LAS VEGAS – Chet Holmgren was involved in a viral moment during the first half of Oklahoma City’s NBA Summer League opener against the Houston Rockets.
It’s not an unusual occurrence for Holmgren, who’s going on three years of internet stardom since crossing up Stephen Curry at a summer basketball camp in 2019.
In this instance, though, Holmgren wasn’t the one manufacturing the highlight but on the receiving end of it.
With a running start, Houston’s Aric Holman received a pass at the top of the 3-point arc, barreled toward the basket and finished a left-handed tomahawk over a backtracking Holmgren, who recovered well enough to challenge the dunk but not prevent it from happening.
Holmgren ensured that wouldn’t be the defining play of his first NBA cameo in Las Vegas. With Kyrie Irving, Ja Morant, Damian Lillard and his former Gonzaga coach Mark Few on hand at Thomas & Mack Pavilion, the rookie center still left his imprint on a 90-88 loss to the Rockets.
In just over 28 minutes, Holmgren scored 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line. He didn’t block a shot in the first half but was a nuisance in the second half, rejecting four. Holmgren rounded out his stat line with eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and four turnovers.
“Just trying to learn from every single experience,” Holmgren said. “Every time you go out there, whether it’s good or bad. The worst thing you can do is have a great game and great summer league and not learn from it.
“So I’m just trying to learn from everything that happens within our team, from how other teams are playing us, practice. Whatever it might be, just trying to learn.”
A mishmash of NBA stars and other celebrities lined the courtside chairs at the summer league’s main venue, but Oklahoma City’s operations department made sure to save a few for two folks in Holmgren’s corner.
Few, who’s in Las Vegas for an assignment with USA Basketball, arrived a day early to catch Holmgren, who became the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga history last spring. Holmgren delivered for the Bulldogs with an All-American season that saw him earn West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year honors and match GU’s single-season blocks record.
Gonzaga’s longtime coach, accompanied by assistant Roger Powell, gave a positive evaluation of Holmgren’s performance.
“It’s vintage Chet. He impacts the game in a lot of different ways,” said Few, who shared a few minutes with Holmgren in the loading dock at Thomas & Mack Center before the OKC rookie went to fulfill media obligations. “It’s just not all scoring. I think he’s getting his feel for what he can and can’t do, and what they want him to do is going to be most important.”
Of spotting his college coaches on the baseline, Holmgren said, “Oh, it was awesome. It’s always great to see those guys. They’ll be in my corner, I’ll be in their corner forever, so it’s good to see them.”
Fairly or unfairly, Oklahoma City vs. Houston was mostly advertised as a matchup between Holmgren, the second overall pick of the 2022 draft, and Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr., who was selected third overall by the Rockets.
The two went head-to-head more than once with no real indication of which players emerged as the victor. In the first half, Smith deflected Holmgren’s shot at the rim, raced the other way and got the ball back for an open 3-pointer at the top of the arc. In the second half, Holmgren collected the ball near the top of the key and backed Smith down until he could take a half-spin to his right and lay the ball up and over the Houston rookie.
“I’m just trying to go out and compete every single game, no matter who I’m playing,” Holmgren said. “If I feel like I could’ve left more out there, then I feel like I didn’t play the game right.”
Through three Summer League games – two in Salt Lake City and one in Las Vegas – Holmgren is averaging 15.3 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three assists. He’s yet to replicate the 23-point, seven-rebound, six-block effort against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday but in both games since, Holmgren’s given the Thunder more than brief glimmers of what he might be able to do for a franchise looking to turn the corner.
“I was really impressed with Chet’s game overall,” OKC Summer League coach Kameron Woods said of Holmgren. “I think with a guy like him it’s easy to get siloed into one specific facet of the game, good or bad for him, but he is so unique. He impacts the game in a lot of ways. I thought his rim protection was really good, I thought he found offense within what we were doing. I thought he tried to open things up for other guys on the perimeter.
“So, from where he was when we got him to where we are now four games in, he’s continuing to improve and he’s continuing to do it within our style which has been most impressive.”
Oklahoma City teammates, like those at Gonzaga previously, have quickly grown fond of Holmgren, who offers a rare mix of ball-handling, perimeter shooting and post-up moves on offense, not to mention elite rim protection on defense.
“I think for me playing with a guy like him in the pick-and-roll is a lot of fun,” OKC guard Josh Giddey said. “Not just on that end, on the defensive end as well is someone I know is going to have my back and he did it tonight a number of times. So (it’s) fun guy to play with and I sound like a broken record, but the more we play together the better it’s going to get.”
Holmgren has another high-profile matchup on tap when the Thunder square off with top overall pick Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic on Monday. The game at Thomas & Mack Center is set to tip off at 6 p.m. PT and air on ESPN. It’ll be the first Holmgren-Banchero matchup since Gonzaga’s November clash with Duke at Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
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