As outdated as it may seem in this modern sports landscape dominated by big data and analytics, the “eye test” has continued to be an effective tool in evaluating talent.
The 7’0 Chet Holmgren, picked second overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2022 NBA Draft, is the perfect test case for its veracity given the polarizing opinions on him which have been primarily focused on his lanky 195 lbs frame.
While many are quick to juxtapose him with another similarly built player, Kevin Durant, whom this franchise picked second overall in the NBA Draft 15 years ago, the comparisons are not as seamless as their body type suggests. Durant, now a 12-time NBA All-Star, was, and continues to be, a smooth perimeter-oriented scorer who is an offense unto himself.
Meanwhile, Holmgren is a modern center with the ability to do almost everything on the floor, but plays less of an isolation type of game and mostly operates within his team’s system. In his lone season at Gonzaga, he was a strong pick-and-roll finisher, hit several above the break three-pointers, and also proved that he could create his own shot off the dribble.
The 20-year-old is also a much better defender than Durant was at the time. He was an elite shot blocker in his lone season at Gonzaga, utilizing his 7’6 wingspan and great on-court instincts to average 3.7 blocks per game along with his 14.1 points on 60.7% field goal shooting. He had his finest collegiate game in his NCAA Tournament debut where he put up 19 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, and seven blocks to lead his team to a 93-72 win against Georgia State.
Although the resemblance to Durant in terms of their style of play is rather remote, what they do have in common beyond a slight build is their toughness and relentless self-belief which stands out whenever they step on the court. This is what helped turn Durant into one of the best players in the league today and Oklahoma City is hoping that this same mentality can lift their prized rookie to the same levels of success.
Holmgren seems to always carry himself with an undeniable air of confidence, evident throughout his tenure at Gonzaga where this led to a number of powerful dunks and emphatic blocks. This is something that he will have to carry over to the NBA, especially during the inevitable down days of his first year.
His frame should also fill out eventually with time, akin to Durant who went from 215 lbs when he was first drafted to his current 240 lbs. In the meantime, his high basketball IQ and excellent feel for the game, like Durant before him, should help him weather his adjustment to the league’s physicality.
With Holmgren on board, the Thunder finally have a frontcourt piece to complement their promising young backcourt of the 23-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and 19-year-old Josh Giddey. All three players have all-around skill sets that should help them fit in with one another. Having multiple playmakers is in vogue these days and Oklahoma City now has at least three as they build the foundation for their future.
There should not be much initial pressure from the Thunder to win as well this year, given that they are reportedly enamored with pairing Holmgren with next year’s potential number one overall pick Victory Wembanyama who is 7’2 with a 7’9 wingspan.
Holmgren will most likely be given as much playing time as he can handle from the get-go on a team that paraded the uninspiring center tandem of Derrick Favors and Isaiah Roby for most of last season. He will have every opportunity to succeed and prove those that have concerns regarding his NBA-readiness wrong.
Oklahoma has taken a high-risk gamble on Holmgren, but it is also one that could have a handsome pay-off for them in the long run.