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Gonzaga Basketball

Rising and watching: Amid his stellar NBA season, Chet Holmgren still finds time keep to close tabs on Gonzaga

Chet Holmgren, a former Gonzaga standout now with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, interacted with fans after having his jersey retired at Minnehaha Academy in Minnesota last month.  (Tribune News Service)
By Stephen Hunt The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – On Friday, Chet Holmgren will be front and center at the Rising Stars Game as part of NBA All-Star Weekend.

Holmgren, 21, a rookie with Oklahoma City, was selected to play for Team Jalen, coached by former Fab Five and NBA star Jalen Rose, where he will play alongside a familiar face in current Thunder teammate Jalen Williams.

“Extremely excited, always blessed to have an opportunity like that,” Holmgren said of being selected to play in the star-studded contest. “I don’t take it for granted because it can be there one moment and not the next.”

Along with San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama, the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, Holmgren is one of two favorites to be named 2024 NBA Rookie of the Year after the season. In 53 games entering Tuesday, the former Gonzaga player was averaging 16.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.6 blocks per game.

Last Saturday, Holmgren recorded the 14th double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) of his rookie season in a road loss at Dallas. Even though his Mavericks sent their Interstate 35 rival back to Oklahoma with a loss, Dallas head coach Jason Kidd likes what he’s seen from the former Gonzaga big man.

“Chet can play inside/out, so he puts a lot of pressure on you offensively and then defensively,” Kidd said. “I don’t know if he gets enough credit, but he is definitely someone you have to account for because he’s a guy that can block shots.”

Then on Sunday, OKC got back in the win column with an impressive 127-113 home win against Sacramento. Holmgren finished with 14 points, four rebounds and four blocks while fellow ex-Zag Domantas Sabonis delivered his 17th triple-double of the season with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists in a losing effort for the Kings.

It was Holmgren’s latest opportunity to play against one of his fellow Zags, games which he enjoys on several levels.

“I enjoy playing against all of them. It’s a good group of guys in terms of competition, but it’s also a brotherhood who you want to see succeed,” he said.

“Anytime I play against them and their team, it’s always good competition. I’m happy for all those dudes that put in the work. They deserve everything they’re getting.”

Holmgren played just one season in Spokane, in 2021-22, but clearly made the most of it, averaging 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game to earn a spot on the 2022 West Coast Conference All-Freshman Team and both WCC Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Year honors. After going second overall in the 2022 draft, he suffered a season-ending foot injury after playing a few games in NBA Summer League.

Through it all, one thing the affable big man has never forgotten is how much love and support he has received and continues to receive from the Gonzaga family, both during his time in Spokane, while he was rehabbing from his injury, and now in his rookie season. “Always grateful for the support from them. They supported me on the way to where I am now,” Holmgren said. “I couldn’t have done it without that community. I always look for ways to give back to them as well.”

Some players sidelined for a lengthy time say having the game they love yanked away from them made them extra appreciative of how blessed they are to do what they love in life. For Holmgren, that wasn’t necessarily the case, but only because he’s never taken for granted how fortunate he is to continue playing basketball at the professional level.

“No, I’ve always looked at the game the same way. I’ve always played as if I could be done at any moment because you really can be, anything can happen,” Holmgren said. “I’ve always had that appreciation for it. Obviously, I had a tough experience last year where I wasn’t able to play, but I think it just strengthened that belief in me.”

Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, who has been at the OKC helm since 2020, likes the progress he’s recently seen from his rookie big man on the offensive end heading into the NBA All-Star break.

“Yeah, he’s shooting it willingly right now. He’s really letting it rip, which is important for our offense and for opening up his game,” Daigneault said. “He’s doing a nice job. It’s hard to learn how to shoot yourself through the ups and downs of shooting variance, especially when you’re a rookie.

“I think he’s learning that. He’s getting switched more and more, which takes out the pick and pops. It opens up other things when teams choose to do that. He’s seen a lot of different looks, just like our team. Having worked through that together is an important skill. He’s done a great job even early in his career of calibrating that.”

Although being an NBA rookie is a full-time job with practices, games, travel and other events, Holmgren still makes it a point to keep tabs on how the Zags are faring. Even as the Bulldogs continue to sit outside the Top 25, he has no doubt that absence is only temporary.

“Coach (Mark) Few’s one of the best to ever do it at the collegiate level and one of the best coaches that I’ve ever been in a locker room with,” Holmgren said. “He’s been in every position and knows what they have to do, what they have to work on to get where they’re trying to go. I’m sure they’re going to put in the work that they need to get there.

“I’ve got confidence in him to do that, and I’ll be rooting them on.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.