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Chet Holmgren quickly showing he belongs in early stages of much-anticipated NBA career

The No. 2 overall pick in last month’s draft, the Minnesota native alum has looked the part of a top NBA prospect in the infant stages of his pro career. That’s been true on the floor and off.

NBA: Summer League-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren reacts after a scoring play against the Houston Rockets during an NBA Summer League game Saturday, July 9, 2022, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today Sports
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LAS VEGAS — Chet Holmgren has received an abrupt initiation to professional basketball over the past couple weeks — from the nonstop action, with Oklahoma City’s Summer League team playing four games in five days between its action in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, to squaring off against legitimate NBA talent to endless media obligations.

After playing a game Saturday night, Holmgren was ushered from one media checkpoint to another, completing three separate obligations within a span of 20 minutes, capped by a scrum with reporters.

He’s handled it all, frankly, like a pro.

The No. 2 overall pick in last month’s draft, the Minnehaha Academy alum has looked the part of a top NBA prospect in the infant stages of his pro career. That’s been true on the floor and off.

He scintillated viewers with his stunning debut when he scored 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting — drilling three-pointers and hitting Dirk Nowitzki-esque stepback jumpers — to go with seven rebounds and six blocked shots. Holmgren has backed that performance up with consistency, demonstrating his winning, well-rounded game each time he has taken the floor.

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Holmgren has lived up to his billing, proving himself capable of standing up to every task.

“It’s just great to go out there and compete, try to work on what I’ve been working on the last couple months in the gym and try to get better,” said Holmgren, who squeezed in one year of college ball at Gonzaga before turning pro. “I feel like I’m adjusting well (to the pace). The pace and space (of the pro game) definitely helps where I’m able to make decisions and play in space. After not playing for a couple of months, just have to adjust to it and make sure I have my wheels under me.”

In his game Saturday against Houston, which featured a highly-touted matchup with No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr., Holmgren finished with 12 points — attacking in a variety of ways against the Rockets’ switch-heavy coverage — eight rebounds and two steals.

There was never the slightest inkling Holmgren was sucked into the hype of an individual bout. At halftime of that game, the only thing he was upset about with himself at halftime was he didn’t feel he was doing enough to protect the paint. He corrected that by blocking four shots over the final two quarters.

“With a guy like him, it’s easy to get siloed into one specific facet of the game, good or bad,” Thunder Summer League coach Kameron Woods said. “But he’s so unique, he impacts the game in a lot of ways.”

NBA: Summer League-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets guard Daishen Nix (15) looks to make a pass as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) defends against the play during an NBA Summer League game Saturday, July 9, 2022, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today Sports

That’s why Thunder second-year guard Josh Giddey, who is playing Summer League after a memorable rookie season in Oklahoma City, said Holmgren was the man he wanted Oklahoma City to select. Their chemistry continues to grow, with Giddey calling Holmgren a “fun guy to play with.”

“He does everything, both sides of the floor,” Giddey said. “Stretches the floor, knock down threes, plays at the rim, can play in mid range. On the defensive end, he protects the rim like I’ve never seen before, so I know he’s got my back on that end.”

Woods noted all of that production is coming within the Thunder’s scheme.

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“He’s really smart. He’s bright. He wants to get things right, he wants to do things the Thunder way. Our conversations have been really just learning the NBA game,” Woods said. “With a guy like him, it’s easy to want to use him in a lot of different ways, it’s easy to want to stray away from whatever it is that we may be doing, because he’s so unique. But I think he’s done a great job of trying to play through our style.”

Holmgren said he’s “just trying to learn from every single experience,” whether that be good or bad. While he’s dazzled with his skill, opposing bigs have made a point to try to out-muscle the lanky “center,” who is probably more fit to play power forward as a 20-year-old, but will certainly be asked to carry the interior load.

He’s already flashed his ability to adapt and find counters to the ways in which he’s being attacked or defended. With Smith Jr. — a high-level defender — guarding him in Las Vegas, Holmgren managed to work the middle of the floor to still get off good shot attempts.

Experience. Learn. Adapt.

“The worst thing you can do is have a great game, a great summer league, and not learn from it,” Holmgren said. “So just trying to learn from everything that happens within our team, how other teams are playing us, practice, whatever it might be, just trying to learn.”

That’s always been who Holmgren is. He’s usually the most talented player on the floor but is only interested in doing what’s necessary to achieve the highest probability of victory. For the first few years at Minnehaha Academy, that meant doing a lot of everything else while allowing his other star teammates to score. As a senior with the Redhawks, it usually meant dominating the game in all facets.

At Gonzaga, Holmgren was required to play more of an interior-style game. In the NBA, the 7-footer will be asked to unleash his full skillset. The Thunder have a young core of talented guards and wings, but the 7-footer unlocks so much more potential for the team’s success.

“He’s going to be a massive piece for our future,” Giddey said, “and what we’re doing going forward.”

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