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How Chet Holmgren grew into the No. 1 recruit in men’s college basketball

Why Chet Holmgren is college basketball’s No. 1 recruit and how he fits at Gonzaga.

Chet Holmgren unzipped his sweater to reveal a t-shirt with images of himself in a Gonzaga jersey on the Monday afternoon edition of SportsCenter. The No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2021 according to ESPN, Rivals, and 247 Sports will head to college to play for a Zags program that just came excruciatingly close to being crowned men’s college basketball first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.

Holmgren is a self-described “6’12 big guard” who established himself as a blue chip prospect during a dominant high school career at Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Academy. Holmgren teamed with Jalen Suggs for his first three years of high school basketball at Minnehaha, and he’s following Suggs’ footsteps again by choosing Gonzaga. Like Suggs, Holmgren is also expected to be a top NBA draft pick after one season in Spokane.

Holmgren is a fascinating talent who will be the most talked about freshman in college basketball next year. A skinny 7-footer, Holmgren likes to handle the ball and shoot three-pointers on offense while establishing himself as an elite shot blocker defensively. While he badly needs to add strength to his frame, Holmgren’s skill set offers a clean translation into the modern game and should be a mismatch nightmare for opponents from day one at the college level.

Before he committed to Gonzaga, we talked to Holmgren’s high school coach Lance Johnson and 247 Sports recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer about his rise to become the top-ranked recruit in the country and what comes next.

A coach’s view of Chet Holmgren

Holmgren and Suggs were teammates long before both enrolled at Minnehaha for their high school years. Holmgren and Suggs played for a youth team coached by Suggs’ father Larry growing up around Minneapolis. Johnson said that once Suggs came to Minnehaha, “it was only a matter of time before Chet did.”

Holmgren had the genes to be a good player from the start. His father Dave played college basketball for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, but his career was severely limited by knee trouble. Johnson remembers Holmgren as a player who was just starting to grow into his body when he entered the program.

“As an eighth grader he was 6’5 and very slight,” Johnson told SB Nation. “You knew he was going to be tall. The one thing you always saw with him is that he was very athletic despite his height, so you could see he was going to be a very good player.

“At one point he was just a shooter. He’s developed now into an all-around player. I think we realized he was going to be very unique his sophomore year.”

Before his sophomore year, Holmgren had just two scholarship offers. His profile started to grow following a standout state tournament run at Minnehaha and strong showing on the grassroots circuit playing with Suggs on the Under Armour-backed squad Team Sizzle.

Holmgren had done enough to earn an invitation to Stephen Curry’s SC Select Camp, and that’s where he truly blew up. A clip of Holmgren crossing over Curry and finishing with a dunk racked up millions of views on social media. Suddenly, Holmgren was a buzz-worthy name who was forcing his way to the very top of recruiting rankings.

Minnehaha’s 2020 season was interrupted by the pandemic and ended Holmgren’s junior year and Suggs’ senior year just before the state tournament. Minnehaha would now be Holmgren’s team, and Johnson and the rest of his staff knew they would have to lean into their star’s special gifts.

If you watched Minnehaha play this season, you often saw Holmgren bringing up the ball after made baskets or trying to beat his man off the bounce when he caught the ball on the perimeter. Holmgren shared ball handling duties with Hercy and Mercy Miller — the sons of rap star Master P — throughout his senior year, which was a notable change from how he had been used before.

“With Jalen, Jalen basically dominated the ball,” Johnson said. “Now we’re a team that plays point guard by committee, so (Chet) plays it alongside our other point guard Hercy Miller. We just find when Chet has a big guy on him, why not let Chet bring it up and take the pressure off the other guards? Chet’s a better ball handler and usually quicker and faster than the big guy guarding him.”

There was a time when a high school big man with Holmgren’s size would have been told to get in the post, and wouldn’t have been allowed to handle and shoot as often as he does. In that sense, Holmgren is rising up the basketball ranks at the perfect time. He should be able to space the floor his teammates on offense as a spot-up shooter while also having the ability to take his man off the dribble and get to the rim. To Johnson, this is the player Holmgren has always been meant to be.

“I don’t think we made a conscious decision to create a player that fits today’s world,” Johnson said. “We are just playing off Chet’s talents. The changing world of basketball is probably part of the reason why Chet’s rated as high as he is. That’s a hot commodity having a stretch four or a big guy who can ball handle and shoot. He’s kind of entering his prime in the next few years at the right time.”

