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Gonzaga Basketball

After injury setback, former Gonzaga standout Chet Holmgren enters rookie season in NBA with ‘a touch of grey’

Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren smiles between plays against Dallas during an NBA Summer League game on July 8 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Mark Few watched on from the sideline as one of his former players paced up and down the court, wrestled down low with other centers and contested shots at the rim during Team USA training camp in early August, held in Las Vegas a few weeks before the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

For about 10 months, Chet Holmgren could do none of the above, certainly not at full speed while he was recovering from a Lisfranc injury to his right foot sustained last August in Seattle while guarding LeBron James during a Crawsover ProAm pickup game.

From Few’s vantage point, Holmgren did not look timid, nor was he reluctant or apprehensive during a short stint with the USA Select squad that was handpicked to help the World Cup team – which was employing his former Gonzaga coach as an assistant – prep for games in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines later that month.

“His spirits were great. He’s eager, he’s incredibly driven, incredibly focused and excited,” Few said earlier this month at West Coast Conference Media Day. “He loves to play, so he’s ready to get back out on the floor.”

There was no second-guessing when Holmgren crashed into the paint to block a shot. No reservations when he leapt off the ground to catch an alley-oop. No jitters when he stepped into a 3-pointer.

“Never, never in a billion years,” Few said. “He’s going to go full bore and he’s already attacked his rehab. No, I think he’s primed for a really, really big year.”

Holmgren’s self-confidence wasn’t shaken after the physical setback that kept the former second overall draft pick away from most basketball activities for approximately 10 months.

That wasn’t surprising to the coach who signed Holmgren two years ago when he was considered the country’s top overall recruit.

“Chet, he’s not afraid of anything and super aggressive,” Few said. “Some things worked and some things didn’t, but it didn’t stop him from coming back more aggressively the next time.”

Four solid days at USA training camp signified another positive data point on Holmgren’s journey back to the court and reaffirmed why he’s expected to be a top contributor for one of the best young teams in the NBA.

Other encouraging moments have included the NBA Summer League circuit, where he averaged 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks over two games, and the preseason, including 21 points and nine rebounds in a highly billed matchup with 7-foot-3 San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama, the first overall pick of the 2023 NBA Draft.

“It’s amazing. Win, lose, draw, whatever. It’s just great to be out there,” Holmgren said during Summer League. “Nothing can really replace being able to hoop, and I’m just really thankful for all the people who kind of stuck with me and kind of believed in me through this whole process. Not only from the team side, the management, the players, but also my friends and family. Everybody’s been with me while I’ve been away. I feel like I never gave up on myself, but they definitely helped me through that.”

Delayed by a year, Holmgren’s long-awaited NBA debut finally arrives on Wednesday when the Oklahoma City Thunder travel to take on the Chicago Bulls.

Even in a crowded Western Conference, the Thunder are expected to contend for a playoff berth after falling one game shy last year, when they squandered a play-in opportunity against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In theory, the odds of reaching that destination should improve with the addition of a 7-foot rim protector who made 55% of his 3-point attempts in the preseason. After sitting out last season, Holmgren’s still eligible to earn NBA Rookie of the Year honors and is currently listed at +320 to win that award according to FanDuel Sportsbook – second only to San Antonio Spurs rookie and Wembanyama, who’s +110.

“A lot of people are talking about this being Chet’s first season, and it is in one sense, but it’s really our first season with Chet more than it’s Chet’s first season,” Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti said during a preseason press conference. “So our ability to absorb him in a way that allows him to play efficiently while everyone else can be a part of that as well is one of the strengths of the way we play stylistically and part of the reason we took this approach.”

Because of his positional versatility, and extensive skillset at both ends of the floor, absorbing Holmgren has been about as easy one could imagine.

Oklahoma City players are quickly discovering the perks of playing alongside a 7-footer who can clean up the shots they miss on the offensive end as easily as he can cover up the mistakes they make on defense.

“I feel like if you shoot it, more than likely he’s going to get the rebound if you miss,” said rookie guard and 10th overall draft pick Cason Wallace, who shared the floor with Holmgren at Summer League. “You don’t have to worry about getting beat on defense because he’s going to protect the rim and he’s a great teammate, he’s talking to you when you’re on the sideline or off the court. Great guy.”

