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Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren vows to keep open mind entering NBA Draft

Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) mobs guard Andrew Nembhard (3) as Goznaga defeats the Santa Clara Broncos during the second half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Jan 15, 2022, at Leavy Center in Santa Clara, Calif. Gonzaga won the game 115-83.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

In a Zoom interview before the NBA draft held earlier this week, Chet Holmgren fielded a handful of questions about the organizations that could be adding the 7-footer’s elite rim protection, perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills to their roster later this week.

Beat writers and columnists from four NBA clubs, specifically, hogged most of the air time while the call may as well have been an afterthought for reporters covering the other 26 organizations.

Holmgren was reluctant to offer specific information about his individual contact with the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets or Sacramento Kings, but he was slightly more forthcoming when asked to share his thoughts on the four teams that could have a realistic shot at selecting him Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (5 p.m. ESPN).

A larger pot of teams should have a chance to grab Bulldogs teammate Andrew Nembhard, who’s considered to be a late first-round to early/mid second-round selection after scaling mock drafts with a stellar performance at the NBA draft combine in Chicago.

When it comes to Holmgren, Orlando would be the preferred destination for fans of Gonzaga and Minnehaha High School. Holmgren teamed up with fellow Minnesotan and longtime friend Jalen Suggs at Minnehaha before arriving at Gonzaga as the Magic were selecting Suggs with the fifth overall pick of the 2021 draft.

“Great people. It’s kind of like a theme in the NBA,” Holmgren said of the Magic. “They’ve been doing it for a long time. They’ve been working together for 30 years. It’s a one-two punch. They’ve got a vision for what they’re trying to put together in Orlando. I see them being successful.”

Without disclosing the location, Holmgren said he’d met with Suggs recently and alluded to conversations the two have had about not only the Magic, but the NBA at large.

“Beyond just talking to Orlando, he just gives me a lot of tips on the NBA,” Holmgren said. “We talk about the NBA a lot. He’s giving me a lot of tips because he’s been there, he’s seen it. I’m excited to go see it as well. We talk a lot about the NBA.”

Gonzaga and Auburn spent time during the regular season vying for the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 and Thursday’s draft sets up another battle between the schools. Holmgren could make Gonzaga the 47th school with a top overall pick in the NBA draft, but if it isn’t him, that mantle will likely belong to Auburn and All-American guard Jabari Smith.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic recently pegged Holmgren as the top prospect on his big board but anticipates Smith will go No. 1 to Orlando. Vecenie and ESPN’s Jonathon Givony both project Holmgren going No. 2 to Oklahoma City, which would still make him the highest-drafted player in Gonzaga’s history.

Of the potential fit in Oklahoma City, Holmgren said, “I feel like I’m someone who highlights other players’ skills as well as finds where to fit in with my skills. I feel like I have a wide variety of skills that compare with anybody, but especially a point guard like Josh Giddey who has great vision, knows how to get in the teeth of the defense and distribute the ball.

“It’ll make life easy for me and I feel like being a lob threat as well as being able to open up the floor, space the floor, things like that. Then with Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), he doesn’t really need any help from anybody. He’s a helluva player.”

Holmgren wasn’t asked about the Houston Rockets, who hold the No. 3 pick, but he received multiple queries about the Sacramento Kings, who’d presumably jump at the chance to pair him next to another former Gonzaga big man, Domantas Sabonis, in the unlikely scenario Holmgren falls out of the top three, or in the event Sacramento trades up to No. 3.

“I played with a great Gonzaga big man last year, Drew Timme, so I feel like there’d be a Zag connection there, whether it’s high/low or however we’d do it,” Holmgren said. “I feel like I can work really well with Domas or whoever I’m playing with.”

Following Gonzaga’s loss to Arkansas in the Sweet 16, Holmgren relocated to Southern California for predraft training and has worked closely with the Santa Barbara-based P3 Peak Performance Project.

As of Monday, he’d already made another change of scenery, traveling to New York for NBA draft festivities.

“I think every little kid imagines it, but to actually be here sitting in New York City a few days away from the draft, it’s definitely a blessing,” he said. “I’m excited for it. I feel like no matter what level or what situation or what circumstances I’m in, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to be effective and help my team win. But I definitely see things in the NBA style of game I feel like I can thrive in with the spacing, the speed, with kind of the run and gun. There’s a 24-second shot clock; you’re getting up and down for 48 minutes.”

Holmgren credited Gonzaga for his development while responding to a question about why he elected to go the college route as opposed to playing for the increasingly popular NBA G-League Ignite.

“I felt college was the best fit for me, playing for a coach like coach (Mark) Few,” Holmgren said. “He’s been doing it at such a high level for so long, I didn’t think I could find anybody to learn from and play for. As well as just trusting that tried and true path and continuing on that road he’s started paving at Gonzaga and just kind of jumping right in where the past guys have left off and just getting to work.”

The Athletic’s latest mock draft projects Nembhard going to the Denver Nuggets with the final pick (No. 30) of the first round while Vecenie tabs the point guard No. 40 on his big board, writing “At the end of the day, Nembhard is all about ball-screen dominance. He’s arguably the best operator out of ball screens in the draft class.”