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Chet Holmgren Has Been A Joy In An Otherwise Disappointing Summer League

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JULY 3: Chet Holmgren #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is interviewed after the game against the Utah Jazz during the 2023 NBA Salt Lake City Summer League on July 3, 2023 at Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

This year's Las Vegas Summer League has been easily the most hyped and most watched edition in the league's 19-year history. The NBA threw its first-ever fan convention, the big Vegas sphere briefly became a basketball to hype up the league, and the spectacle of Victor Wembanyama's Spurs debut was enticing enough that Summer League tickets actually sold out for the first weekend. Large chunks of big-club rosters came to watch the kids, and a bunch of agencies hosted workouts for their out-of-work players looking for a roster spot. Summer League always creates some buzz, but this year it felt different. The punchline here is that the actual basketball at the ostensible center of this circus has been notably juiceless.

Wembanyama played two games, Scoot Henderson injured his shoulder in his Blazers debut, Amen Thompson turned an ankle in that same game, and it took Brandon Miller a week to have a good performance. Sicko types have probably still enjoyed getting to see this year's lottery class play "NBA" "basketball" for the first time, though absent Jabari Smith's game-winner and generally adversarial play, there hasn't been a ton to get super excited about. Unless you are a Chet Holmgren fan, that is. The Thunder big man is back at Summer League after a year layoff following a Lisfranc injury in his right foot, which was perhaps an easy return to miss. After all, there's a whole new rookie class in Las Vegas, one headlined by an even more highly regarded and more arachnoid version of Holmgren. The stretched-out Minnesotan was also around last year, showing both the advantages and downsides of being shaped as he is, so, really, what new stuff could he possibly show?

This is only arguably "new," but simply being back on a basketball court sprinting around and making plays after suffering that serious of an injury is impressive. If it's true that the usefulness of Summer League basketball in making any sort of projection is inherently limited, I do think it's worth mentioning that it's not a useless tool, so long as you're looking at the right stuff. Like physicality. Does a player look comfortable at NBA speed? How are they overwhelming people? I think that kind of stuff is way more translatable than anything feel-based, since the schemes are so much simpler and team chemistry levels are so much lower. In this sense, Holmgren has shone. A Lisfranc injury is a serious deal, and Holmgren hasn't shown any lingering issues that would prevent him from, say, getting monster chasedown blocks or simultaneously defending both halves of a pick-and-roll.

Another thing of value to look for in highlights: What sorts of plays is someone making that nobody else could make? Obviously Wembanyama has put together a generous highlight reel of blocked jumpers, but Holmgren can also close distances that shooters are not used to seeing closed. Also, simply by being this large and springy, Holmgren cashing open threes, dunking lobs over flailing 6-foot-10 defenders, and taking it off the dribble count as worthy highlights. None of it is flashy necessarily, but the scale is impressive.

Part of why I'm so hyped on Holmgren is his fit with the Thunder. Oklahoma City made the play-in last season as the second-youngest team in the league thanks to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's ascension to All-NBA guy and a deep well of big playmakers and wing athletes alongside him. They had one glaring hole on each side of the ball: size and three-point shooting. The only good teams that made fewer threes per game than OKC are both weird teams that are huge enough to play exclusively at the rim (Grizzlies and Lakers), and they finished 29th in defensive rebounding percentage and 23rd in block rate. God bless Jaylin Williams and his ability to take a charge, but to succeed at a high level, you need someone to deter shots at the rim. It just so happens Holmgren is a huge, shot-erasing menace who seems prepared enough to hold his own at an NBA level right now. On offense, the Thunder are already so replete with ballhandlers that Holmgren's role will be very simple, and perfectly suited to his talents. He'll set screens and catch lobs, take a bunch of wide-open threes, and occasionally create off the dribble when the matchup dictates doing so.

His ability to step in and contribute immediately is the biggest swing factor for this year's Thunder. They seem very close to being very, very good, and they already have the hardest roster building block in place. It'd be unreasonable to expect Holmgren to step in as an all-around above average starting center this quickly, and, yes, he will be heinously dunked on by a bunch of bigger players this year. But the Thunder are pretty much done being bad on purpose, which makes Holmgren's situation somewhat unique among this year's rookie class: He'll get ample opportunity to play a serious role for a good team, one that needs exactly what he can provide. I just hope he stays away from the late-summer pro-am circuit and keeps icing that foot.

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