Can Top 2022 NBA Draft Prospect Chet Holmgren Beat the Hype?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterNovember 12, 2021

Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren controls the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Dixie State, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Young Kwak/Associated Press

Center size, wing mobility and guard skills have been fueling Chet Holmgren hype for years.

You can scroll through YouTube for an hour without running out of content on the 7-foot ball-handler, shooter and defensive marvel. That skinny teenager who beat Stephen Curry off a behind-the-back move in 2019 is now the No. 1 prospect on some NBA draft boards, including Bleacher Report's

Initially, it was difficult to decide how seriously to take a 175-pound high school center with spaghetti arms and legs. But as Holmgren topped recruiting rankings (No. 1, 247Sports), he also gained major credibility in the scouting world.

Averaging a triple-double at the Pangos All-American Festival against premier talent was a resume booster. In nationally televised games, he blocked 12 shots against Sierra Canyon and went for 31 points, 12 rebounds and six rejections versus Emoni Bates and Ypsi Prep. Named Gatorade National Player of the Year, Holmgren capped off his pre-college career with USA by winning MVP at the FIBA U19 World Cup.

Gonzaga's highest-ranked recruit ever, he now has a chance to become the program's first No. 1 overall pick. He'll just have to provide a little more assurance about scouts' questions he couldn't have answered against high school competition. 

Having had limited access to his games with Minnehaha Academy or Team Sizzle, scouts can now finally watch Holmgren live full time. And they'll have a few important evaluating opportunities coming up, including on Saturday against No. 5 Texas.

Young Kwak/Associated Press


What scouts are looking at

Even if he dominates college basketball most of the season, there will be discussion entering the draft about how well his game and body can translate to the highest level. That's just what happens when scouting such an unusual prospect with an archetype shared by pros who've struggled with execution and durability. 

At 7'0" and now 195 pounds, Holmgren faces questions about strength and the quickness and fluidity of his perimeter moves. Some of the feedback or questions I've heard already include "it looks like he's going to break" and "what makes him different from Bol Bol?"

On Saturday, Holmgren will be tested physically by Texas' 220-pound big man Tre Mitchell, who last year ranked in the 90th-100th percentile for Massachusetts in post-ups and pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. Holmgren has been easy to move around the key before, and if that remains a problem that he can't convince scouts will change, it could lower a projected defensive ceiling that's one of his biggest selling points. 

Meanwhile, scouts should receive a good look at his lateral quickness against Texas' three-guard lineup. NBA coaches will prefer to play him at the 4, so Saturday's game will be a great chance to see how Holmgren switches onto and moves with ball-handlers like starters Andrew Jones, Marcus Carr and Courtney Ramey. 

Young Kwak/Associated Press

On November 23, Holmgren will face No. 2 UCLA, a team that has multiple potential first-round forwards in Peyton Watson, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang. Scouts will want to see how smoothly Holmgren can score against a more athletic forward like the 6'8" Watson. At Holmgren's height, it takes even tighter skill to get low and create facing quicker hybrid 4s.

Watson, Jaquez and Juzang all play on the perimeter and figure to square up with Holmgren, as Jaquez brings crafty scoring and Juzang forcers defenders to stay attached to his jump shot around the arc. 

But the marquee scouting opportunity of the year comes on November 26 with Gonzaga and Duke, a game likely to draw more NBA general managers and high-level execs than any other this season. Holmgren will go head-to-head with Paolo Banchero, his biggest challenger for the No. 1 overall pick (and a favorite to some).

At 6'10", 250 pounds, Banchero is stronger and more skilled offensively, and scouts will be locked in to learn how Holmgren handles the physicality of their matchup. It's the type of game in which a single performance could move the needle on scouts' opinions.

Can Holmgren gain position or finish after contact against Banchero? And will he be able to attack and beat him off the dribble from the wings, where he's made a habit of slashing to the rack after closeouts or pump fakes? 

With inferior WCC teams making up the bulk of Gonzaga's schedule, these nonconference games will hold extra weight. Was it risky for Holmgren to attend a school in a non-power conference? It wasn't for his former teammate and 2021 No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs. And there should be enough certainty over the likelihood Holmgren has his way against WCC opponents. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are also loaded and presumably headed for another NCAA tournament run in March when he'll have more chances to prove himself against quality programs. 

Young Kwak/Associated Press


Buy the hype 

Picturing it all coming together and working to produce star results in the NBA requires some imagination— but also belief in signature intangibles that can help optimize Holmgren's advantages and maximize potential in ways that previous hopeful Unicorns have not. 

Most Holmgren highlights consist of three-point shooting, coast-to-coast takes, drives from the wings and shot-blocking. There isn't much debate about his touch, ball-handling for his position and wingspan to contest shots at the basket. But Holmgren also possesses immeasurable strengths that can allow him to reach levels that players with similar body types like Kristaps Porzingis, Bol Bol and Aleksej Pokusevski will not. 

Holmgren figures to play the majority of his career at the 4, but he can read defenses and the floor the way point guards do. He dished out six assists in his Gonzaga debut Tuesday night. Porzingis' career high through 292 NBA games is five assists. 

Aside from scoring by shot-making, finishing above the rim and putting the ball down, Holmgren adds significant value to his team by creating quality looks for others. 

Vision and passing IQ show when he's operating off the dribble or facilitating in the middle of the defense. He makes quick decisions off defensive rebounds, throwing hit-ahead passes to streaking guards in transition. And he'll find cutters when he's facing up from the post or the top of the key. 

At his height, he's even more of a facilitating weapon with an ability to see and deliver over defenses. Future NBA coaches will want to use him the way the Denver Nuggets use 6'11" Nikola Jokic, who can pick apart defenses with his eyes and passing skill.

MVP of this summer's World Cup while taking just 7.1 shots per game, Holmgren offers more offensively than just spot-up threes and easy baskets.

While Holmgren reads defenses well, he also reads offenses. The 7'6" wingspan is a major tool, but unteachable timing separates him from other bigs with similarly enormous length. The way he anticipates his man's release point while going straight up is special. He swatted seven shots on Tuesday and 19 in seven FIBA games this summer (21.3 minutes per game). It often looks silly or pointless when opposing guards or smaller players bother attempting a shot against Holmgren near the basket. 

Unlike Bol and Porzingis, Holmgren also plays defense with a killer instinct and a high level of engagement.

A lack of strength will show against certain frontcourts, both this season and in the pros. He'll still find ways to counter a physical disadvantage with a competitive edge and intensity. 

Despite gaining national fame by 17 years old, there have never been any reported diva tendencies or effort issues with Holmgren. And while we've seen similarly built scorers like Porzingis, Pokusevski and Bol unable to resist the urge of trying to showcase their guard skills, Holmgren picks his spots well and mostly plays the right way. His approach and feel for the game make him easier to buy.

No muscle at 19 years old isn't a scary enough reason to hesitate on Holmgren's pro potential. Even a worst-case outcome should be attractive to NBA teams, who'd all love a floor-spacing shot-blocker with plus passing instincts.

Skinny arms and legs won't affect his shooting touch or vision. And given his coordination, body control and reach for finishing and contesting, it's worth betting on Holmgren adding enough weight to find ways to complete plays after some contact.

It's still the intangibles—passing IQ, defensive awareness, toughness, motor—that can help Holmgren elevate above the less successful Unicorn types and overcome similar challenges they've struggled with in the NBA. By June, Holmgren should be able to raise scouts' confidence in his versatility and impact carrying over while also providing enough assurance that his perceived flaws won't flatten his NBA trajectory.