Fitting in has helped Thunder rookies Chet Holmgren, Cason Wallace stand out

Fitting in has helped Thunder rookies Chet Holmgren, Cason Wallace stand out

The Thunder will tell you it’s been easy to adopt rookies Chet Holmgren and Cason Wallace into the rotation – and not just because they’re talented. The duo is standing out in part because of how well it fits in.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 8, 2023, 6:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 8, 2023, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — As he sprinted the floor, Cason Wallace knew that Chet Holmgren had seen him. 

Holmgren, the 7-foot-1 Thunder center, was pushing the ball in transition Monday against the Hawks and had glanced at Wallace, his fellow OKC rookie. 

“I saw him look at me and then he looked away and I saw him still kind of looking at me through the corner of his eye,” Wallace said. “I said, ‘He fittin’ to do something crazy.’”

Holmgren seems perpetually to be doing something crazy, and the break was no exception. He delivered a pinpoint behind-the-back pass to Wallace, running to his right, who made an easy layup. 

It was a microcosm moment, Holmgren with the flashy pass and Wallace the reliable finish. 

Through seven games, Holmgren has been the louder of the Thunder’s rookies, a rare combination of shot-swatting prowess and eye-popping offensive aptitude that has wowed crowds at the Paycom Center and on the road. 

Wallace has been steady, if less spectacular. 

But there’s a parallel in their early production. 

“I see a similar mindset between (Wallace) and myself on what we’re doing,” Holmgren said. “He’s coming in and being aggressive, but he’s making the right play and it’s really paying off for him right now.” 

Holmgren is referring to a balance that teammates view as one of his best attributes. Early in his rookie year, he’s showcased his skills as a shot-blocker, shooter and scorer without forcing the issue, they say. 

“I just tried to come in and find that balance between being aggressive and not making it The Chet Show,” Holmgren said. “Because it’s not that; it’ll never be that.”

Instead, he said, it’s about building chemistry on a team. And the way Holmgren sees it, the best way to do that is by making the right play at the right time. Shooting when the shot is there, moving the ball when it’s not.

“My whole life I’ve played with good players,” he said. “It’s never just been, like, me and a bunch of scrubs on a team, and personally I wouldn’t find that fun. And when you play with great players, trying to do too much yourself is only diminishing what they can do and vice versa.” 

There’s a level of sacrifice in that, and it’s easy to see where Holmgren is giving up something. Entering Wednesday’s home game against Cleveland (7 p.m., Bally Sports), he ranked second among rookies in scoring (17 points per game), but fourth in field-goal attempts (10 per game). 

True to form, it’s less obvious what Wallace is giving up. 

But the 6-foot-3 guard — who played with the ball and without it in his one year at Kentucky — is averaging eight points a game, ninth among rookies. He largely has abandoned the point guard role so far in his rookie season. 

Wallace has been the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll play — a primary play type for a modern point guard — fewer than 10 times. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has done it a team-high 50 times. 

Instead, Wallace is setting screens and rolling to the basket. He’s spotting up for jump shots. He’s standing in the dunker spot — along the baseline just outside the lane, more traditionally a front court player’s haven — to await passes from drivers. 

“It’s part of how the team needs me to play,” Wallace said. “So I’m taking on that challenge with a smile.” 

Wallace’s adaptability and Holmgren’s patience are in keeping with a Thunder ethos. 

Many OKC players, Daigneault points out, are doing things they weren’t asked to do as a team’s best player at a lower level. 

Gilgeous-Alexander screens for other guards. Josh Giddey, a point guard most of his life, is giving up the ball and cutting to the basket. Jalen Williams, a 6-6 wing, regularly defends centers and power forwards. 

It’s a testament to “the people that we try to bring in and attract,” Daigneault said. The Thunder has worked to establish a culture of finding an individual on-court identity that most benefits a team. 

Holmgren and Wallace have bought in early, and OKC had indications that they would.

Before the Thunder even landed the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft, Daigneault said, general manager Sam Presti had stressed to him that Holmgren’s mindset was “elite.” 

Presti was on Wallace early, too, and the pre-draft draw of the guard was “mostly about the type of guy he is,” Daigneault said. 

The rookies’ willingness to fit in has made it “really easy” to absorb them into the rotation, Giddey said. Holmgren is third on the team in minutes at 29.8 per game. Wallace’s 22.9 minutes are the most among Thunder bench players. 

“(We’ve) been pretty seamlessly fitting them in, and they’re doing what’s asked of them and more,” Giddey said. “Two great guys, two very team-orientated guys that are going to be big parts of what we’re doing going forward.”

Ultimately, the expectation is that they’ll be bigger parts of it than they’ve been so far. 

Holmgren is shooting 55.7% from the floor and Wallace 68.8%. Each has made more than half his 3-pointers this season. 

Those numbers inevitably will take a dip. 

But their roles will expand in time. For now, Daigneault said, the goal is to keep teaching Holmgren and Wallace “foundational” ways to play, focusing on small details like individual defensive fundamentals, stuff that will be “a relevant skill for their entire career.” 

“Inevitably, if a guy’s got talent on either end of the floor, they kind of burst out of that anyway, without a ton of prompting from us,” Daigneault said. “And I think we’re seeing some of that with both of those guys right now too.”

 

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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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