How the Gonzaga Unicorn will fare in 2022 and beyond
Chet Holmgren NBA Draft Profile
March Madness is here, and this year’s NCAA Tournament brings special treatment since nearly all of the projected top 2022 NBA draft picks are actually playing on good top teams that could make deep tournament runs.
We profile the top four prospects on the board: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey.
Let’s take a long look at Holmgren.
A great man unlike anything you’ve seen
Holmgren is one of the most unique prospects to come in years. In a world where the word “unicorn” is used too often, Holmgren is a true unicorn in every sense of the word.
You’ve never seen anything quite like Holmgren on a basketball court. You have to see it for yourself. This dude is 7-foot-1 with a longer wingspan but weighs a mere 190 pounds wet.
Holmgren is a beanpole who can ferociously defend the rim at one end, gobble up the rebound, take four or five long strides down the court, dribble behind his back in a spinning motion, and dive at the other end – or shoot to up and swish a 3 if you prefer.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. It’s a real play that Holmgren has made several times this season, so much so that it’s sort of become a routine. Holmgren was the No. 1 rookie and was terrific for the group’s No. 1 seed, Gonzaga.
He might just be the best player in college basketball, play for the best team in the country, and get better as the season progresses. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a true freshman.
So what exactly East Holmgren – and how can such a talented player not be a safe slam dunk with the No. 1 pick?
Elite Shot lockout and rim protection
Holmgren is an exceptional defender who affects almost every possession. He has such range patrolling the paint that he lands a myriad of shots simply by preventing them from happening when opponents cower from the edge or dribble around looking for another option. Gonzaga allowed just 78 points per 100 possessions with Holmgren on the court, an incredibly low number.
Holmgren is a sniper blocker. He blocks two-handed shots and even does something rarely seen, using both arms and hands to create multiple shot-blocking lanes on the same play, sometimes even protecting both sides of the rim.
Holmgren has fantastic hand placement and does a great job of not making false shots. He also does the old Bill Russell trick where, instead of smashing it into the stands, he flips the ball over to his teammates or himself, starting a quick and devastating transition the other way.
Holmgren should be an exceptional drop defenseman in the NBA, and he’ll block a lot of shots and has great recovery ability. He moves around the perimeter well for a guy his size too and should be able to switch that up, using his instincts, smarts and length to make up for a slight deficit in movement and burst. He also blocks and defends well without fail.
He blocked more than three shots in 22 of 29 games (76%) and blocked more than six blocks four times (only one foul all season), truly remarkable. Holmgren is a potential All-NBA defender.
A scalable attack as a connector that adapts to modern gaming
Holmgren’s role in defense is clear. The attacking role isn’t as obvious, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. NBA fans expect a No. 1 overall draft pick to score 25 points per game as the face of the franchise.
Holmgren might never produce at this level — he’s averaging 14.1 PPG at Gonzaga with a career-high 23. He’s not exactly a first-time scorer, but that’s not necessarily a flaw.
Just like on defense, Holmgren is always useful on offense at all times due to his spacing. He’s made 40 3-pointers this season from 41% from behind the arc, and he’s also making 73% of his 2s, in part because a lot of them are dunks on the opponent. This makes him twice as valuable as a spacer, both vertically and horizontally, and means he constantly puts pressure on the defense even without the ball.
Holmgren doesn’t score a ton, but he does score effectively. He has more than 70% true shots in first year! Think Rudy Gobert’s effective numbers, but now add silky-smooth 3-point shooting and spacing without losing any of the effectiveness.
Holmgren is also a smart passer with an incredibly comfortable grip for a guy his size. He dribbles casually between his legs or behind his back and already has the footwork to hit a 3-point rhythm. Holmgren’s bag is deep and overflowing. His skills are outstanding.
There are slight shades of Kevin Durant as Holmgren collects the ball off the glass at one end and takes it downfield. He’s especially dangerous in transition and loves the pull-up 3 at the top of the key. And like Durant, Holmgren is the kind of player who will fit into any team with his deep and varied talents.
He’s scalable that way, and he’ll be even better on better teams, multiplying the talents of the players around him and making good teams even bigger.
Holmgren is a connector. He’s like a glue superstar, a piece of connective tissue that ties everything together and makes everything work. He’s also the perfect international big man and will likely be an Olympic mainstay for years to come on Team USA. He can do anything.
His frame and body need a lot of work
So after all this gushing, why exactly is Holmgren do not a foolproof #1 choice? Because of his body.
The 7-foot-1 height and long wingspan are great, but the 190 pounds are a serious concern. Holmgren is super skinny. Do you remember the concerns about Evan Mobley’s frame (not a problem, by the way)? Mobley has 25 or 30 pounds on Holmgren, who looks like he might be blowing in the wind. You fear the wrong guy will dive on Holmgren and smash him into a million pieces.
Without a doubt, Holmgren’s body will need some work. He doesn’t have the broadest shoulders and may not be able to take on a ton of weight. He is also closer to a sophomore by age. This adds a bit to the worry as it means he is already much closer to the body he will grow into.
Holmgren needs to add some serious strength and muscle to not get pushed around in the NBA. You can’t be a star if you can’t stay on the pitch.
Holmgren doesn’t look like a big one we’ve seen before
The toughest prospects are guys who are unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s scary to imagine something totally new and different. It’s hard.
Who is even the comp for Holmgren in the NBA? It’s like Duncan Robinson can also dribble and pass, protect the rim and is six inches taller. Like Marcus Camby with a 3-point shot and a grip. Holmgren is Alexsej Pokusevski if the Monstars finally returned his talents. He is the fully realized Kristaps Porzingis.
That it’s so impossible to draw a consistent NBA comparison for Holmgren is frightening because of the availability heuristic. We’ve never seen anything like this before, so we assume it won’t work. Holmgren’s body seems to have no business there. And remember, he plays for Gonzaga, a mid-major with a schedule that limited his exposure to NBA athletes.
In a packed non-conference schedule, Holmgren struggled against physical teams like Texas and Duke. He could be tested in the West Region by Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams, or Texas Tech’s No. 1 defense.
Holmgren’s strengths bounce back well but get jostled at times. Even teams like St. Mary’s, who slowed things down, were able to physically enter Holmgren and lessen its impact. He’s at his best in open, free-flowing games, but at the highest level and in the biggest moments, things get tighter.
Will Holmgren work at the next level? It is natural to have doubts. But it’s important to remember that he’s worked at every other level so far, including now the No.1 team in college and also the top international ball last summer. Why not the NBA too?
Overall draft outlook and NBA projection
Holmgren could one day be an integral part of an NBA championship. His skill set is so varied and so rare, and if he lands on the right team, he will immediately improve everyone around him.
It’s no coincidence that Gonzaga went nearly undefeated last season, lost a top-five draft pick to Jalen Suggs plus fellow pro prospect Joel Ayayi, Holmgren added, and immediately jumped back to No. in all the countries. Holmgren has won four high school championships. He led the USA U19 team to a FIBA Gold medal last summer. Maybe he’ll cut the nets next April.
If he does that, it will be hard to deny Holmgren a spot at the top of the draft. He will surely be in the mix anyway, although whether or not he goes first may depend on which team wins the lottery and if they have the cajones to take such a unique player.
He’s a potential superstar. It’s time to stop focusing on everything Holmgren isn’t and start appreciating what he already is.