Paul Biancardi first saw Chet Holmgren when he was a sophomore during an AAU team practice at a small gym in Las Vegas.
Practice ended, but not for Holmgren.
“First, you see his height and wingspan and his touch on the floor, ability to block shots, those jumped out at me,” said Biancardi, ESPN national director of recruiting. “After practice, he stayed for an hour and a half. He worked on his footwork, layups, shooting, free throws. I sat there and watched him the whole time.
“It wasn’t because I was sitting there. It was because that’s what he does.”
Biancardi calls the Gonzaga freshman “the most unique prospect I’ve evaluated in my 13 years at ESPN.”
Holmgren and preseason national player of year favorite Drew Timme are two of the main reasons Gonzaga is front and center in the national championship discussion entering the season. The pair should form a unique frontcourt – the 7-foot Holmgren is comfortable on the perimeter, Timme’s deft footwork and polished post moves are unmatched in the college game – seemingly with endless possibilities.
“Both are really skilled players and really unselfish,” Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “They can play off each other easy, they can play inside or outside. I think it’s a pretty easy and seamless transition as far as those two playing together.”
Timme was a tough matchup for opponents last season with his interior scoring ability. He worked hard in the offseason to extend his shooting range and improve his ballhandling, which could cause additional headaches for defenders.
Biancardi described Holmgren as a “unicorn” with an uncommon skill set for a 7-footer with a 7-6 wingspan. The Timme-Holmgren combination figures to be problematic for foes.
“It’s been great,” Timme said after Kraziness in the Kennel last month. “We push each other to be better, we try new things together and work on different moves. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s fun going against every single guy we have.”
It’s easy to picture a dynamic high-low game, one of the program’s staples over the years, as well as both operating in the team’s ball-screen packages.
“Chet can really space the floor,” Michaelson said. “Both are very good passers, both are good interior and exterior passers and can feed each other and get it to the guards. Chet’s ability with sheer size to go over people makes him tougher and Drew has improved his range and obviously the way he drives it is really good.”
Timme is an elite scorer, which occasionally overshadowed his knack for feeding open teammates. The 6-10 forward had at least two assists in each of the final nine games last season, including five games with four assists. He averaged 2.3 assists per game in addition to a team-high 19.0 points.
“I think Chet will drag his defender from the basket, 17 to 19 feet away,” Biancardi said. “He’s not just a big man that shoots an occasional jumper. He has instincts growing up from high school and travel ball that he’s going to shoot it (when open).
“Timme can obviously feed him on high-lows because Chet is going to get some mismatches. He’s not a low-post, seal-you guy like Timme, but he’ll fight for position and he’ll simply catch it and shoot it from 8, 9, 10 feet over you. He’ll be easy to find for lobs.”
Holmgren has world-class shot-blocking ability and usually makes smart, swift decisions with the ball, Biancardi said. Opponents will probably try to bully the 195-pound Holmgren.
“Adam Finkelstein, who works with us (at ESPN), made a great point when he saw Chet for the first time,” Biancardi said. “He said, ‘You know, he’s really skinny but he’s really tough and plays with an edge,’ and at that time Chet was even skinnier. He’s highly competitive and a team player.”
There’s much more to the Zags than just their formidable frontcourt duo. Senior Andrew Nembhard is poised for a breakout year. The team is thin on Gonzaga game experience other than Timme, Nembhard and junior forward Anton Watson, but packed with young talent, though sophomore guard Dominick Harris (foot surgery) is sidelined indefinitely.
The Zags could require a maturation process that wasn’t necessary with last year’s team, which hit the ground running with an impressive 102-90 win over Kansas in the season opener. The catch is Gonzaga doesn’t have much time to mesh and begin defining roles with showdowns looming against No. 5 Texas, No. 2 UCLA, No. 9 Duke and No. 14 Alabama in the first month of the season.
“The age factor and experience factor is so crucial at this level,” Michaelson said. “Obviously this year’s group is a lot younger with five freshmen (counting Ben Gregg). Rasir (Bolton, Iowa State transfer) is experienced, but new to our system. That’s six new bodies. Dom and Julian (Strawther) have some experience, Andrew has one year here.
“Drew’s the only guy that’s completed two seasons (Watson missed the second half of his freshman season following shoulder surgery). I can’t think of a year where we didn’t have a fourth-year guy, which is crazy.”
Nonetheless, it hasn’t dampened expectations for the Zags, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll as they try to earn the program’s first national title.
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