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Don’t let Chet Holmgren’s frame fool you. This is why he’s a top NBA draft prospect

It’s easy to doubt Chet Holmgren up until the moment you see his special gifts in action. Here’s why he’s going to work in the NBA.

Chet Holmgren has faced eager challengers from the moment he was identified as one of the top players in his high school class way back during his sophomore year at Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Academy. Opponents looked at Holmgren and saw a 7-foot string bean they believed they could overpower at the rim. They also saw an opportunity to make a name for themselves by doing it.

Holmgren’s challengers have come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of both talent and delusion. One by one, they attempted to score through him, over him, and around him in the paint. One by one, Holmgren turned them away, occasionally multiple times on the same possession.

It’s easy to have a visceral reaction the first time you see Holmgren on the court. He is both impossibly long and impossibly thin at 7-foot, 195 pounds. The first emotion his appearance garners is almost always doubt. This beanpole can’t actually hang with big men who often have at least 50 pounds on him, can he? There’s no way he can really be considered a top NBA draft pick, right?

The target Holmgren wears on his chest has fostered a relentless competitive drive that serves as an essential component to his success. Whether you’re watching Holmgren on TV or playing against him, it doesn’t take long for nearly everyone to arrive at the same conclusion: yes, Chet really is that good. He’s also one of the toughest young rim protectors you will ever see.

This is what makes Holmgren a top tier prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft class.

Holmgren is one of the best defensive prospects to hit the NBA draft in years

Holmgren’s length stands out almost as much as his scrawny frame. He reportedly has a 7’6 wingspan that qualifies as elite even by NBA standards. Holmgren uses his arms as the foundational tool of his terrific defensive skill set. He has a case as one of the best rim protectors to hit the draft over the last decade.

Holmgren faced one of his toughest individual matchups of the season in the second round of the NCAA tournament against the Memphis Tigers’ own star freshman center Jalen Duren. Duren is a top-six prospect in this draft and he’s already built like a grown man at 18 years old at 6’10 and 255 pounds with a 7’5 wingspan. Memphis came out with a clear game plan for Duren to attack Holmgren at the basket. Holmgren held up incredibly well on the defensive end for most of the night.

The first clip is an example of Holmgren’s verticality without fouling — when he jumps straight up with his arms extended in the air, there just aren’t many guys who can reliably finish over the top of him. The second clip shows Holmgren holding up in the post: he eats two shoulder bumps from Duren, maintains his balance, and pinpoints the ball with his hand for a block. In the third clip, Holmgren again holds up in the post and then shows off his ability to contest and block shots without needing to jump. All three are an example of Chet’s functional length — how he leverages every inch to disrupt opposing offensive players.

Holmgren does a good job against fellow bigs when he’s guarding the perimeter, too. Here’s Duke’s Paolo Banchero, our other Tier 1 prospect in this draft class, trying to take Chet off the bounce from the wing. Holmgren stays with him the whole time and blocks his shot.

Even more athletic ball handlers with a head of steam have had a tough time knocking Chet from his spots. A.J. Griffin — oh hey, another top-six prospect in this draft class — is about as big and strong as 18-year-old wings come, and Holmgren swallowed up this drive by simply snatching the ball out of his hands.

Holmgren isn’t particularly fast, but he is quick in tight spaces. He had plenty of blocks this year off weakside rotations, darting from his assignment in the paint to challenge or wipe away a shot at the last second. He profiles as the type of big who can both execute his part of the defensive scheme and also clean up mistakes from his teammates.

Here’s how Chet compares to other top bigs in recent years in terms of block rate and steal rate. He swats shots at an elite level, currently placing top-10 in the country in block rate. He also has the third highest steal rate of anyone in this group, only behind Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. One are where Holmgren can improve is fouling less often.

