Chet Holmgren has played in two NBA Summer League games, which is a large enough sample size to reach one of the following two conclusions: Chet Holmgren is already the best rim protector in the league, and Thunder opponents will shoot 25 percent at the rim this season while struggling to keep him from splashing 45 percent of his threes on the other end; or, alternatively, Chet Holmgren is a twiggish waif-man physically incapable of even mildly hindering the movement of anybody over 210 pounds, and will therefore be ruthlessly exposed against NBA opposition. You will soon have the data, then you must choose.
The Thunder played the Jazz on Tuesday at Utah Summer League, winning by 21 thanks to the point guard play of Josh Giddey, who is too good to be here, and an all-around flawless night from Holmgren. The big man posted 23 points on 4-for-6 three-point shooting, seven boards, and a Utah Summer League-record six blocks, which, even in this section we must admit, is just about the faintest statistical barrier in professional sports. Holmgren spent his time at Gonzaga playing alongside several veterans, even sharing the frontcourt with Drew Timme. The Zags ran few plays through Holmgren, and he had very little license to create for himself, which left him to play as a connector on offense. He was quite capable as a secondary option, though the structure of the team was such that he did not get many opportunities to show off what he could do with a live dribble.
Oklahoma City, who are still untethered from such responsibilities as “winning basketball games,” will happily let Holmgren do his thing. Against the Jazz, he only hoisted nine shots, though over half of them came off the bounce. He pulled it comfortably from three, often creating space with his dribble, and he even worked his way into a Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway. Perhaps most impressively of all, he got switched out onto a smaller, quicker ballhandler, blocked their shot, then led the break with a behind-the-back dribble to get free. Noodle-guys like Holmgren aren’t supposed to be that skilled.
All Holmgren needs to do to be a valuable contributor to the Thunder is block shots and hit his threes as a reasonable clip. Though he doesn’t grade out as a likely primary offensive option for a great team, he does project to be an elite rim protector and a skilled enough connector that he’ll help a good offense. If he shoots at an above average clip from three, that alone is huge, since his shot is pretty unblockable. Any juice he can give you as a creator is a bonus, and if he really can punish guys off the dribble, he could develop into something like a legitimate second option. Through one game, you can only reasonably judge that Holmgren walks that path.
Counterpoint: Dustbin Of History
Through two games, you can only reasonably judge that Holmgren is going to be crumpled and spiked into the toilet unless he adds a minimum of 50-plus pounds of muscle to his skeletal frame. Here is what happened on the first play of Wednesday’s Thunder-Grizzlies game, where Holmgren was tasked with guarding the Graveler-esque Kenneth Lofton Jr.
Holmgren had a much worse game against Memphis, shooting 3-for-11, grabbing only 12 rebounds, and blocking a mere two shots. Pro-Chet partisans may point to his +/- of +20 and haters would then point to the words “Utah Summer League.”
But the facts are what they are. Holmgren has only ever shown out against high school and college competition, against whom he has always excelled in part because he’s always enjoyed a tremendous physical advantage. But will that height advantage be blunted at the next level, where everyone is tall and almost every single big man will outweigh him? While his wingspan and defensive instincts should insulate him to a certain degree, he will have to prove he can’t simply be bowled over by determined bigs. Lofton Jr. is 280 pounds and he dislodged Holmgren with ease, which conjures images of superior athletes like Joel Embiid or, gulp, Zion Williamson tossing him like a 7-foot-1 javelin into the 17th row of seats. Hell, Bobby Portis has like 60 pounds on Holmgren, and you know Portis would love the chance to pick his teeth with this particular highly touted toothpick.
Chet Holmgren is legally barred from adding muscle to his frame, so this is who he is. Sorry!