The term wasn’t thrown around so loosely 15 years ago, but there was a unicorn on the floor one of the last times Gonzaga’s basketball team played a high-stakes, early-season nonconference game against the University of Texas.
Since Mark Few once had to build a game plan around a 7-foot freshman prodigy named Kevin Durant, the longtime Bulldogs coach may not have much sympathy for his adversary, first-year Longhorns coach Chris Beard, who faces a uniquely challenging assignment of his own when No. 5 Texas travels north to face Chet Holmgren and No. 1 Gonzaga at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“He’s long, athletic, he’s a positionless player. I don’t know if you guys saw his stat line from last night, but he almost had a quadruple double,” Beard said, slightly exaggerating what Holmgren did Tuesday by scoring 14 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, blocking seven shots and dishing out six assists in his college debut against Dixie State. “It has to be one of the best games in the history of college basketball for a freshman starting his career. He’s a special young player, it’ll be a great challenge for our team, but it’s an opportunity we’re looking forward to.”
Fair or unfair, it’s why comparisons to Durant have become so frequent, if not somewhat warranted, as Holmgren shot to the top of national recruiting rankings over the past year and began to gain traction as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft.
Former Gonzaga forward Sean Mallon won’t be able to recite specific numbers from the box score on Dec. 2, 2006. He’s now a high school basketball coach at Ferris in Spokane and, understandably, doesn’t have the bandwidth to recall everything that happened during a college career that culminated 15 years ago. But one also doesn’t forget a matchup with someone of Durant’s stature and Mallon’s managed to extract some humor in the fact that the Texas phenom only reached 29 points, on 8 of 18 from the field, 3 of 7 from 3-point range and 10 of 10 from the free-throw line.
“I kind of joke about it, holding him under 30 points,” Mallon said in a phone interview earlier this week. “… But it was pretty obvious this was just another level guy. You don’t run into guys like that ever.”
To Mallon’s point, only 27 college programs had to put Durant’s name on a scouting report.
It wasn’t enough to be the best player on the court in an 87-77 loss to Gonzaga at the Phoenix-based Basketball Hall of Fame Challenge, but Durant and the Longhorns mowed through the Big-12 Conference, including two encounters with Texas Tech, where Beard was an assistant for legendary coach Bob Knight.
In Durant’s most impressive outing as a college player, he scored 37 points and hauled down 23 rebounds in a 76-64 victory in Lubbock.
“I remember we doubled (Durant) from the middle and the baseline, the first possession of the second half,” Beard said. “So basically got three guys on him. He just kind of turned, shot it going out of bounds and making it. I just remember coach Knight, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to say anything. We all had the kind of same feeling.”
By tipoff on Saturday, Beard will have spent much of the week planning for another long, lanky freshman who’s demonstrated he can take defenders off the dribble, shoot the 3-pointer at a high clip and finish with authority at the rim. It’s all too similar to Durant for the Texas coach, who can’t resist the easy comparison others have been making for more than a year.
“So yeah, not trying to compare Chet to KD, but I guess I am kind of comparing that,” Beard said. “It kind of makes sense to me.”
As the ones tasked with developing Holmgren for at least one college season, Gonzaga’s coaches are plausibly more protective when it comes to their budding freshman star. They understand the perils of placing his name next to that of a 33-year-old NBA MVP, two-time NBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist who’s become one of the top-30 scorers in NBA history.
“I think the thing I hope is everyone gives him a little bit of a break,” Few told Stadium.com’s Jeff Goodman last Friday on the Field of 68 podcast. “We played KD when he was a freshman at Texas. You could clearly see he was going to be really, really good, but he wasn’t the best player in the world at that point. These things take time, especially with the developing bodies and all that. Chet, he’s still going to need time.”
Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson spoke on the subject after Holmgren’s sparkling debut on Tuesday.
“Obviously, it’s a compliment to Chet,” Michaelson said. “I mean that’s (Durant) arguably the best player in the world, one of the top three players in the world. But that’s tough and I’ve talked about that before. Chet’s spectacular. We heard about his stat line tonight that hasn’t been done in college basketball.
“That’s unbelievable and should be celebrated. So to compare a kid that’s played one college game that’s still in his teens to KD’s records, his Olympic medals, the way he plays is I think a lot to put on Chet and probably not quite fair.”
Michaelson understands why many have roped Holmgren and Durant into the same category. He says it’s “an easy generic comparison,” but suggests a closer examination would show “they’re slightly different players.”
“I think the thing with KD is you see the size, you see the ball skills, you see the long arms, the build a little bit,” Michaelson said.
“So I think that’s an easy generic comparison, but I think they’re a little different in how they play and what some of their skills, strengths are on both sides. I think Chet probably has some things KD didn’t have at 19.”
Either way, Texas players who manage to get a floater off over the 7-foot-6 wingspan of Gonzaga’s shot-swallowing center Saturday may have something to brag about in 15 years if Holmgren manages to carve out a long NBA career. Mallon can relate to that feeling. On Gonzaga’s second possession of the 2006 game, he backed down Durant in the paint before using a drop step to evade the Texas star and convert a layup.
“I scored on (Durant) in the post actually to start the game,” Mallon said. “At the time you don’t think much of it, but now it’s like, wow that’s Kevin Durant. I do remember going, ‘Wow, that was a great move.’ ”
Mallon may be more reluctant to revisit another memory from that game.
“I feel like it was toward the beginning of the game, but he came down and just one pass, no hesitation … hits a 3 from like 2, 3 feet behind the line and I just remember looking over at my assistant coach Bill Grier, who had the scout for those guys, and he was kind of looking at me like, ‘Yeah he does that, he does that,’ ” Mallon said. “OK, noted.”
Former Gonzaga guard Derek Raivio nearly matched Durant on the score sheet that night, scoring 27 points on seven 3-pointers.
“It seemed like he might have had 10 or 20, but then had 30 and it was an off night,” Raivio said. “So like, yeah it could’ve been different if he caught fire, but we knew who he was and we know how to focus our game plan.”
On talk of Holmgren and Durant, Raivio said, “It’s hard to compare. They’re obviously at different stages of their career” and noted, “KD’s always been more on the perimeter, looking to score off the dribble or pull-up jumpers. Things like that. I feel like Chet is a little closer to the basket.”
Holmgren has sampled from a variety of NBA players, including Durant, but it also seems the Brooklyn Nets star has also taken notice of Gonzaga’s promising rookie. Durant, who’s been known to evaluate footage of promising high school players on his YouTube channel, is one of the 328,000 people following Holmgren’s Instagram account, along with other NBA stars like Nets teammate Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade and DeMarcus Cousins.
How does the Durant comparison sit with Holmgren? He’s not irritated by it, but it also won’t be the first or last thing on his mind as he sets his feet inside the center circle Saturday night preparing to tip off against the program that produced the sport’s last great unicorn.
“If people want to compare me to this person or that, it’s cool,” Holmgren said. “I definitely look up to a lot of guys like that and watch their game and try to pull pieces of it. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to put together my own game and be my own player. So, I’m just trying to stand out in my own way and help my team win games.”
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