through his own versatility, maturity, and competitiveness, has elevated a bunch of promising young upstarts to the point of contention.

Holmgren was the no. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. The liftoff was not immediate. After wowing in his first summer league, getting everybody all worked up at the possibilities, Holmgren got hurt. A Lisfranc injury in his right foot, suffered during one of Jamal Crawford’s CrawsOver Pro-Ams in Seattle, forced him to sit out for the year. The Thunder missed the postseason, lost in the second game of the play-in, but expectations going into this season were high. Gilgeous-Alexander was coming off a first-team All-NBA selection. Williams, who made a late push for Rookie of the Year with his smooth incantations, would surely improve. And, ideally, Holmgren made sense as the big to grow alongside them. Skip to now, and the fit is no longer theoretical. It is real and without seams. Slim’s the genuine article.

This version of Oklahoma City is harder to scout, difficult to prepare for. They are weird and play that way, use all their players all over the court. It’s a constantly attacking style, one that invites playmaking/screening from everybody on the floor, one that tries to manipulate as much of the defense as possible. They make every defender guard, up the number of rotations/decisions, and wait for the opening. OKC puts a premium on versatility. It’s why the Holmgren fit has been so pristine. *Ace Ventura parking yell* LIKE A GLOVE. He does a lot well.

See, the Thunder drive. Bunch of chauffeurs, which should be easier to spell. They drive and they don’t stop. They drive and kick and drive and cut and drive to score and drive, drive, drive. Scorpion jackets and Electric Youth. Heavy-duty toothpick budget. Ron Perlman operating a Nino’s Pizzeria. OKC wants to stretch the defense from all angles, make them guard multiple actions. The offense attacks in a series of waves, Thunder head honch Mark Daigneault deploying lineups where all five guys on the court can be a threat. They get you in cross matches, find the defender who is at the greatest disadvantage, and pick the scab till it bleeds. The Thunder find openings you did not know were there, cut, make hay. There are guard-to-guard screens, inverted pick-and-rolls, slips, flares, and oh-yeah drives. Death by a thousand drives. But a team cannot be great at driving the basketball unless they’re also great at shooting it. Drivers need space, lanes. Good shooters provide that. And if everyone on the floor can do both of those things, well, kumbaya my Dort. Kumbaya.

This play style is possible only if you have a 5 who can put on the toque and cook off the bounce too. Chet Boyardee or something like that, I don’t know my head hurts. His shooting has opened things up and given the offense more room to breathe. But it’s Holmgren’s overall malleability that has unlocked this Oklahoma City team faster than anyone expected. He’s exceeded every expectation. Sometimes he trails the action and tra-la-las into above-the-break 3s. Sometimes he cuts to the basket. Sometimes he catches and drives. Sometimes he sets a pick-and-roll to the rim. Sometimes he gets a pick and initiates himself. He keeps defenses guessing, makes them wonder. The Thunder use him all over—the wing, the corner, the block, the elbow, the dunker spot, point, anywhere on Chet’s green earth. He just knows how to play, where to be.

Holmgren’s summer league stints left mostly positive impressions, but there were also miscues, things that needed improving. There you saw he could get a little too wide with it off the bounce, leave the ball exposed. And defenders would push up on him, get inside his dribble, and relieve him of his duties. He’s more comfortable now, more decisive, has more wiggle off the dribble. Don’t be fazed by the Lurch frame. He’s tall but he can get low, weave through traffic, improvise. There’s more there there with the shot creation than we were led to believe. He’ll flash the blender, get to his spin move and either head for the rim or hit the turnaround. Slim can look a little rattle-boned at times, but there aren’t too many record scratches when it comes to his movement. He’s fluid and pliable. This is amplified in transition. He gets stretchy with his footwork and creative with his gathers. None of this looking-for-a-point-guard. He gets it and goes.

That malleability extends to the defensive end as well. He’s a smoke eater. Fire Marshall Chet, stamping out flames. Holmgren is rabid and exhaustive, takes personal offense to anyone galavanting through Thunder airspace without his permission. Holmgren’s 7-1 with a 7-6 wingspan. There’s length aplenty. But the arms aren’t the only reason his shot-blocking is so muahaha. He’s a natural, can swat with the left, right, or both at once. The two-handed blocks feel particularly dismissive. Less stopping someone’s shot in midair, more deconstructing defense down to its essence: take ball away. He has top-shelf timing and anticipation. In help, he often appears prescient. He’s played in all 44 games this season. In 20 of them he’s had three or more blocks. During a mid-December win in Denver he set his season high with eight rejections.

This is one of the more audacious shot blockers in the league. A lot of defensive alacrity here. The kid’s relentless. Comes fluttering in from Neverland, hands out highs to the less fortunate, goes for broke. The combo of motor and length means he’ll try to block anything. Zero fear of getting caught on the bum side of a poster. If you’re on Holmgren’s team, anything happens in that lane, he’s yours. Only Brook Lopez has contested more shots at the rim this year. Holmgren knows he will get dunked on sometimes. You think he cares? Guy came into the year cosplaying Lincoln with a light Shenandoah. He wore full Nike Tech Fleece and slippers to his high school jersey retirement. You think he cares how he looks? Cost of doing business, baby. He has a house to protect. Besides, he’ll also leave a lot of would-be yammers on the wrong end of a highlight, questioning their own reality, their dunk rejected.

Throughout last season, the Thunder employed a macraméd center rotation of Mike Muscala, Jaylin Williams, Kenrich Williams, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Aleksej Pokusevski. Olivier Sarr got a start. A healthy Holmgren has been the answer to just about every weakness OKC had short of defensive rebounding—they’re still the second worst in the league—and those struggles were expected. When your starting front line is 7-1 and 6-5 with both checking in at a cool 195 pounds, you’re going to give up some boards. That’s not analytics, that’s Darwin. They make up for it in other areas, like wins.

Certainly, Slim has benefited enormously from playing with an All-NBA guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But Holmgren does not need the meals prepared for him. He brings his own funk to isolations, has thrown daggers of his own. Cut to the Warriors, solemnly nodding.

Absolutely, Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of OKC’s young talent has made Holmgren’s transition to the league easier. Wembanyama has had to be the Spurs’ sun, moon, and stars this season. Holmgren has not had that kind of burden put on him. He doesn’t have to be the primary option on offense and has been able to focus on the things he does well. But his presence has opened up things for his teammates, too. His impact has been star-level, while playing as a secondary option. He changes the math, makes possible new avenues of creation, and has the Thunder skipping steps. The storm is no longer on the horizon. You will want to examine any doors, windows, or skylights that might need further weatherstripping or caulking. Inspect all gutters, drains, and downspouts to make sure they’re clean and working like they should. Those with attics, check for signs of previous water damage, leaks of sunlight. Load up on sandbags (some local fire departments will fill these for free), buckets, plywood, lumber, mops, plastic sheeting, tarpaulin, etc. Holmgren’s arrival has coincided with his team’s. The Thunder are here. So is Chet.