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Heights, Camcorders and Action: Chet Holmgren Is Ready for His March Madness Close-up

Carrying surprising skill and strength with his over-7-foot-tall frame, the Gonzaga freshman is looking to lead his team to its first national title.

LAS VEGAS—They are quite a sight, the Holmgren family, comfortably creating an unconventional presence inside Orleans Arena.

It’s not just the towering of 7'1" Chet, his 7-foot father and his 6'5"-ish younger sister that gets your attention. There is also the family dog who makes a postgame appearance on the court, a black lab named Slammer. And, of course, there is the camcorder.

Not long after Gonzaga and Holmgren captured the West Coast Conference championship and locked up yet another No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, Dave Holmgren was holding aloft the old-school camcorder to record the postgame celebration and net-cutting. He had already filmed the Zags’ 82–69 victory against St. Mary’s from his seat in the arena. Then he was essentially providing ground-bound drone footage, looming so high above the human rabble that he could shoot any angle he desired.

This is camcorder 3.0 for Dave, the third he’s used to record all of his son’s basketball moves from sixth grade until now, 29 games into his freshman year of college. Dave’s retro equipment is destined to join Sister Jean in the NCAA tourney Viral Cutaway Hall of Fame, a relatable dad habit that will charm the March Madness masses.

How big is the Holmgren family video library?

“I don’t know how many gigabytes,” Dave says, smiling. “It’s a lot.”

How many games?

“Probably thousands. … I just started doing it one day and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The comedic element to this, of course, is there is no shortage of professional video of Gonzaga games available. Chet has aged out of the need for mom-and-pop recordings, and that will become even more acutely true next season.

The concept of Dave Holmgren sitting in an NBA arena with his elbow on his knee, steadying the camcorder to take footage of millionaire rookie Chet like it’s another youth-league game, is endearingly odd. But go ahead and expect it.

“I’ve been doing it so long,” Dave says, “I’m just going to keep doing it.”

Chet says he watches them from time to time, gleaning different perspectives than from TV broadcasts. There isn’t much indication Dave is coaching his son through the videos; he doesn’t appear to be doing running commentary while he films. And no, Dave shoots down a theory that this is a way to calm his nerves by preoccupying himself.

Holmgren is almost certain to be a top-five NBA draft pick later this year. 

Holmgren is almost certain to be a top-five NBA draft pick later this year. 

“I’m pretty low-key as it is,” he says—and between his totally chill voice and flowing hair, that is entirely believable. But his son does have a way of quickening pulses.

Chet Holmgren is so extraordinary, his on-court actions cause routine amazement. He is among the most skilled and athletic 7-footers to ever walk the planet—Kevin Durant on training wheels at the offensive end and a forbidding paint presence on defense.

A two-play sequence Monday night in Gonzaga’s semifinal victory against San Francisco: a hard dribble right, wicked crossover left and 15-foot jump shot, followed by blocking a three-point shot at the other end. A jaw-dropping play Tuesday against the Gaels: Holmgren floated to the right wing, then dived in to post up on the right block, then shifted to the left block as teammate Andrew Nembhard launched a jumper that missed; Holmgren grabbed the rebound, took one power dribble and then crushed a dunk over the head of 6'8" St. Mary’s forward Kyle Bowen.

Holmgren wasn’t great against the Gaels, scoring eight points, pulling down eight rebounds and being credited with just one blocked shot. He went 0-for-4 from three-point range and has made just one of his past nine threes, yet is still shooting 41% beyond the arc. That’s the part of his game that has improved as the season went along, including a 13-game streak with at least one three made from Jan. 8 to Feb. 24.

“The biggest jump we saw was from the first to second time [San Francisco played Gonzaga],” said Dons coach Todd Golden after Holmgren posted 17 points, eight rebounds and six blocks Monday. “The first game, the [scouting report] was to let him shoot it a little bit. By the second time, it wasn’t even an option because he’s shooting the ball so well.

“I think over the last month he’s taken it to another level. He’s gotten a lot more aggressive and physical. He’s a generational player and will be one of the top three picks in the draft this year.”

In Las Vegas, Holmgren’s value to Gonzaga was most prominently felt at the defensive end, where he is one of the premier rim protectors in the college game. This is a team flush with offensive options, but one that has only a single defensive paint anchor.

The layers of his game continue to unfold. He can handle and shoot and block shots, but the in-person revelations extend beyond that. Holmgren is a talented outside-the-box rebounder, able to retrieve errant shots that don’t come directly to him. He also has flypaper hands and endless fingers that can snatch passes and loose balls, and he’s by no means overly dependent upon his right hand. His timing as a shot blocker is elite. He’s quick off his feet.

And, perhaps most impressively of all, Holmgren belies his frail physique. From Emoni Bates this season to other freshman phenoms over time, skinny has equated to struggle. For Holmgren—who, at 195 points, looks as slim as any college player in memory—that isn’t the case. He’s far from a finished product physically, but the human skeleton is tough. He’s harder to move than you’d expect, able to play through contact and almost impossible to budge.

That said, Gonzaga coach Mark Few says he would like his guy to get a few more calls in the NCAA tournament than he did in the WCC, this tournament included.

“Hopefully as we progress in March, the game will be called the way it’s supposed to be called, with freedom of movement and all that,” Few says. “If it is, he’ll be a really effective player.”

Additional strength will come, but the toughness has been there from the start, according to Holmgren’s parents. Chet’s mother, Sarah Harris, and Dave tell the same story with a slight variance: Chet was either 7 or 9 months old when he figured out how to get out of his crib, scaling the side and hitting the floor with a thud. The precocious lad was undeterred by his hard landing. It led the family to do away with the crib, putting a mattress on the floor and locking Chet’s door from the outside so he couldn’t open the door and crawl/toddle off to destinations unknown.

“It’s been a wild ride ever since,” Sarah says. “This is not a surprise for those of us who have watched him jumping for things and climbing up to get things.”

Holmgren hasn’t had to do much climbing in recent years—there isn’t much he can’t reach while standing on the ground. But, on Tuesday night, he happily bent down to kneecap level to greet Slammer, who made it into the arena, and down to court level, while on a leash and wearing a rescue dog vest.

Sarah said Chet missed the dog back home in Minnesota more than the humans in the family, because the dog isn’t too chatty when he calls the family. Chet laughed and said that’s not true. “I miss them all equally,” he says.

The Holmgren family’s trusted Labrador, Slammer, has been a postgame feature after Gonzaga games this season.

The Holmgren family’s trusted Labrador, Slammer, has been a postgame feature after Gonzaga games this season.

The family—and the camcorder—are headed to a new destination next week, for Chet’s first and assuredly last March Madness. Barring some kind of shocking development, he and Gonzaga will be in Portland for the first and second rounds. Then, perhaps San Francisco and, if things go well, a Final Four appearance.

Few pointed out how different this Gonzaga team is from last year’s bunch that went 31–0 before being overpowered by Baylor in the national title game. Three starters had to be replaced, including one-and-done lottery pick Jalen Suggs, a childhood friend of Holmgren’s in Minnesota.

The best way to replace NBA-level talent is by recruiting more NBA-level talent, and Holmgren is the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga history. He’s lived up to every bit of the hype—and may still have more to deliver over the next month.

“He isn’t doing anything here that he wasn’t doing last year in high school,” Dave Holmgren says. “It’s just a matter of bringing it out of the bag. There’s a lot in the bag that hasn’t been brought out yet, trust me.”

As the family videographer, Dave ought to know. If Chet delivers in the weeks to come, Gonzaga might have its first national title and Dave will have his best camcorder footage yet.

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