Chet’s defense vs. other top bigs

Name School/Year Block rate Steal rate Fouls per 40
Name School/Year Block rate Steal rate Fouls per 40
Joel Embiid Kansas, 2014 11.7 2.3 5.8
Deandre Ayton Arizona, 2018 6.1 1 2.8
Evan Mobley USC, 2021 8.8 1.4 2.1
Jarrett Allen Texas, 2017 5 1 2.6
Jaren Jackson Jr. Michigan State, 2018 14.3 1.6 5.9
Anthony Davis Kentucky, 2012 13.7 2.5 2.4
Mo Bamba Texas, 2018 13.1 1.5 3.4
Bam Adebayo Kentucky, 2017 4.9 1.2 3.5
Chet Holmgren Gonzaga, 2022 12.7 1.7 5.2

Holmgren can space the floor and hit threes on offense

Holmgren’s shooting flashes have been a big part of his appeal since his high school days. His shooting stroke always looked good in clips, but it was hard to project exactly where his volume and accuracy would be at the college level. Right now, he’s 40-for-102 from three-point range, good for 39.2 percent. If he shoots like that in the NBA, it’s going make him extremely valuable as a front court floor spacer.

Holmgren has shown the ability to hit all types of threes. He can easily space the floor to the corner and hit a triple over a hard closeout. He should be able to shoot over the top of almost anyone thanks to those ridiculous arms and a high release.

Chet’s ability to space the floor is the key to his versatility. He plays next to a traditional five in Drew Timme at Gonzaga who has been the focal point of the Zags offense all year. The two-big approach works together because Holmgren’s shooting allows Timme to work inside.

Holmgren can shoot threes from every spot around the arc. Leave him open and he’ll let it fly.

Holmgren is also a threat to shoot in transition and semi-transition. How many elite rim protectors are also willingly taking this shot?

Holmgren’s grab-and-go ability in the open floor (more on that later) becomes even more dangerous because you have to guard him as soon as he approaches the arc.

Gonzaga will even run plays to get Holmgren open for three in dead ball situations. This is a heck of a thing to cover for an opposing defense on a sidelines inbounds pass:

We’ll save the best clip for last. Watch Holmgren come off this dribble-handoff with Timme, hop into a stepback, and drain the three. If this is consistently part of his scoring package, it’s going to take his offense to the next level.

Holmgren is a ferocious finisher around the basket

It’s easy to see Chet’s frame and think he’ll be too weak to finish inside. Watch him play and you will quickly learn that’s not the case.

Holmgren shot 103-of-122 at the rim this year, per Bart Torvik — good for 84.4 percent. Are those numbers inflated by the smaller and weaker competition he faced in WCC? Maybe a little, but Chet also shot well at the rim against college basketball’s big boys: he went 4-for-4 against UCLA, 6-for-7 against Duke, and 2-for-2 against Memphis at the basket.

Here are some finishes from Holmgren this season that stood out:

Holmgren’s length is a major factor around the rim offensively, as well. He doesn’t need great athletic explosion to finish well because he’s already so close to the basket just by raising his arm. He also has soft hands, showing the ability to catch and finish on the move in one motion. Holmgren was only used as a roller in the pick-and-roll on 8.2 percent of his play types this year in Gonzaga’s Timme-centric offense, per Synergy Sports. While his numbers were only average — finishing the 52nd percentile on such play types — he has the attributes to be more dangerous on a spaced NBA floor.

Chet’s best attribute as a finisher might be that he always goes up strong. He has way more dunks than any of his competitors for the No. 1 overall pick this season, and he also hasn’t missed a dunk yet this year. Holmgren’s finishing measures up well against Banchero and Auburn’s Jabari Smith, his peers atop the 2022 draft class, as well as a player he’s commonly compared to — last year’s No. 3 pick and soon-to-be Rookie of the Year, Evan Mobley:

Chet’s finishing vs. other top prospects

Name Rim attempts Rim FG% Dunks Dunk FG%
Name Rim attempts Rim FG% Dunks Dunk FG%
Chet Holmgren 122 84.4 57 100
Paolo Banchero 176 67 38 92.7
Jabari Smith Jr. 63 65.1 14 93.3
Evan Mobley 144 78.5 63 95.5

Holmgren is a skilled open floor ball handler who can score in transition

Ball handling has been part of Holmgren’s appeal since he emerged as an elite prospect. He first gained national notoriety for crossing over Stephen Curry at high school camp as a rising junior. Holmgren handled the ball more than ever for Minnehaha as a senior as long-time high school and AAU teammate Jalen Suggs graduated to the college ranks.

