The Tragedy of Chet

Aw, man. This sucks.

News broke yesterday that the second overall pick in the 2022 draft, Chet Holmgren, will miss the season with a Lisfranc injury he sustained while playing in a pro-am in Seattle a few days ago. The pro-am, put on by Seattle legend and former Sixth Man Of The Year Jamal Crawford, featured a number of huge NBA names, including LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Dejounte Murray, Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, and more.

Unusual humidity (even for Seattle) caused wet spots on the court to appear repeatedly. The game was canceled in the second quarter after the court was deemed too dangerous to play on (the injury did not appear to be related to the court; Chet came down awkwardly after trying to defend James at the rim). There is some dark irony that OKC’s shiny new toy was broken in Seattle after the pilfering of the franchise from the Emerald City to the dusty plains of Oklahoma.

First, I feel horribly for Chet. I can’t imagine being a 20-year-old with insane levels of hype getting ready to go out and prove himself, and then falling victim to a freak injury on a routine play that he makes dozens of times per game. It must be crushing.

Second, I feel badly for Thunder fans, who were more excited about this season than they have been in years. OKC was expected to make competitive strides this campaign after finally putting a little seasoning on their young roster, but this injury will temper any expectations they might have had for even a modest 32 wins.

Finally, I feel sad for all the rest of us. I was literally halfway through writing a piece about what I’m most looking forward to watching this season when the news broke, and Chet featured prominently. His combination of size, off-the-dribble shooting, and high-level rim protection is practically unprecedented in the league.

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Some people think he can be a generational talent, while others believe his ceiling is “merely” that of a high-end starter, but it’s fair to say that people were waiting with bated breath for his debut in real NBA action. He had several incredible moments in Summer League, including 23 points and six blocks in his first game, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do in games that matter.

Pro-ams have occupied a strange place in the NBA landscape for decades. Players have somewhere around four to six months between seasons. They need to stay sharp, and most play in various pickup games and scrimmages all offseason long. While NBA contracts forbid players from dangerous non-basketball activities like skiing and skydiving, many players (including Chet, reportedly) have “love of the game” clauses built in that allow them to play in non-NBA basketball games. These are often organized by trainers or players themselves and take place away from the public eye (outside of the occasional Instagram story from a player highlighting his sweet dunk or whatever). Even when they take place in public gyms, they are done without fanfare and arrive and end quickly, like a Floridian afternoon rainstorm.

Pro-ams are a bit different. These are organized leagues open to the general public, and while there is a longstanding tradition of NBA players moonlighting in these leagues, they require a little more organization and effort. Most stars don’t bother participating, as they can be a bit of a lose-lose situation. Show up and score 60, and people complain you’re beating up on plumbers; play poorly against amateurs, and your body gets sucked into the internet’s meme machines like an Itchy & Scratchy routine. But many players consider it a return to their basketball roots, a form of respecting the game and giving back to the community.

Big names are announced ahead of time to build up hype for the games. Many fans, particularly children, who could never afford an NBA ticket get to see big-time players in intimate settings. Kids can watch their role models up close and personal. And the NBA itself can and will sanction certain events, as they did this fateful Seattle game (which, oh by the way, was televised through the NBA app).

But with that hype comes pressure to play even through adverse conditions. By all accounts, the court was noticeably bad, even during warmups. The game likely should not have taken place, but nobody wants to pull the plug after all the buildup and hoopla. Players don’t want to be called soft for not playing, and the orchestrators (Crawford, in this case) don’t want to let everyone down.

What’s done with the best intentions always has a little risk lurking in the background. Owners, coaches, and general managers aren’t happy about it, but telling your basketball players not to play basketball for half the year is tough.

But Chet’s injury could put a kibosh on the “pro” part of the pro-am circuits. The next collective bargaining agreement might put stronger language in to bar players from seeing the court during these exhibition games playing against non-professionals, which makes sense from an NBA perspective but will hurt communities and potentially anger some players. It wouldn’t shock me if the league wants to limit basketball activities to team-sanctioned activities, but I don’t know how hard that would be to enforce. Do teams even want their players playing less basketball? Pickups and pro-ams give players a chance to build chemistry, work on new skills, and stay in shape; plus, it’s just fun. It’s an essential part of a basketball life. The Chet injury was just a freak occurrence.

Enough theoreticals. From an on-court perspective, what changes now?

In case you haven’t heard, Chet is built like a fishing rod. Many, many people had questions about how his frame would affect his durability going into the season, and this accident isn’t a promising start. (The weirdly triumphant discourse coming from Chet haters online screaming “BUST” is gross, though.)

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Losing Chet will hurt. He was expected, at the very least, to provide credible rim protection and three-point range, something a Thunder team lacking both desperately needs. He would’ve been the perfect pairing next to criminally underrated Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who battled through crowded paint and intense defensive focus to still lead the league in drives per game, and point forward Josh Giddey. Neither Giddey nor Shai have much of an outside game to speak of yet, and Chet’s spacing would have been a key lubricant for the offense.

OKC seemed prime actually to try to win games, and now that’s all in question. Thunder fans have gotten used to seeing the team bench promising young players or overperforming veterans for the flimsiest of reasons to improve lottery odds. This seemingly sets the scene for yet another promising start derailed by management-enforced shutdowns. At some point, you’d think these players need to play A) to improve and B) so OKC can get a better idea of what they have on their hands.

The Chet injury could impact future draft picks, too. Victor Wembanyama is a turbo-charged Chet — somehow, impossibly, he’s taller, skinnier, and faster. He is the presumed #1 pick in next year’s draft, but I wonder if seeing Chet go down so quickly might cause teams to hesitate before drafting someone similarly frail-looking.

We’ve seen plenty of first-round picks miss their rookie year and come back strong, like Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid famously missed his first two years with injury, and now he’s a two-time MVP runner-up. I hope for Chet’s sake, and the league’s sake, that he comes back in 2023 with a vengeance.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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