SALT LAKE CITY — At first glance you can’t believe it. Oklahoma City hitched its wagon to him? Chet Holmgren, all 7' 1", 195-pounds of him, isn’t skinny for an NBA player. He's skinny for anyone, a stick figure brought to life. If there is such a thing as a prototypical NBA body, Holmgren’s is the opposite of it.
On second look—and third, and fourth—you think man, Oklahoma City has hitched its wagon to him. Holmgren made his summer league debut on Tuesday. He scored 23 points. He pulled down seven rebounds. He swatted away six shots. Playing center, Holmgren dragged Tacko Fall out on the perimeter, knocking down four threes.
“I thought he was really good,” said Thunder coach Kameron Woods.
You think? Summer league hot takes are as meaningless as the games. Anthony Randolph once averaged 27 points in summer league. Marco Belinelli averaged 22. Nate Robinson was so good in summer leagues, Vegas retired his jersey. Summer league success translates to the NBA about as often as Wiffle ball skills in baseball.
Still: Holmgren was good. Freed from a college system—did Mark Few know what he had with this guy?—Holmgren showed out. He started fast breaks. Finished them, too. On one possession he read a perimeter double team and found a cutting Jalen Williams. On another he collected an offensive rebound and dunked on Fall. He punched back a dunk attempt by James Palmer and hit Kofi Cockburn with an ankle buckling crossover.
“There's not a lot of [flaws] in his game,” said Josh Giddey.
Giddey should know. A day after the draft, Giddey’s phone rang. It was Holmgren. He was in Oklahoma City and wanted to get some work. Giddey met Holmgren at the Thunder practice facility. The two played one-on-one. Giddey says he was impressed by the diversity of Holmgren’s game. “Fadeaways, dunking on me, all sorts of things,” said Giddey. Later, in team workouts, Giddey saw Holmgren’s defensive potential.
“Big guys can be mismatches for guards,” Giddey said. “He's not. He's one of those guys that can sit down with guards and he's so long that he can block shots on the perimeter … I knew we had a special talent.”
Holmgren is the most intriguing NBA prospect in years. He has the skills of an All-Star guard and the frame of McLovin. At his best Holmgren has the potential to further revolutionize the center position. A pivot that can initiate a fast break and shoot threes at the end of it? The reigning MVP tops the list of players who can do that. Might end it, too. The question is if the 20-year old Holmgren’s body will add the strength he needs to do it. Cockburn bulldozed by him for a short hook in the first half and Fall moved him at will in the paint.
“I’m not sold on him being a star,” said an NBA assistant sitting courtside for Holmgren’s debut. “He’s obviously an excellent shooter, skilled but he is so physically weak. He can’t get by his defender and he realized that early and settled for threes the rest of game. He’s so thin in hips and legs that he makes [teammate] Poku [Aleksej Pokuševski] look like he has thick legs. I don’t think he’ll ever fill out. He will need to make difficult shots this season to have a good year because he settles for jumpers and can’t play inside. He was able to use his length to block shots on drivers tonight but NBA guys will just get into his body. He has a long way to go.”
Oklahoma City understood the risk in drafting Holmgren. But they also saw the upside, all of which was on display on Tuesday. Giddey says he envisions he and Holmgren forming a lethal pick-and-pop combination. “It’s going to be a nightmare for teams to guard,” Giddey said.
Thunder coaches have encouraged Holmgren to push the ball himself in transition. “The thing that impresses you the most about him is just for how big he is, he's a playmaker,” said Woods. “And in the modern NBA, you need playmakers all over the floor. He fits that bill. So I'd say his playmaking ability stuck out. But again, what I'd go back to is what's impressive the most for somebody who has the skills that he has, is how much he wants to do it within what we're doing as a team. And how much he can find within our offense alone.”
Oklahoma City isn’t worried about Holmgren’s body. Not yet, anyway. Neither is Holmgren. Seated on a makeshift dais—sideways, as Holmgren’s legs didn’t fit under a table—Holmgren says he doesn’t have a weight targeted for the start of the season. In fact, he’s wary of gaining too much too quickly.
“I've never been somebody who's aiming to get to this weight or that weight or bench 350 pounds,” Holmgren said. “I'm just trying to add strength and have it be conducive to me being a better player. I don't want to be so heavy that I don't feel good. That I don't feel like I'm moving as well as I was at a lighter weight. I'm just adding strength. The weight is coming with that over time and I'm just trying to find a good weight that I'm comfortable playing at.”
Oklahoma City has a compelling roster. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a budding star at point guard. Lu Dort is one of the NBA’s best defensive players on the wing. Giddey showed enough last season to believe he has elite point forward potential. In a few years, the Thunder could be good. Holmgren, if he reaches his potential, can make them great.
“I want to learn through every single experience,” Holmgren said. “Whether it’s good or bad because the worst thing I could do is have a great Summer League and not learn anything from it. So just try and learn from every single experience, every single moment, each play, each film session, shootaround, whatever it might be, and try to take that forward.”
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