Chet Holmgren is blossoming in OKC. His game was Minnesota-made

Chet Holmgren is blossoming in OKC. His game was Minnesota-made

Holmgren’s high school will retire his jersey Friday in a reminder of the Thunder rookie’s Minneapolis roots and how they shaped his game.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 19, 2024, 6:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 19, 2024, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lance Johnson didn’t believe the kid had 10 blocks. 

Like, not in an oh-man-that’s-unbelievable sort of way, but in the sense that the Minnehaha Academy basketball coach did not buy that gangly sophomore center Chet Holmgren had just blocked 10 shots in a game. 

He was, after all, getting the news at halftime. 

“They told me that and I said, ‘No way,’” Johnson said this week. “Then you go back and review the film and he finishes the game in the upper teens. And that’s the point where you start to realize, OK, you’ve got something special.” 

Friday night in Minneapolis, Minnehaha will retire Holmgren’s No. 34 jersey, commemorating a high school career that “put us on the map,” Johnson said. 

Holmgren is scheduled to attend, a night ahead of the Thunder’s game Saturday at Minnesota. He’ll stand there in his old high school, the 7-foot-1 NBA Rookie of the Year favorite, and in so many ways he’ll be the same guy who left less than three years ago. 

He’s still so skinny that people wonder how he holds his own with brawnier basketball talents; still so driven that he pores over game film looking for any misstep he can correct. 

He’s still making the same eye-popping plays in the NBA that made him a word-of-mouth Minneapolis prep legend. 

The Thunder is helping mold Holmgren into a budding professional star. But he was made in Minneapolis, where — even though he left the state for college and plays for the local NBA team’s Western Conference competition — he remains a cult hero. 

“People really pay attention to high school basketball here,” said Chip Scoggins, columnist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “If you have great talent, they really do, and I think people appreciate what Chet has done and really developed (into) and become, a Rookie of the Year candidate (who’s) just really excelled as a rookie. I think people take pride in that.” 

Humble hoop beginnings

Jalen Suggs was in the fourth grade, maybe, when he first saw Holmgren hoop. 

Or attempt to. 

Suggs — who played with Holmgren at Minnehaha, then blazed a path Holmgren followed to Gonzaga and in the NBA — was a year ahead and even then was an advanced baller. His youth teammates, too. 

“We was all hooping back then. We was nice,” Suggs said. “(Holmgren) couldn’t even catch the pass in the three-man weave. And we looked around like ‘What are we doing? What is this dude in the gym with us for?’” 

Holmgren’s height hadn’t hit yet. He was about as tall as the other kids on the court give or take an inch, but “he had long boat feet,” Suggs said, and it was clear even then that a growth spurt was coming. 

One of the first conversations he remembers with Suggs and another friend is about which of them was most likely to make the NBA. 

“(Suggs) was really good back then, and I wasn’t so good,” Holmgren said. “But everybody knew I was gonna be super tall. So like, they were trying to say it would be me, and I was trying to say it’d be him. And I guess we both made it.”

Until he shot up, though, Holmgren was wiry and a little awkward, but he wanted to play. He stuck with it. Suggs’ father, Larry, coached the two in youth basketball, and by the time Holmgren entered Minnehaha in seventh grade, Johnson said, he was “about 6-4.” 

He was a guard in those days — Holmgren once told Scoggins he didn’t even start learning post moves until roughly his eighth-grade or freshman season — but even then had a preternatural knack for swatting shots. 

Though Holmgren was taller than everyone else by then, he was coordinated. Athletic. There was a fluidity that didn’t fade even as he continued to sprout. 

“I guess you’d be crazy to say that you would have predicted where he is today,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’d be lying to you. But I could see from a very early age that he had gifts that no other kid had, instinctively,”

Holmgren never fouled out of a high school game, Johnson said. He rarely was in foul trouble. He always had impeccable timing and a feel for when he could get to a shot without making contact. 

Johnson figures by the time Holmgren was a junior, “we started every game plus 30 points” because of his sheer defensive dominance. 

“He was going to block shots,” Johnson said. “We knew he was going to alter shots. And we knew that the other team was not gonna even run their offense the way they wanted to run it. They wouldn’t go in the lane.”

