What the Thunder’s preseason taught us about rookie Chet Holmgren

What the Thunder’s preseason taught us about rookie Chet Holmgren

Holmgren’s talent didn’t have much chance to speak up Thursday in Tulsa. But there were times in Holmgren’s 13 minutes when it shouted.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 20, 2023, 7:02am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 20, 2023, 7:02am CDT

TULSA — It’s not hard for Josh Giddey to see a scenario where integrating rookie Chet Holmgen was a challenge for the Thunder. 

Holmgren had spent last season sidelined with a foot injury, a part of the team but apart from it, too. And it would have been easy, Giddey figures, for the redshirt rookie to return with an agenda, to use this preseason as a chance to announce his arrival. 

“I think he’s found a way of not being too hungry too early to come in and try to prove how good he is,” said Giddey, OKC’s third-year point guard. “He’s let the game come to him. And his talent speaks for itself when he’s out there.”

Holmgren’s talent didn’t have much chance to speak up Thursday, as the Thunder wrapped the preseason with a 118-116 loss to the Detroit Pistons at BOK Center. 

But there were times in Holmgren’s 13 minutes when it shouted.

There was the attempted steal on an entry pass to Pistons post man Jalen Duren, a gamble from which Holmgren recovered to two-hand smother Duren’s dunk attempt. 

There was the spin move and driving layup; the 3-pointer at one end followed by another monster swat at the other. 

It all came despite a start that Thunder coach Mark Daigneault called “a little hasty.” Holmgren looked out of sorts at first, then found his way, fitting for a player who Daigneault said has “progressed really well” over the course of the preseason. 

“(I’m) not trying to come in and just do too much,” said Holmgren, who had 10 points, four rebounds and three blocks Thursday. “Be assertive and make my presence felt on the game the way I play, but at the same time understanding that these dudes can hoop too.”

Holmgren has learned a lot over the course of preseason, playing in four of OKC’s five games, averaging 16.3 points, five rebounds and two blocks in 19.3 minutes per game. 

And he’s taught us a little about what to expect. 

Here are some Holmgren takeaways as OKC gears up for the start of the regular season, next Wednesday in Chicago.

He’s versatile 

On paper, Holmgren was a great fit for the Thunder in part because he’d give them a lob threat — a player who could play above the rim and dunk lob passes — or a pick-and-pop threat who could set a screen, then pop behind the 3-point line for a long jumper. 

On the court, he proved to be both in the preseason. 

He dunked lob passes and made 6 of 12 3-point shots. Holmgren shot 57.9% from the floor and 75% from the free-throw line. 

On Thursday, Daigneault got a look at another dimension to Holmgren’s game. 

By starting the 7-foot-1 Holmgren  alongside 6-11 two-way player Olivier Sarr, the Thunder got a glimpse of how Holmgren might align with other big men not currently available: Jaylin Williams (hamstring injury) or Aleksej Pokusevski (ankle).

“A lot of it’s moving (Holmgren) out of pick-and-roll defense situations,” Daignuealt said. “You put Sarr on the main roller and now (Holmgren) becomes kind of a weakside defender, and that’s how a lot of teams have used good rim protectors.”

Daigneault cited Memphis and Jaren Jackson Jr., Golden State and Draymond Green and Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo as examples and said Kevin Durant has “done that for years.”

He contests everything 

Two things seem clear based on the preseason: Holmgren is going to have plenty of highlight-reel blocks. And he’s going to be put on his fair share of posters. 

Duren dunked on him Thursday and got another dunk stuffed, that one thanks to Holmgren’s remarkable recovery. 

It’s how Holmgren plays. He’s not afraid of landing on the receiving end of a highlight. He contests every shot. 

“I think he just gives us that rim protection that we kind of lacked last year, and we know that us guards can get up on the ball and kind of pressure it because we’ve got him behind us,” Giddey said. He’s obviously a big difference maker for what we’re doing.”

He’s a work in progress

That “hasty” start Daigneault referenced against Detroit included two early fouls, a potential problem Holmgren mostly avoided in the preseason. 

He averaged a respectable 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes.

But there were times when big bodies presented problems for the 208-pound Holmgren. 

Isaiah “Beef Stew” Stewart presented physical challenges for him in the first meeting with the Pistons this preseason, using his body to ward off a shot-block attempt. Giannis Antetokounmpo practically shrugged him out of the way when Milwaukee visited OKC on Tuesday.

Offensively, Holmgren will have adjustments to make. If he continues to have success with a hard drive right and spin move left, defenses likely will sit on it and force him to find a counter. 

And though he had nearly as many assists (five) as turnovers (six) in the preseason, Holmgren’s height means a high dribble that will be a target for defenders. 

Sam Vecenie, NBA draft analyst at The Athletic, said that in watching Summer League, it was clear that Holmgren had “not yet quite adjusted to how quickly athletic NBA-level guards can dig down on your handle and create those turnovers.” 

Pistons rookie Ausar Thompson took away one Thursday. 

Still, Holmgren already has shown a work ethic and willingness to improve. That started last season during his rehab and appears to have carried over. 

The preseason sample size is small, though, and Holmgren’s development starts to mean more next week in Chicago. There will be challenges ahead. 

But so far, adopting him into the Thunder hasn’t been one. 

“I think adding him into this team has been very easy, and it is a credit to him,” Giddey said. “He could have come in and kind of done his own thing but he slotted in seamlessly, and the transition from the group we had last year this year feels like there hasn’t been too much difference.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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