Chet Holmgren Is This Good This Early
3:30 PM EST on November 19, 2023
The similarities between Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama are almost too perfect. Thanks to Holmgren's foot injury last season, both players are officially rookies this season. Both are either intriguingly—if freakishly—wiry and tall, or are in dire need of several dates with Olive Garden's never ending pasta bowls, depending on how you feel about basketball players looking like that. However, there is one thing that became clear on Saturday night: As of right now, Holmgren is a notably better player than his French counterpart.
The stats for Holmgren in Oklahoma City's 130-123 overtime road victory over the Warriors speak for themselves, but let's say them anyway for shock value: a career-high 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, and two blocks. Holmgren was absolutely everywhere—or, at least, wherever Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn't; SGA, the Thunder's true star, was magnificent in a 40-point showing, but at this point his greatness is no surprise, so I will simply tip my cap and move on. Holmgren got started early, with 19 points in the first half to help the Thunder hang around for long enough to allow Gilgeous-Alexander to take over in the second half.
That didn't mean Holmgren faded away after the break, though. He essentially matched his first half with 16 points in the second, and added some clutch defensive plays to boot. The things Holmgren did well against the Warriors are the things he's been doing well throughout this young season. He is shooting lights out from the field (a seven-footer notching 55/44/90 splits is obscene), he's scooping up nearly eight rebounds a game, and his average of 2.2 blocks per game somehow understates how truly disruptive a paint defender he is. (Just ask the Cavaliers, who faced Oklahoma City on Oct. 27 and saw the big man swat seven of their shots out of the air.) With about 90 seconds to go in the game, Holmgren showed that defensive ability by blocking a wide-open Steph Curry layup that would have given Golden State a four-point lead. Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander drew a foul on the other end to tie the game and set up some late dramatics.
First, though, it's important to note that Holmgren still has moments that show he's very much a rookie. Those almost sunk the Thunder's second-half comeback. With about 45 seconds left, Holmgren received the ball behind the arc but panicked at the end of the shot clock, making an ill-advised pass that reached Isaiah Joe too late for him to get a shot off in time. Holmgren also missed a layup with about 25 seconds left that would have given Oklahoma City a 116-114 lead, instead giving the Warriors a chance to take the lead the next trip down the court.
That's what they did, with a bit of help from Holmgren: Curry missed a layup, but Kevon Looney was able to wrangle the offensive rebound over the rookie and then pass the ball out to Andrew Wiggins, who had a great game in his own right (31 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and 5-of-8 from three). Wiggins then hit what appeared to be the game-winning three-pointer with just under two seconds left. It didn't leave much time, just enough to give the Thunder a whisper of hope.
That hope, it turned out, was well-placed in Holmgren, who caught the inbounds on the wing, with Wiggins all over him. Despite the Warriors announcers somehow thinking that he had a foot on the line, even though he was closer to the out-of-bounds border than the three-point arc, Holmgren was able to spin around, elevate over Wiggins, and nail the game-tying three at the buzzer:
That is not just a preposterous shot for a seven-foot rookie to make; that is a classic, career highlight-reel moment for any NBA player. After a review to certify the three—again, he was so far behind the line that the review didn't make much sense—the game went to overtime. By that point, the game turned into the Gilgeous-Alexander show. Last year's All-NBA first-teamer single-handedly outscored the Warriors 10-6, while also blocking a Curry three in the process.
The overall performance made this Holmgren's presence-announcing breakout game, in the vein of Wemby's 38-point explosion against the Suns earlier this month. The difference between the two, though, is that Holmgren has shown flashes of more consistent star power, at least currently, throughout the Thunder's 9-4 start. It's a disservice to both players to tie their presents and futures together too tightly, even though the similarities of their physiques and freakish on-ball talents make it tempting. What Holmgren showed on Saturday night is that, irrespective of what his peer in San Antonio is doing, he was well worth the wait after the foot injury that kept him out of his true rookie year. With him on board, and Gilgeous-Alexander somehow still improving after the giant leap he took last year, the Thunder are no longer a scrappy upstart, but rather one of the brutal Western Conference's elite. What better way to announce that arrival than by riding the hot hand of their impossibly shaped and talented rookie?