Holmgren also enters the 2023-24 season with distinct advantages over other NBA “rookies.” Wembanyama, for instance, didn’t have access to San Antonio’s playbook over the last 12 months. Holmgren, meanwhile, has a decent grasp on the offensive actions and defensive concepts Oklahoma City will use because he spent six months studying them, often from a courtside seat at the Paycom Center.

Vowing to make up for what he couldn’t do on the court, Holmgren gathered information whenever he could, squeezing into the huddle during timeouts, eavesdropping on halftime speeches and sitting in on film sessions.

“He has a touch of grey now because he’s one year in, and I think the ability to see the season unfold, watch the guys go through kind of what that’s like terminology wise, understanding some of those natural things schematically,” Presti said. “Now a lot of those things will evolve and change naturally, but he knows the principles.”

Presti was in regular communication with Holmgren throughout his rehabilitation process, ensuring his lottery pick center never felt too distant from the team.

“You’ve got to come in every day, everyone else is getting ready to play that night, you’re still in a scooter and your Super Bowl that day is moving your ankle up and down. That’s your Super Bowl,” Presti said. “That takes tremendous, rigorous mindset. I remember we won a game one night. It was an exciting game, down the stretch type win. I can’t remember where we were. I was on the road at a college game and I was just thinking to myself, ‘What’s Chet thinking right now?’

“Everyone’s so excited and he’s on the peripheral of that. So just calling him and explaining to him, you’re going to be part of that. That’s coming.”

Even for a player of Holmgren’s caliber, there should still be a fairly steep learning curve once he gets into an NBA game for the first time.

The speed of the game is amplified, and things could change once Holmgren becomes a focal point of opposing scouting reports.

“Chet’s doing a good job of learning the principles, which is important,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault told local reporters after a recent practice. “He’s got to know all the spots. Obviously we’re not dumb, we’re going to keep him around the rim so he can block shots, deter shots, alter shots but at the same time, there’s going to be situations where that’s the position we’ve got to put other people in, so there’s going to be situations he can’t do that, he’s got to just play the defense and so far he’s learning it and doing a good job.”

Holmgren’s rim protection is decidedly his best asset at any level and it’ll be the most important skill he brings to an Oklahoma City team that ranked in the bottom third of the NBA with 4.2 shots per game last season. During his lone season at Gonzaga, the towering center blocked 3.66 shots on his own. In a Salt Lake Summer League debut last year, he rejected seven shots against the Utah Jazz.

Skeptics still wonder if those skills will translate when Holmgren’s slight frame are matched up against the likes of 6-fooot-11, 280-pound Nikola Jokic, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, or 7-foot, 275-pound Joel Embiid, who won NBA regular-season MVP honors in 2022-23. Holmgren told reporters he’s put on muscle since the injury, but he’s still on the lighter side in contrast to the average NBA center, weighing in at 208 pounds.

“You don’t have to take a second look at me to know I’m not the biggest dude width wise,” Holmgren said, “so I’ve got to be physical, otherwise the game’s not going to go to my favor when it gets physical so I’ve got to hit first.”

Holmgren should be guarding the opponent’s starting center most nights and the Gonzaga product is expected to figure into OKC’s primary five-man rotation next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort and former Santa Clara star Jalen Williams.

During Summer League, the Thunder also used Holmgren as a “four” while deploying second-year player Jaylin Williams as a traditional center. Generally speaking, Holmgren’s versatility gives Oklahoma City flexibility it didn’t necessarily have last year, so lineup options may vary game to game or opponent to opponent.

“When (Jaylin Williams) is at the five, he’s in coverage more and I’m able to kind of move around a little more on defense, kind of be the low man and move around with blocks if somebody gets beat, or just use my length in passing lanes,” Holmgren said. “On offense, it allows me to be in the action a little more off the dribble when he’s at the five, he can come set screens for me.”

Even contemplating all the different options is a luxury Holmgren didn’t have this time last year, making his long-awaited return to the court feel that much closer. After 431 long, monotonous days of rehab, the wait is finally down to a matter of hours.

“When I got hurt,” Holmgren said, “I could’ve either let this be a blessing or a curse and kind of from day one I decided it’s in my best interest to turn it into a blessing.”