Chet Holmgren is a 7-foot-1, 195-pound giant of a teen with a 7' 6" wingspan and on-court gifts that defy logic, hence his nickname in the basketball world of “unicorn.”
Though he’s got the stature of a center, Holmgren runs the offense like a veteran point guard, knocks down three-pointers like a marksman, spikes shots in abundance and handles the ball so well you’d swear he had a string attached to it.
Holmgren went viral last year when he crossed-up two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry at his own camp and has seen his stock and fame skyrocket ever since.
Now it’s culminated in him earning the top spot in SI All-American’s inaugural basketball rankings.
“Wow, that’s an honor,” Holmgren said. “Just to be considered the best is cool because it shows what hard work can do. At the same time, I’ve only ever dreamt of playing in the NBA, I’ve never dreamt of being on top of a list. The only time a number next to your name means anything is on draft night, but even after that it doesn’t meant anything. I focus on the work.”
And therein lies, perhaps, Holmgren’s greatest attribute: His mentality.
Holmgren approaches every game like an unknown prospect looking to prove his worth.
“That’s the only way I can look at it,” Holmgren said. “I mean what have I accomplished? I really haven’t accomplished anything yet. No, I just go out there and work hard. I’ve always played with a chip.”
Holmgren’s father David, a 7-footer who played at Minnesota, said Chet’s competitive fire was birthed at a young age after he started playing later than most kids his age and fell behind the curve talent-wise.
“It was sink or swim for him and he always played up,” David said. “My wife and I are the type of parents who won’t listen to complaining; we just ask what you’re gonna do about it.”
David recalled an instance when Chet started playing in the third grade and was tasked with guarding a sixth grader because they were the same height, despite the older kid outweighing him substantially. Chet’s lack of experience and overzealous motor frustrated the opposing player so much that he hit him in the chest and knocked him down.
“Chet jumped right up and got back in his face,” David said. “That’s when I knew we were gonna be O.K. He doesn’t back down, he brings the fight to you.”
Last season, Holmgren averaged 16.3 points a game at Minnehaha (Minn.) Academy, which was on the verge of its fourth-straight state title before the season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holmgren wasn’t able to consistently show the full-array of his skill set because he played in a lineup that included four point guards, including SI All-American Jalen Suggs, who is averaging 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds a game as a freshman at Gonzaga.
Now that it’s his show, Holmgren said he’s “excited” to show the full range of his capabilities when the season starts later this month.
On Nov. 12 he used a nationally televised game against the country’s top junior Emoni Bates as a preview of what teams are in store for this season, posting 31 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks to lead Team Sizzle (Minn.) past Bates's Ypsi (Mich.) Prep squad, 78–71.
Bates countered with an impressive stat-line (36 points, 10 rebounds), but it was clear who the best player on the court was in this game.
Afterward, Holmgren took to Twitter give props to Bates, but also to request apologies from everyone who took part in a pregame poll asking who would win the matchup.
Eighty-one percent picked Bates.
“I was so serious too,” Holmgren said. “Social media has turned into a place that just festers with ignorance and no responsibility. I won’t say it bothers me, but I read it. At the end of the day, I do whatever it takes to win. I’m just a worker; I’ve always had to be a worker.”
Holmgren doesn’t have the LeBron James story of a young phenom whose talent was so undeniable that he was topping prospect rankings lists in the second grade.
He grew seven inches in the eighth grade and made what he referred to as “an awkward transition” into his new body over the next year.
“It was a weird time,” Holmgren said. “It’s a painful process because your bones are growing fast. I had to do physical therapy and all of that. It took time to get used to it.”
It wasn’t until the summer of his sophomore year that Holmgren began to see tangible proof of his potential at elite camps. The following summer is when he was introduced to the world via the Curry clip, which Holmgren embraces but doesn’t want to be defined by.
“Everyone asks about that, and I understand why,” Holmgren said of the viral moment. “But if that defines my whole career then the rest of my career won’t add up to be much. I’ve got bigger dreams.”
The first of which will come when he picks which college he’ll suit up with next season.
Holmgren described the process of choosing between his final list of schools—Gonzaga, Georgetown, Memphis, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and North Carolina—as “a headache.”
“I haven’t gotten headaches, but it is a headache,” Holmgren said. “I’ll probably make a decision around the middle of the season or so. It’s a big decision for a young person to make. It’s hard to know what’s best and it’s hard to manage it all because you have everything else going on. That said, if you do it right, it’s worth it, and I plan on doing it right.”
For now, Holmgren’s focus is on his ultimate goals, which he said requires his trademark tunnel vision approach.
“I’m honored to be the top player in the SI99, but there’s no recent to be complacent or even be happy with where I am,” Holmgren said. “I’m not where I want to be, so the only way I know how to get there is to work. That’s it.”