Holmgren’s ball handling has been on display often this year, particularly in the open floor. Gonzaga finished with the second fastest offense in college basketball, per KenPom. Holmgren was used in transition more than any other play type, taking up nearly 23 percent of his possessions. He finished in the 93rd percentile in the country as a transition scorer.

Some of Holmgren’s most impressive moments this season have come attacking in transition.

“Grab-and-go” ability — rebounding the ball and pushing it down the court — has become a valuable skill for big men in today’s era. Holmgren doesn’t need to get the ball to a guard when he hits the glass, he can bring it up himself and get into the offense. Defenses have to guard against him taking a three in transition, which can open the lane for his rim attacks.

It feel odd to see someone so tall handle the ball in the open floor, but it will continue to be part of Chet’s game at the NBA level.

Holmgren is a quick decision-maker as a passer

Another way Holmgren separates himself from Banchero and Smith at the top of the draft: he makes the quickest and smartest decisions with the ball of any potential top pick.

While Banchero is clearly a superior passer and creator, he also has a tendency to hold the ball. Same goes for Smith. Holmgren’s passing skill is less about creating advantages that lead to assists, and more about keeping the ball moving once he touches it.

Chet seems to embody Monty Williams’ “0.5 basketball” more than anyone in this class — the idea that players have half a second to either pass, shoot, or dribble. Holmgren won’t leave your jaw agape with some of passes the way Paolo can, but his ability to make quick decisions can lead to better offense just by keeping the ball moving.

Chet’s frame isn’t his only question

Holmgren’s elite rim protection, capable three-point shooting, open floor ball handling, and quick decision-making positions him as an excellent draft prospect. For all his strengths, there are still potential pitfalls in his translation to the NBA.

It remains fair to have concerns about Holmgren’s frame. He’s still only 195 pounds, and it’s difficult to predict how much weight he’ll be able to add over time. While he’s done a great job of playing through contact at the college level, the NBA is a different beast in that regard. Even the best defenders in the world occasionally find themselves on the wrong end of a highlight, but Banchero powering through Holmgren for a finish is one of the defining prospect clips of this cycle:

Holmgren has another big question to answer outside of his frame that might be even more concerning for NBA teams: how much is he going to score in the halfcourt?

Holmgren’s three-point shooting ability should allow him to be a positive offensive player, but it’s difficult to project him as a high-volume shooter. For all of his ball handling skill in the open floor, Holmgren can struggle to drive against a set defense. He often defaults to a spin move and fadeaway that can look pretty when it goes in but often doesn’t feel like efficient offense.

Holmgren will need to shoot it well enough for defenses to close out hard on him (for now, we’d classify him as a good but not great shooter). When those closeouts come, will he be able to attack the defense off the bounce to make plays for himself and others? He should be an asset in the dunker’s spot, but he’ll have to threaten opposing defenses beyond that. Getting him more involved as a roll man is an easy place to start.

Ultimately, Holmgren projects as an elite rim protector who likely profiles as a team’s third option offensively. That sort of player can still easily return No. 1 overall value, but it isn’t exactly a common archetype for a top pick. A defense-first prospect hasn’t been selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft since Anthony Davis was taken with the top pick in 2012. We currently have Holmgren as our No. 2 prospect in this class, just a hair behind Banchero.

The biggest reason to bet on Holmgren might be his competitive makeup. He’s already heard the same questions about his game for years. To this point, all he’s done is prove the doubters wrong.