Thunder’s Chet Holmgren fit will take time, but it could be worth the wait

Thunder’s Chet Holmgren fit will take time, but it could be worth the wait

Dynamic small-ball lineups helped the Thunder reach the Play-In Tournament, but it lacked a true lob threat and rim deterrent. Holmgren is that and more.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 2, 2023, 9:15pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 2, 2023, 9:15pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — The offensive efficiency and defensive proficiency will come. 

Nobody much seems to doubt that about Chet Holmgren, the rookie whose Thunder teammates figure he’ll do what he’s done at every other level of basketball: change games with his shot-blocking; set screens and roll to the rim; knock down open jump shots. 

Mark Daigneault wants the 7-foot-1 newcomer to put his focus elsewhere for now. 

“Every question seems to be about him. There’s a lot of excitement about him,” Daigneault said Monday at Thunder media day. “But what I’ll say is, the number one thing he has to have right now is gratitude. He hasn’t been able to play in a year, and he needs to go out there and enjoy the opportunity to be back on the court.”

Holmgren certainly seems to be. 

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft missed all of last season with a Lisfranc injury in his right foot suffered last summer at the CrawsOver Pro-Am in Seattle. 

He spent this summer playing — at the NBA Summer League; for USA Basketball’s Select Team,  practicing against the FIBA World Cup squad — and arrived at media day feeling great, he said. 

Holmgren “didn’t want to shy away from opportunities to play against good players,” he said. Instead, he wanted to build on a season spent building his body and familiarizing himself with the team he’d soon be joining. 

“From the moment I got hurt, I had an understanding that I could… let this one bad thing spiral into many bad things and let it accumulate to one big, bad situation,” Holmgren said. “But I feel like I did a really good job of taking a bad situation and a bad moment and really making the most out of it.”

Soon, he’ll try to maximize that experience on the court. 

His expectation is to help the Thunder compete, to “help raise this team’s floor and strive for the ceiling.”

As a long, active frontcourt player who can play all over the floor offensively and on the other end can guard in space or at the rim, Holmgren adds a dynamic missing from last season’s Thunder team. 

Dynamic small-ball lineups helped the Thunder overachieve its way into the Play-In Tournament, but it lacked a true lob threat on the offensive end or a rim deterrent defensively. 

Holmgren is that and more, a rookie with a theoretical key to unlock new looks for OKC. 

In his one season at Gonzaga, he averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in 27 minutes. When Holmgren was on the court, he blocked 12.6% of opponents’ shot attempts and ranked second in the nation in defensive win shares. 

“It sounds cliche, but he does do it all,” guard Josh Giddey said. “He can handle the ball. When he gets a rebound, he’s a guy that can take it up the floor himself and handle it. He’s going to bring a new dynamic to our team, not just offensively but defensively. He protects the rim in my opinion as well as anybody in the league. He’s elite on that end of the floor, and he’s going to provide us with a lot of different ways that we can play different lineups with him out there.”

That will take time. Daigneault knows it. 

Rookies typically are ahead of the curve in some areas and behind it in others, and it’s hard to know which is which until you get going, Daigneault said. As training camp opens Tuesday, the emphasis is less on Holmgren’s fit than on finding his individual identity. 

 “That’s the bigger focus for him and for everybody, more so than how we use them or what the role is,” Daigneault said. “That stuff just kind of emerges naturally as we evaluate the team and as we evaluate each individual in the context of the team, and he’ll be no different.”

Ultimately, though, he could be a difference-maker. 

Forward Kenrich Williams came to the Thunder in 2020. “I don’t think we’ve had a legit shot blocker, rim protector like Chet,” Williams said. Lu Dort, who holds a reputation as one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders, called Holmgren’s rim protection “huge for us.” 

Giddey lauded Holmgren’s offensive versatility as a potential partner in pick-and-roll lobs and pick-and-pop jumper shots, saying his shooting threat “drags bigs out of the paint,” a new wrinkle for an OKC offense built on driving the ball to the rim. 

And last week Presti praised Holmgren’s competitiveness, saying his “mindset is as unique as his game.” 

“He’s a big-time competitor,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “At the end of the day, I think he just wants to win, and when you add a guy like that to a group of players that want to win as well, most of the time, it goes well.”

Nobody seems to doubt that it will. In time. 

Holmgren likes the way his coach has framed his focus. 

“I think gratitude is a great way to describe it,” Holmgren said. “You know, thankful for this. I don’t want to overlook anything or take anything for granted. I wouldn’t have done that even if the injury didn’t happen. Been a long time away and now I’m here. Very excited.”

 

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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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