During Chet Holmgren's summer-league debut for the Oklahoma City Thunder, we got to see him as a No. 1 option without Gonzaga's All-American post player operating in the same lineup. In 24 minutes against the Utah Jazz during a 98-77 win, he got to 23 points, matching his NCAA high.
A green light and more space Tuesday in Salt Lake City illuminated the self-creation we didn't regularly see at Gonzaga, where he played second fiddle to junior Drew Timme. The latter ranked 11th in the nation last year in post-ups per game (7.3). It led to Holmgren spending most of his time in the half court spotting up (18.3 percent of his possessions) and waiting for opportunities in the dunker's spot (13.4 percent of possessions off cuts).
That wasn't the case Tuesday night, where the offense often ran through him.
Holmgren drilled four triples, including three off the dribble. He only hit four half-court pull-ups all season last year.
We saw flashes of off-the-dribble shooting in transition from him at Gonzaga, where he had freedom to grab and go off the defensive glass. He recorded 19 field goals as a fast-break ball-handler, an incredible number for a 7-footer. The thing that stands out with Holmgren's transition shooting (and what stood out in Salt Lake City) is how he's able to stop, gather and rise with balance after dribbling with speed down the floor.
The biggest eye-opener Tuesday night was Holmgren's Dirk Nowitzki mid-range fallaway. He only had 10 isolation possessions at Gonzaga. And given the fluidity he showed against the Jazz as a creator, plus the fact that the Thunder will prioritize his development over winning games this season, we should expect to see more of Holmgren operating as a featured scorer.
He looked closer to being a jumbo wing than a center, a good sign for Oklahoma City if the team would prefer to use a more physical player at the 5. While questions about Holmgren's thin frame have always made scouts nervous, being skinny didn't prevent him from hitting threes, handling the ball, passing or sliding his feet on defense.
Entering the draft, scouts had more confidence in Holmgren's defense translating. Their confidence should be even higher after his first summer-league game. He blocked six shots, including some while having to stay attached to guards and forwards in space. He looked like a nightmare to get a shot off against based on his lateral foot speed, 7'5" wingspan and anticipation.
His highlight defensive play of the night came as a sitting rim protector, when he went straight up and denied a baseline driver trying to punch one down on the 195-pound 20-year-old who'd been dominating all game.
Considering what we saw from Holmgren on Tuesday, the Thunder's roster and overall situation feels perfect for the 2022-23 Rookie of the Year candidate.
He'll have guards and facilitators in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey to take pressure off him and set the table. But with the Thunder in full-out rebuild mode, having added three lottery picks to a team that only won 24 games, Holmgren should consistently have opportunities to experiment with creation that often showed in high school highlights.
And it's that untapped creation that could elevate his game over those of No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero and No. 3 pick Jabari Smith.
Banchero was presumably the pick for the Orlando Magic because of his (perceived) superior ability to self-create and play-make, which allow him to take over games offensively. Smith, with his high release and pull-up/step-back game, also showed he could get his shot off against anyone.
The worry with Holmgren was that he projected as more of a complementary option who'd rely on spot-ups, rolls or dives to the hoop for his scoring production. Could his team feed him the ball in the closing seconds of a shot clock or game?
He should have given Thunder fans more hope Tuesday that like Banchero and Smith, Holmgren could also be used on the ball as a go-to option. And that's a huge development for a player with his outrageous defensive upside.
Advanced stats courtesy of Synergy Sports.