That would have been enough to make Holmgren a star. But there was more. 

For starters, there was the offense. 

‘Chet’s been a killer’

By the time Scoggins first saw Holmgren play, there was a buzz building, a you-gotta-see-the-skinny-kid-at-Minnehaha energy in Minneapolis high school hoops circles. 

Scoggins had heard the stories. But he hadn’t gone to write one. 

Not about Holmgren, at least. 

Holmgren was just a sophomore then, and Scoggins had gone to a Minnehaha game to write about Suggs, then a junior and perhaps the city’s best prep athlete. Suggs was a point guard on the basketball court and a dual-threat quarterback on the football field, a coveted prospect in both sports. 

It was hard to miss his towering teammate. 

Early in that first game Scoggins watched, Holmgren grabbed a rebound, dribbled the ball upcourt, put it between his legs and buried an NBA-length 3-pointer. 

“And I remember thinking ‘What in the world?” Scoggins said. “I had never seen anything like this, never seen a player like him. He played the game like a point guard, like a guard, some of the things he did as a 7-footer with a 7-4 wingspan.” 

That kind of thing is why those who’ve followed Holmgren since his early days in Minneapolis aren’t so surprised by his offensive eruption as an NBA rookie. 

He entered Thursday averaging 17.4 points on 54.8% shooting and making 38.7% of his 3-pointers, gaudy numbers for a guy viewed as a dynamic defender with ample room to grow at the other end. 

That’s not how Suggs saw him. 

“I mean, Chet’s been a killer,” he said. 

And not just as a shooter. And not just as a shot blocker. 

If you watch Holmgren now, you’ll see an edge, a quality one scout once described as “a little bit of f-you.” That, too, was born in Minnesota. 

Competitive fire 

By the time Holmgren was a junior and Suggs a senior, Minnehaha basketball was “a traveling circus,” Scoggins said. 

Suggs and Holmgren were national names in high school hoops. Two of the team’s guards, brothers Hercy and Mercy Miller, were sons of rapper Master P. 

Johnson had built a schedule that featured games in and out of Minneapolis. He took his team to towns out in the state, he said, and it was like “going on the road with the Beatles.” 

Fans would line up for a chance to see Suggs and Holmgren — and to taunt them from the stands. 

For Holmgren, it only fanned a competitive fire. He and Suggs “would get under the skin” of opposing fans who tried to rattle them, Scoggins said. 

When they were kids, Suggs said, he and Holmgren would spend time at his Holmgren’s family cabin on the lake and they’d compete over catching fish or racing around the cabin. 

That same spirit stuck with Holmgren. 

“On the court, he would always go after everything — every block, every loose ball,” Suggs said. “Every confrontation we had, he was in the middle of it, man.”

Early in Holmgren’s Minnehaha days, the school’s principal was 6-foot-11 Jason Wenschlag, who’d played basketball at North Dakota State. 

Wenschlag used to tell Holmgren, Johnson said, that if he wanted to be an elite shot-blocker he should get used to being dunked on. It would come with the territory. 

“So rare time in high school that a dude slam-dunked on him, he didn’t care,” Johnson said. “He just moved on. I think that’s one thing I’ve really seen with him in the NBA, that if he makes a mistake or does something maybe other guys would be embarrassed by, he just moves right on to the next play.” 

In high school, though, Holmgren humbled the competition more often than the other way around. 

He was a part of four state championship teams — there was no Minnesota state tournament his junior season due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and was the top-ranked high school prospect in the class of 2021. 

Holmgren became the highest-ranked high school player ever to sign with Gonzaga, eclipsing Suggs, who’d signed there a year earlier as the No. 6 player in the class of 2020. 

Last season, Minnehaha retired Suggs’ jersey, and Holmgren returns there Friday as a guy seemingly on the cusp of NBA stardom, a key piece of a Thunder team that at the midway point of its season is in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference. 

He’s putting up big numbers and not backing down from any challenge. 

The folks in Minnesota didn’t know all this was coming. 

But they don’t seem surprised. 

“He has a fierce competitiveness about him,” Scoggins said. “I mean, you just see the way he plays. He doesn’t back down. And so he had that from early on when he was 15, 16 years old.” 

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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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