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‘Unique’ abilities: USA U19 coach Jamie Dixon impressed with Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren

UPDATED: Sat., July 31, 2021

TCU coach Jamie Dixon had a pretty good scouting report on Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren before the two joined up as head coach and player on the U.S. U19 basketball team.

Dixon said he and Zags coach Mark Few “are longtime friends and go way back” in the coaching ranks. James Silva, Dixon’s nephew, is a Gonzaga manager and told his uncle “Chet’s a nice kid” after meeting Holmgren for a few days before the top-ranked recruit departed in June for USA tryouts in Fort Worth.

Dixon, who guided the Americans to the gold medal last month at the FIBA World Cup in Latvia, came away impressed with Holmgren on and off the floor after the team spent about 25 days together.

“Just a really engaging kid,” Dixon said. “He’s well liked, that’s the thing, respected and well liked. His teammates really like him.”

As for the 7-foot-1 Holmgren’s distinctive style and impact on the court, Dixon used the word “unique” more than once assessing the tournament MVP’s performance.

“I’d seen him two years ago,” Dixon said. “To me, those guys often times just need time to get stronger and bigger. He’s just unique. He plays physically even though he’s thin. He’s got better footwork than you’d think, plays stronger than he looks, he just does.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. With him and (USA teammate Kenny) Lofton and the French kid (7-2 Victor Wembanyama), those are three of the most unique kids I’ve seen.”

Holmgren averaged 11.9 points, third on a balanced offense. He added 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 blocks in 21.4 minutes. He scored in double figures in all seven games while shooting 64.9% on 2-pointers, 53.8% on 3s and 66.7% at the foul line.

The 6-7, 275-pound Lofton, a sophomore at Louisiana Tech, powered inside for 13.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. The 17-year-old Wembanyama averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds. He had 22 points, 8 boards and 8 blocks before fouling out in the fourth quarter in a title-game loss to the Americans.

The U.S. team had nightmare travel delays getting to Latvia. They played shortly after arriving and dropped a scrimmage against Australia and then struggled versus Spain. Those turned out to be wake-up calls for Dixon’s squad.

“I knew going over we weren’t ready after a short camp with 28 players (before cuts),” he said. “We got stuck in Frankfurt for an extra day, so we hung out and played cards. We became a team and a good group on the trip and we were really unselfish. We weren’t playing like that in the first two (scrimmages).

“Chet had a lot to do with that. Being the highest-ranked guy, he was a great teammate, unselfish. He played that way and talked that way and worked hard.”

The Americans set a FIBA single-game record with 39 assists and 132 points against Korea.

Holmgren scored in a variety of ways via dunks, drives, free throws and deep 3-pointers. He usually guarded smaller players on the perimeter but still swatted 19 shots, many as a help defender and some with nice recoveries after getting beat on the dribble.

“He plays on the perimeter and can guard on the perimeter. That’s the other unique thing about his size, but he still scores best around the basket,” Dixon said. “He has the ability to play inside and out and be effective at both. That’s what makes him interesting. He takes pride in his defense.”

Holmgren could present matchup issues for GU opponents with his length, ball-handling and shooting range. His biggest impact could come on the defensive end. He blocked six shots in a semifinal win over Canada and four in a victory over Australia.

“He’s going to be a really good defender, valuable defender,” Dixon said. “He shot it really well early in (training) camp. He didn’t shoot it great over there. He had smaller guys guarding him so it’s not like he got a lot of open looks. We only played him as a 4, which I didn’t anticipate, but it worked for us.

“We didn’t have the matchup deal with a pick-and-pop 5 guarding him. I think Gonzaga will use that, and he’ll be able to do more in that way.”

Holmgren occasionally turned down good looks to feed teammates closer to the basket. He had four games with at least four assists, including five against France.

“We really emphasized assists,” Dixon said. “The (assistant coaches) did the subs, Jerod (Haase of Stanford) had the perimeters, (Yale’s James) Jones had the big guys. My job was to count assists.

“Chet was a big part of that.”

Dixon sees good things ahead for Gonzaga with the pairing of Holmgren and junior forward Drew Timme.

“I recruited Timme from the first day I got here (at TCU) when he was probably in ninth grade,” Dixon said. “That’s a good combo.”

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