The Chet Holmgren/Victor Wembanyama comparisons are inevitable.
Both are rookies. Both are tall and so thin as to be two-dimensional. Both have untraditional skills for seven-footers, and both are fierce ballhawks on defense. But the details are decidedly different.
Wembanyama carries the burden of being the guy for a San Antonio Spurs team at a talent deficit on most nights, and his usage proves it. The Spurs have quickly (and rightfully) made him the focal point of everything they do on both ends. They’re playing the long game.
Chet has arguably a more difficult task, however. He has to fit in on a team that already has one superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and possesses budding young talents at nearly every other position. His unique skillset is expected to be the “Abracadabra!” opening the door to near-term Thunder contention, the skeleton key that unlocks the highest planes of Oklahoma City’s existence, even while he constantly faces unfair comparisons to his French rival.
No pressure, right? And yet, Holmgren has been even better than expected.
The high-level stats of 17 points, eight rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.4 blocks with a steal are impressive on their own. Most successful rookies garner big counting stats with efficiency more commonly associated with the DMV or filing an insurance claim. Holmgren, however, is averaging 56% shooting from the field, a blistering 54% from deep on 3.7 attempts per game, and 90% from the line.
Chet is already the best shooter in the starting lineup by a metric mile (yes, Lu Dort has also shot well this season, but he’s a career 34% slinger from deep). Defenses haven’t respected him the way they should (21 of his 26 attempts are classified as “wide open”), but they will if he keeps shooting like this. In the meantime, he’s feasting. Look at how much attention Shai Gilgeous-Alexander draws away from him:
Holmgren’s artillery is especially effective as a trailer in transition. If he’s given the ability to step into his shot, it’s cash:
He’s not just a catch-and-shoot specialist. Chet has a strong handle for his size and is effective both getting to the hoop or pulling up in the midrange, and although it hasn’t happened yet, he’ll eventually be able to create his own looks from three. He’s too quick for bigger opponents, but too — not exactly big, but too long for smaller foes. There’s a little bit of his teammate SGA in his whirling, twisting drives:
One thing I love to see: Chet has shown a promising ability to get to the foul line, something many rookies struggle with. Chet is in the 88th percentile for bigs in drawing fouls. The threat of his shot enables an elegant pump-and-go game. He catches opposing lumbering towards him, and they can’t shift their weight in time, leading to awkward reach-ins and hacks:
Chet’s passing has been solid, and maybe a bit better than that. He’s more than capable of making the easy reads and occasionally flashes some advanced vision. His ability to put the ball on the floor opens up playmaking possibilities unavailable to most big men:
Note that he threw that behind-the-back pass lefty.
As Holmgren develops even more comfort with the ball and Oklahoma City’s offensive system, I’d expect his passing to improve further.
Like his playmaking, Holmgren’s screening should get better over time. While Holmgren is a willing screener, he’s so narrow that his efficacy is limited. Defenders can slip around him a step quicker than they can more expansive centers. But while his frame is outside his control, he can improve his technique, too. He hasn’t yet mastered the last-second side steps that (legally!) can improve his lateral space-eating, and he sometimes rolls or pops a quarter-second early. SGA’s unusual ballhandling syncopation, his one-of-a-kind sense of timing, makes life a tad bit more difficult for pick-setters, too. Those are things Holmgren will absorb and improve. He’s so good as a shooter and finisher that Holmgren pick-and-rolls/pick-and-pops are already a potent weapon; imagine how good they can be if the screen itself is better!
We don’t have to use our imagination to see Holmgren is already a high-level defender, small warts and all. Yes, he would benefit from some added weight. The NBA’s behemoths can generally push him around. It’s one thing to be bullied by All-Time-And-Space center Nikola Jokic, but New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas didn’t have much trouble doing what he wanted to Holmgren, either.
But there aren’t that many old-school bigs with enough of a post game to threaten Holmgren consistently (and Holmgren is usually a mismatch for them on the other end, too). Against normal-sized players, he is made of rubber. He takes hits and immediately bounces back to contest shots:
Holmgren allows just 54.5% shooting around the basket while contesting more shot attempts there than any player in the league. He has a quick second jump, and those cherry-picker arms let him erase positional mistakes. All that action around the rim has led to more fouls than is ideal, but that’s a typical rookie lesson.
In fact, his perceived vulnerability to the biggest men may be a blessing in disguise. Like opposing teams targeting weak defenders for isolations, even good post-up plays are usually sub-optimal offensive possessions. In the long run, teams attempting to pick on this weakness may play right into Oklahoma City’s hands.
When on the perimeter, Holmgren holds up fine, but he has a habit of staying a bit too upright, leaving him susceptible to the occasional blow-by. It helps that the Thunder have made a concerted effort to keep Holmgren around the rim to utilize his shotblocking best.
Unfortunately, despite all that time in the paint, Holmgren’s defensive rebounding is a concern. He’s not a particularly good boxer-outer (he gets caught chasing blocks a bit too often), and he can be dislodged too easily. Lineups with Chet on the floor have allowed opponents to rebound 34.3% of their misses, one of the worst marks in the league. The Thunder as a whole are the last-place defensive rebounding team, so Holmgren’s not alone in this, but he’s not helping, either.
Strength, time, and technique will ameliorate this to a degree, but it will almost certainly be a weakness for at least this season and perhaps more.
But let’s rise out of the weeds. Chet’s main strengths — rim protection and shooting — have popped like an early-2020s crypto token (but promise to have considerably more staying power). Those were the two things that last year’s Thunder squad most desperately needed, and it’s been a dream start for Holmgren in that regard. He is already a good starter, made better by his fit around Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Projecting forward, it wouldn’t shock me if Chet’s counting stats don’t take a big leap even as he incrementally improves over the next 18 months. For one thing, he won’t shoot this well from deep forever, particularly if he amps up the volume. The rookie wall is a real thing, too, and we’ll see if he can hold up through the fatigue of the regular season after a year away from basketball.
But unlike most rookies, Holmgren is already good at the loud actions: getting buckets, handling the ball, and blocking shots. That’s a great place to start.
The quiet, subtle things are what need work. Shooting even mildly contested triples, adding some strength, and working on screening and box-outs will create a far more effective player in the long run, even if they don’t result in a major box score bump.
Holmgren has All-Star potential, but even if he never reaches those heights, he puts entire houses on stilts: his incredible positional advantages make him the rare floor and ceiling raiser. I’m excited for the present, but I’m thrilled for the future.