An unremarkable NBA Draft lottery has come and gone, with only one team leaping and one team falling. Even then, the leaper made it to the fourth slot in what experts are calling a three-player draft. The Magic, a non-franchise, get to go first, followed by the Thunder and Rockets. One of those teams will end up with Jabari Smith Jr., a huge shooter who curiously does not score within 15 feet of the hoop, and another will nab Paolo Banchero, a burly shot-creating big who seems like a more functional Aaron Gordon. The other team will almost certainly leave the draft with a rather polarizing prospect, whose strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his physicality: Chet Holmgren.
Holmgren exists in what we can call the Pokusevski Zone, a tier reserved for players who are taller than seven feet yet weigh less than 200 pounds. Understandably, this has drawn a good deal of attention. “At 7-1 and just 195 pounds, will he be more prone to injuries? Will he hold up to the pounding of a routine NBA game multiplied by 82?” asks The Athletic’s John Hollinger.
“Yet there’s still a contingent of NBA evaluators who seem more skeptical than usual regarding how quickly Holmgren will fill out, and by how much,” says ESPN, noting, “Surely, Holmgren figures to struggle with the physicality of bigs such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic when they play out of the post.”
“[A]s exciting as his physical tools are, his future is contingent on how his absurd frame matures,” writes The Ringer.
“The primary concern about Holmgren’s game is centered around his slender frame,” writes NBC Sports, and also basically every single other outlet writing about Chet Holmgren.
Holmgren’s skinniness is a valid concern to bring up when discussing a player who might go first overall in the draft, though I do not think it should be framed as a permanent characteristic rather than something that will be dealt with the moment he’s drafted next month. Let us now consider Holmgren’s twiggish predecessors. If you look at the last 15 years of worth of lottery picks, you find 10 guys who were deemed Problematically Skinny when they were drafted: Kevin Durant, Corey Brewer, Anthony Randolph, John Henson, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Brandon Ingram, Mo Bamba, Thon Maker, and Evan Mobley. (You could expand the pool and add someone like Tyrese Haliburton, but he’s a guard.) It is worth narrowing our focus on lottery picks at the expense of other first-round noodle boys like Poku and Bol Bol and Austin Daye, so as to keep the sample size within a group of players who have produced at the college or international level despite their frames. Of the 10, only two really busted (Maker and Randolph), while everyone else besides Ingram seriously bulked up.
Durant famously could not do one bench press rep at the 2007 NBA Draft Combine, and now he’s listed at 240 pounds. Anthony Davis has gained almost 70 pounds since he was 17. Giannis Antetokounmpo was not taken in the lottery and also grew three inches after getting drafted, though his physical transformation is probably the single most remarkable one in the NBA. Randolph never got good at basketball, though he did gain over 30 pounds. While it is fair to be concerned that Joel Embiid will back Holmgren down and send him flying into the third row with one shoulder push, it’s a bit unfair to think that the current version of Chet Holmgren is a fixed quantity. Also, Embiid does that to everyone.
There has never been a prospect like Holmgren. Physically speaking, he resembles Pokusevski more than any other player, though Holmgren has a pretty serious track record of being a game-changing defender, a reasonably skilled offensive player, and a surprisingly tough player for someone so lanky. He averaged 3.7 blocks and shot 39 percent from three, which is a rather unholy combination of stats. As The Ringer’s good Holmgren profile notes, Holmgren is not a twitchy athlete like Durant or Antetokounmpo, but he is a very physical player. He’s not the type to melt at contact, he seeks it out and battles. That, to me, is a good sign that his already tremendous defensive instincts will serve him even better at the next level after he adds some weight. According to ESPN’s draft guys, NBA talent evaluators are pretty split on Holmgren, with some seeing the absurd production and others missing it as they gawk at a guy shaped like that. Holmgren really is a visually alarming person, so while it’s understandable to focus on his avian frame, I think doing so at the expense of all the other stuff that makes him special is to get stuck at the wrong place. Also, there are some benefits to being so thin. His feet and joints bear less weight, and he stands to get way better in the interior once he bulks up. He’ll be fine! He eats food!