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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘A mix of a thousand emotions.’ Selected No. 2 by Oklahoma City, Chet Holmgren becomes highest draft pick in Gonzaga history

UPDATED: Thu., June 23, 2022

NBA commissioner Adam Silver (L) and Chet Holmgren pose for photos after Holmgren was drafted with the 2nd overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 23, 2022 in New York City.  (Getty Images)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver (L) and Chet Holmgren pose for photos after Holmgren was drafted with the 2nd overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 23, 2022 in New York City. (Getty Images)
From staff reports

While describing the significance of the diamond-studded dice attached to a silver necklace draped over his velvet black draft night suit, Chet Holmgren told ESPN’s broadcast team early Thursday evening “I’m big on betting on myself.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder laid down a sizable bet on Holmgren becoming a transcendent NBA player who could revamp an entire franchise, selecting Gonzaga’s 7-foot freshman with the second overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft.

Speculation that Holmgren may reunite with former high school teammate and ex-Zag Jalen Suggs ended when the Orlando Magic drafted Seattle native, Duke freshman and one-time Gonzaga target Paolo Banchero with the No. 1 overall pick, but the All-American center still made school history by becoming the highest draft pick in GU history.

“It’s a mix of a thousand emotions and yet I have zero words to explain it,” Holmgren said in an ESPN interview immediately after slipping on an Oklahoma City cap and shaking the hand of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on the stage at the Brooklyn-based Barclays Center. “Everything I’ve looked forward to for a long time. OKC Thunder, let’s work.”

Holmgren becomes one of three Gonzaga players taken with one of the top five picks joining Adam Morrison, who went No. 3 to the Charlotte Bobcats in 2003, and Suggs, who was chosen fifth overall by Orlando in 2021. Gonzaga is the only program in the country with a top-five pick in the last two drafts and Holmgren is the 12th Bulldog player to be taken in the first round.

In a surprising move, Jabari Smith slipped to No. 3 overall (Houston Rockets) after many analysts considered the Auburn forward to be a lead candidate for the top pick. The Sacramento Kings selected Iowa forward Keegan Murray at No. 4 and the Detroit Pistons rounded out the top five by drafting Purdue point guard Jaden Ivey.

Holmgren arrived at Gonzaga last summer as a generational high school prospect and went on to average 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks en route to being named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year while receiving various All-American honors. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he was one of three Division I players over the past 25 seasons with 40 3-pointers and 100 blocks in a season (K.J. McDaniels, Eddie Griffin).

Coming off a 24-58 record, Oklahoma City is counting on Holmgren to become the centerpiece of a rebuild for a franchise that’s finished at the bottom of the Western Conference in consecutive seasons, winning 46 total games during that span.

The Thunder and general manager Sam Presti have come under scrutiny for trading away assets and building for the future, rather than embracing a win-now approach. Oklahoma City has drafted twice in the first round each of the last two years and selected Holmgren’s former WCC rival, Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams, with the 12th overall pick on Thursday.

“I think and what I saw, speaking to personnel in the organization, and on my visit, they have a great organization as well as a great vision going forward,” Holmgren said. “I’d say compiling the draft picks and all that is part of vision. Taking it one step at a time is important, especially for myself. You know, over time, that vision should pay off.”

Oklahoma City will fold Holmgren into a young core – the Thunder have the NBA’s youngest roster with an average age of 22.7 years old – that includes second-year shooting guard and former No. 6 pick Josh Giddy as well as point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists last season.

“I think it’s a great situation, great dynamic, playing with guys like Josh and Shai, as well as everybody down the roster,” Holmgren said. “It’s a lot of great players there with unique skill sets. I feel like I can kind of pair up with them and help enhance theirs as well as have their skill sets enhance mine.”

A skilled ball-handler for his size and an accomplished perimeter shooter who made 39% of his 3-point shots at Gonzaga last season, Holmgren adds a unique offensive skillset to an OKC team that ranked last in the NBA in both points per game (103.7) and 3-point percentage (32.3).

The Thunder were better on the defensive end, conceding 111.8 ppg (15th in NBA), and will now have another reinforcement in the paint to block and alter shots. Holmgren matched Brandon Clarke for GU’s single-season blocks record, recording 117 in five fewer games than Clarke.

“On defense, I can use my length and my quickness to cover a lot of ground and take up space,” Holmgren said. “There’s more space to take up, obviously, but I feel like I can still take up a great deal of space on defense, both vertically and horizontally, sliding my feet as well as protecting the rim.

“And on offense, OKC plays a very five-out style of basketball. There’s a lot of space, especially in the paint to get to the basket or draw two defenders or drive and kick, find guys who are open.”

When Orlando acquired the No. 1 pick in the Draft Lottery last month, fans of both Gonzaga and Minnehaha High School started to speculate a Holmgren-Suggs reunion in Florida. Although that scenario didn’t play out, Suggs’ name came up in a post-Draft interview when Holmgren was asked if he’d thought ahead to a specific matchup in the NBA.

“It’ll be special to share the court with Jalen again,” Holmgren said. “Obviously we won’t be wearing the same jersey but to share the court will be special and to compete with him, again, even though we are not on the same team, it will be a great day.”

Time will tell if OKC’s wager pays off. Critics of Holmgren fear his slender frame won’t hold up in the NBA if the Gonzaga center isn’t able to add considerable weight or muscle.

Holmgren, who didn’t participate in the NBA Draft Combine but weighed in at 195 pounds at Gonzaga, has heard those concerns – many of them since he was a high school sensation in Minneapolis – but suggested he’s unbothered by them.

“I’m very intrinsically motivated,” he said. “I wake up every day with a plan on how to make myself a better person, better basketball player. I put so much effort into executing that, that it doesn’t really leave room to put effort into things that, one, I can’t control, and two, don’t help make me better.

“I tune a lot of that stuff out. I do see it here and there, but at the end of the day, I put no effort toward it.”

According to Spotrac, Holmgren, as the No. 2 overall pick, will sign a two-year contract worth $16.6 million. The deal reportedly included two club options that max out the deal at four years for $37 million.

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