Chet Holmgren’s scouting report

Jerry Meyer of 247 Sports can’t recall a player quite like Holmgren during a lifetime spent around the game (Meyer retired as college basketball’s all-time leader in assists, so he knows what he’s talking about). While there are several players talented enough to be ranked No. 1 overall in the high school class of 2021, Meyer said Holmgren’s combination of production and physical tools helped him grab the top spot in 247’s rankings.

“He’s such a unique prospect,” Meyer told SB Nation. “You look at the numbers he’s putting up, his ability to stretch the defense, put the ball on the floor, his shot blocking. He does things other players can’t do. It’s kind of hard not to put him No. 1.”

Holmgren is listed at 7’1, 195 pounds, but his offensive skill set is far more diverse than most players with this size. Holmgrem is a face-up big man who likes to attack the defense by putting the ball on the floor. He does a good job keeping his dribble low the ground for someone with his size, and his immense length helps him finish at the rim once he gets close. Holmgren is also an impressive shooter for his size with range out past the three-point line. While he doesn’t look anything like a traditional low post center on offense, his skill set makes for a fascinating translation to the modern game.

“He’s more of a face-up player than a back to the basket player,” Meyer said. “He’s in the mold of modern day stretch-five men.”

Meyer said Holmgren is one of the more intriguing shot blockers he’s scouted at the high school level. Holmgren has a natural timing on his blocks that can’t be taught. He will often block multiple shots on the same possession as teams go for put-backs and second chance opportunities. Meyer has also been impressed by his ability to block jump shots while closing out on shooters.

“He is actively seeking to block your shot on the defensive end, he’s not waiting for it to come to him,” Meyer said. “He blocks a lot of shots away from the basket. I think he’s extraordinary in the ground he covers as a help defender.”

NBA scouts will want to see if Holmgren is quick enough to defend on the perimeter at the college level, and if he can maintain his quickness as he begins the long process of adding muscle to his frame. Teams will wonder if his terrific shot blocking skills can hold up against drives from more powerful guards who can initiate and absorb contact at the rim. His three-point shooting will also be something to monitor as a freshman: Holmgren has always shown an ability to shoot, but it’s hard to say with much confidence where his volume and accuracy will be at when he arrives at Gonzaga.

For now, Holmgren is projected to be a floor spacer and pick-and-pop weapon in the front court on offense who can also make plays off the bounce. He should be an instant impact defender at the college level even if NBA scouts are able to nitpick flaws.

How Chet Holmgren fits at Gonzaga

We know that Gonzaga is losing Suggs, Joel Ayayi, and Corey Kispert from the team that started 31-0 before losing to Baylor in the national championship game. The Bulldogs will hope that guard Andrew Nembhard and center Drew Timme return as holdovers from last year to anchor the starting lineup. Add Anton Watson to the mix as well as a promising 6’8 rising junior big who carved out a rotation spot last season.

Gonzaga already had one blue chip recruit in the fold before Holmgren committed. Hunter Sallis, a 6’5 combo guard out of Nebraska, gave his pledge to the Bulldogs at the end of March as the No. 13 overall recruit in his class, per ESPN.

Gonzaga could start Nembhard at point, Sallis at the two, Holmgren at the four, and Timme at the five. Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther, two sparsely used freshmen last year who ranked as top-60 recruits coming into the program, should also compete for the other starting spot. Don’t forget about 6’7 forward Ben Gregg, either.

A Timme-Holmgren front court would be the talk of college basketball going into next year. While it’s still too early to know exactly what Gonzaga’s roster will look like, you can bet Holmgren is featured heavily all season.

Where will Chet Holmgren get drafted?

Holmgren is currently projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft by ESPN.

We’ll say Holmgren is a safe bet to be selected around the top-five, but there are a few other prospects in his class who could come out ahead of him. Paolo Banchero, a 6’10 forward headed to Duke, is our early favorite to be the top pick in 2022. Other names to keep an eye on in the top five include Duke-bound wing Adrian Griffin Jr., UCLA-bound wing Peyton Watson, 6’11 sharpshooter Patrick Baldwin, and Michigan-bound forward Caleb Houstan.