How the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren is adjusting to physical play and thriving at center

How the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren is adjusting to physical play and thriving at center

At 195 pounds, Chet Holmgren might never be a bruiser. But the Thunder rookie is finding ways to thrive at center, even against more physical players.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 24, 2023, 1:00pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 24, 2023, 1:00pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Chet Holmgren got barely a fingertip on the shot. Enough to alter it and just enough for it to count as a block. 

The Thunder center would have to wait a quarter Wednesday for a more spectacular swat on the Bulls’ Andre Drummond. 

Holmgren’s blocks against the 279-pound Chicago center — on a first-quarter hook shot deep in the paint and a spinning second-quarter hook from 6 feet out — were only half the shots he turned away in the Thunder’s 116-102 win against the Bulls. 

But they seemed to say the most about how far Holmgren has come early in this NBA season. 

“He’s calibrating,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. 

At 7-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Holmgren hardly has a prototypical NBA center’s build. Of the 30 players 7-foot or taller on current NBA rosters, he’s the only one with a listed weight lower than 200 pounds.

But after looking physically overmatched against the Bulls — and specifically Drummond — in the season opener on Oct. 25 in Chicago, Holmgren’s showing Wednesday was a fresh reminder that he’s growing. 

Maybe not physically. But his game is rapidly expanding, specifically in dealing with physicality at center. 

“He’s played against centers almost exclusively, and he’s played against some really physical centers,” Daigneault said. “And he’s done a really good job of learning how he can be impactful against them and how to leverage his strengths against them.”

According to the playing time estimate at basketball-reference.com, Holmgren — who’s averaging 17.1 points and 8.1 rebounds — has played 100% of his minutes this season at center. 

The Thunder came into the year expecting that, Daigneault said, and though Holmgren said he didn’t have a positional expectation, “whatever coach’s vision was I was gonna do my best go out there and execute.”

The vision has been Holmgren at center, and it’s not hard to see why. 

Holmgren is shooting 43.4% from 3-point range this season, the highest among players listed at 7 feet or taller. That pulls big men away from the rim, opening driving lanes for OKC’s perimeter players — the Thunder drives a league-high 60.2 times per game — and giving Holmgren the chance to put the ball on the floor himself when defenders close out to him. 

Holmgren can bring the ball up the court and initiate offense. And, as Bulls coach Billy Donovan noted Wednesday, while most big men are strictly screen-setters in the pick-and-roll, Holmgren can be a ballhandler.

That puts the opposition’s center “in some different situations than what he would be normally in on a night-to-night basis,” Donovan said. 

When Holmgren isn’t being guarded by a center, it’s often because OKC’s transition offense forces a smaller defender to cross-match before the defense gets set. That’s another way Holmgren taxes a defense. 

It’s no picnic for the opponent’s offense, either. 

Holmgren is fourth in the league in blocked shots at 2.3 per game — one of only six players averaging more than two — and beyond that “deters a lot of plays, which you really can’t measure,” Daigneault said. 

The tradeoff is that he’s still slight, and physical front-court players can present problems. 

It’s one of a number of issues that have plagued Oklahoma City on the backboards — it’s 29th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage — and there are bigs who can push around Holmgren under the rim. 

Denver’s 6-11, 284-pound Nikola Jokic dominated their only meeting so far this season, finishing with 28 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in a 128-95 Nuggets win and saying afterward that Holmgren “needs to be a little bit fatter, to be honest.” 

Jokic is a two-time MVP who dominates most matchups. And he’s an outlier inside, both multi-talented and massive. There’s no one quite like him in the NBA. 

But the Thunder faces a formidable facsimile this weekend.  

The Philadelphia 76ers and reigning MVP Joel Embiid — all 7-foot, 280 pounds of him — visit the Paycom Center on Saturday, giving Holmgren another chance to test his mettle against an opponent’s muscle. 

Holmgren isn’t soft; he puts up a fight even when he’s giving up years and pounds in the paint. But there are physical limitations. 

And though he’s looked more competitive against bigger opponents of late, holding up against the Hawks’ 240-pound Clint Capela and the Suns’ 290-pound Jusuf Nurkic, for example, if you ask Holmgren about adjusting to physical play, he steers the discussion in a mental direction. 

The game has slowed down for him, he said. He has “a lot less to calculate” and can make quicker decisions, and that’s paid dividends at both ends. 

“I feel like that was some of the things I was running into early on, just over-calculating, I guess,” he said. “It’s good to just be able to flow out there.”

The Thunder is “not closed to” the idea of Holmgren floating over to power forward, to pairing him with another big man, Daigneault said, and the team experimented with a lineup in the preseason that featured Holmgren and 6-10 two-way center Olivier Sarr. 

Jokic was overpowering against Holmgren. Embiid could be too. At some point, OKC might need rugged reinforcements. 

But the Thunder is 11-4 with a top-five defense in the NBA. 

For now, it’s comfortable with Holmgren — however slight — taking center stage. 

“It keeps him at the rim defensively and it keeps him matched to centers offensively or forces them to cross-match, and either way we think that’s good for us,” Daigneault said. “Worth the trade-offs.”

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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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