What’s next for Chet Holmgren?

Holmgren’s historic rookie campaign is telling of how bright the future is for the Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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As the final buzzer sounded on Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, Chet Holmgren experienced the feeling of coming up short in the NBA Playoffs for the first time in his young NBA career.

The former Gonzaga men’s basketball standout had been sensational on both ends of the floor throughout his rookie campaign. Holmgren, who missed all of the 2022-23 season with a foot injury, showcased what he was capable of when healthy as he became the first player in NBA history to record 200 assists, 190 blocks (the most by a rookie this century) and make 129 3-pointers in a single season, rookie or not. The 7-foot-1 post averaged 16.5 points (second among rookies), 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks as one of the six players to play and start in all 82 games this season — a rarity in the load management era.

Not only did Holmgren stuff statsheets night after night, but he also did it while winning. The Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25) exceeded all preseason expectations as the youngest team by average age to earn a No. 1 seed in the NBA Playoffs. Led by Most Valuable Player candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC’s young core often proved that age is just a number on the hardwood.

The Thunder stormed through the first round in a quick 4-0 series sweep against the New Orleans Pelicans. Any concerns that the 208-pound rookie would fold while guarding Jonas Valanciunas have swept away in the process, as Holmgren etched his name into the record books game after game — 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in his playoff debut, a stat line only Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Kevin Kenner have put together as rookies. A few nights later in Game 2, Holmgren scored 20 points in the first half — the first rookie to do so in over a decade — and became the first rookie in OKC franchise history to score at least 25 points and grab five rebounds in the playoffs.

A second-round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks pitted Holmgren against a fellow 7-foot rookie and Thunder draftee, Dereck Lively II, whose draft rights were traded from OKC to Dallas during the 2023 NBA Draft. The Duke product’s ability to run the floor and crash the glass fit the Mavs’ puzzle perfectly next to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. It also proved quite the challenge for OKC’s rookie center.

Lively II beat Holmgren to a few rebounds throughout the series and had his share of above-the-rim finishes, including a strong layup through Holmgren’s chest late in Game 6. The Mavs rookie isn’t as nearly as versatile as his OKC counterpart on the offensive end, though his activity on the boards and defensive end was enough to give his team the edge it needed to win the series in six games.

Holmgren dealt with foul trouble for much of Game 6, and the Thunder paid for it. After he subbed out with three fouls in the second quarter, Dallas rattled off a 7-0 scoring run. Later in the second half, the Mavs went on a 10-0 run once Holmgren hit the bench. What was once a 17-point lead for OKC was cut down to two by the time Holmgren checked in during the fourth quarter.

The Thunder were 20 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 back in OKC after Holmgren put down a towering one-hand dunk that put his team out in front late. What followed epitomizes the heartbreak of the NBA Playoffs: Gilgeous-Alexander was questionably called for a shooting foul on PJ Washington, despite getting a hand on the shot attempt prior to hitting Washington’s arm. The Mavs forward knocked down two of three free throws before Jalen Williams’ near halfcourt heave fell short, ending OKC’s season in one swift motion.

“I'm definitely gonna remember it,” Holmgren said to reporters postgame. “It's hard to tell what you remember more, the wins or the losses. But this definitely stings, it doesn't feel great. It's definitely kind of a driving force to not want to feel this feeling again. Nobody wins 12 straight championships, so the chances that I'm gonna feel this at some point again is definitely there, but I'm going to do everything in my power to avoid this feeling again.”

Holmgren’s maturity was a symbol of how OKC outperformed what many expected from a group of youngsters. However, with that success comes expectations for next year and beyond. There’s arguably no better team set up for the future given the Thunder’s draft capital and salary cap space, though it also matters how they use their abundance of assets.

If Sam Presti has paid any attention to the rest of the NBA Playoffs, he will notice the importance of having a versatile and athletic power forward who can defend in space and be a plus on offense. See Aaron Gordon of the Denver Nuggets, Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas’ Washington as examples of big men who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Some thought Presti would acquire such a talent at the trade deadline in February, though instead, he opted to push for the playoffs with the squad he had already put together.

There’s still time for the Thunder, who could have over $30 million in cap space if they renounce Gordon Hayward’s rights, to potentially land Holmgren’s future frontcourt teammate in free agency. New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein could be poached. He doesn’t stretch the floor, though he’s solid around the rim and painted area in addition to his motor on the glass. 

Indiana Pacers big Pascal Siakam is the biggest name on the market who would receive OKC’s interest. The two-time All-Star said in January that he was eager to work out a new contract this offseason with the Pacers, who can offer a deal worth roughly $42.3 million annually. That’s a bit out of Presti’s budget, but don’t count him out.

Brooklyn Nets center Nic Claxton is also a name to watch out for, as the 6-foot-11 Georgia product will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Like Hartenstein, Claxton doesn’t provide much in the way of floor spacing, but his rebounding numbers and athleticism speak for themselves.

For Holmgren, he’ll have another summer to improve his game and body for what looks to be the beginnings of a bright and illustrious NBA career.


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Cole Forsman

COLE FORSMAN

Cole Forsman is a reporter for Gonzaga Nation, a member of Sports Illustrated’s FanNation network. Cole holds a degree in Journalism and Sports Management from Gonzaga University.