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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘This is where I wanted to be.’ Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City shared mutual interest long before NBA Draft

June 26, 2022 Updated Sun., June 26, 2022 at 8:29 p.m.

Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) shoots during a practice before the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Wednesday Mar 23, 2022, at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) shoots during a practice before the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Wednesday Mar 23, 2022, at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Chet Holmgren’s six-month college basketball tour attracted all sorts of visitors from the NBA. Often, more than a dozen would file into the same gyms to get their glimpse of someone who’s been characterized as a basketball “unicorn.”

A scout from virtually every organization came to see Gonzaga’s 7-foot center mix it up with the likes of UCLA and Duke in Las Vegas.

Longtime Boston Celtics coach-turned-executive Brad Stevens paid a visit to the small, modest gymnasium on Pepperdine’s campus to get his dose of the Holmgren experience.

Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti dropped in on the tour in early February to see Gonzaga play the University of San Diego at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

A run-of-the-mill WCC blowout for Gonzaga featured a few marvelous Holmgren moments, like when he stuffed a USD shot at one end, collected his own rebound, raced down the court and flipped in a layup. Over a span of 1:38 he individually outscored the Toreros 11-1 and hauled down six rebounds with two blocks in a five-minute stretch.

It’s no doubt those moments were still swimming through Presti’s mind when it was Oklahoma City’s turn to make a pick early in Thursday’s NBA draft.

“Seeing him at Gonzaga was interesting, but it was a little different because he was playing with an established team,” Presti said during a press conference Saturday in which OKC introduced Holmgren and its three other draft picks. “I specifically went to see him practice at San Diego because I just wanted to see how he carried himself amongst a group of older, established players that are really, really good.

“He was one of the guys except for when the game started and he let his talent speak.”

Two days after the Thunder selected Holmgren No. 2, making him the highest draft pick in Gonzaga history, the 20-year-old arrived in Oklahoma City to meet with club personnel, reporters and pose for photos with his new No. 7 jersey – the number he wore representing Team USA at the U-19 World Championships last summer.

At some point Saturday afternoon the OKC rookie was alerted that his father, Dave, had obtained a “Holmgren” jersey, sharing a photo on social media before Holmgen himself was presented with one.

“I don’t know how he got my jersey before me,” Holmgren told a scrum of local reporters. “I haven’t been on Twitter yet today, but I’m probably on my way right now to go throw my jersey on.

“I’m excited to do it, too.”

Oklahoma City has not been reputed as one of the NBA’s most attractive destinations, and the Thunder haven’t put a winning product on the court since a first-round playoff exit in 2019-20. Over the last two seasons, they’ve recorded the NBA’s third-worst cumulative record at 46-108.

None of that deterred Holmgren and as many were speculating a potential NBA reunion between the Minnesota native and former high school teammate/ex-Zag Jalen Suggs, the GU big man had already zeroed in on a future in OKC, according to multiple reports that surfaced before the draft.

Holmgren confirmed those reports Saturday, saying, “Now that I’m here I can officially say this is where I want to be. This is a great organization, great city, great fan base to be in. It’s hard to sum up why I would want to be here into a couple sentences. I kind of said it best when I said it’s a great organization with great people and a great vision for the future.”

Holmgren may be the centerpiece of OKC’s rebuild, but he won’t be the only piece. The Thunder acquired Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams of Santa Clara with the 12th overall pick and guaranteed some roster confusion when they selected Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams with the 34th overall pick.

Ironically, both Williams’ faced off against Holmgren in his lone college season. The 7-footer had 21 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks in two games against Jalen Williams and Santa Clara, then submitted an 11-point, 14-rebound double-double before fouling out of a Sweet 16 matchup with Jaylin Williams and Arkansas.

“I think just being 7 feet tall and move the way he does and stretch the floor by the way he can shoot,” Jalen Williams said during Saturday’s press conference. “I think he goes by the unicorn term and I think that perfectly describes what he’s able to do offensively and defensively.”

“He’s just a crazy player to play against,” Jaylin Williams added.

Holmgren arrived at Gonzaga as a projected lottery pick and cemented that belief by averaging a near double-double while tying the school’s blocks record in his lone college season. More than three months removed from his college finale, Holmgren dished an assist to his coaches and teammates in Spokane when asked how the experience prepared him for the next level.

“It’s hard to sum that into a quick answer,” Holmgren said. “There were a lot of lessons every single day, just showing up to practice especially with the people I was around every day, from the coaching staff to the players. We had a lot of basketball minds, and I learned a lot more than I could say in two or three sentences.”

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