SPOKANE, Wash. — Consider for a moment the millions of people who have ever played basketball. How many of them are truthfully unique with what they bring to the game? How many have skills or physical attributes that authentically separate them into a genre of one? Phenomenal players with compelling backstories reliably arrive and wow us. The No. 1 picks, the Hall of Fame players, the franchise-changing stars whose artistry make the game, many would claim, the best sport we have. These special people arrive at college basketball and/or the NBA with tantalizing talents and irresistible potential.
Almost all of them have analogs. We’ve seen similar versions (inferior or superior) before. As basketball evolves, we’re seeing the way it is played stretched evermore. There are exciting new dimensions and ideologies being crafted about how to best put a ball in a hoop that’s 10 feet high on a court that’s 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. Still, most of the greatest who play a part in the sport’s Darwinism are not — here comes that word again that must be used — unique.
Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren is unique. He is the embodiment of the term. The 19-year-old is one of a kind. We have never seen someone like him play basketball before. There have been skinny 7-footers over the years, but someone this skinny who is this good with the potential to be an all-timer? This is new. It’s exciting. Holmgren is far from flawless, but he is singular. A genre of one. At 7-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he’s the first to be so good at shooting, so sure-handed with his dribble and so reliably game-altering on defense while being built different from anyone else at any level.
For decades, tall players who lacked athleticism or intimidation to their games were pejoratively called “stiffs.” The descriptor has never been remotely close to true with Holmgren.
“He has an incredible self-confidence in who he is,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “That can be the ‘overrated’ chants, crowd yelling at him to eat, or drawing stick figures. That stuff doesn’t bother him. He’s comfortable in his own skin, which is awesome for anyone, but he’s a unique individual. Seven-one and under 200 pounds. That’s a unique body type and people would be self-conscious, but you never get that with him.”
The phenom from Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis is taller than Kevin Durant, and though not the scorer Durant was at the same age, clearly a superior defender to a young KD. The 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis wasn’t as comic-strip skinny as Holmgren when he was drafted in 2015, nor did he have the overall package of talent.
When you watch Gonzaga play, it’s hard to take your eyes off Holmgren. Not just because of his size and his body; his presence affects the energy of both teams for every possession he’s on the court. Holmgren doesn’t shy from talking about his appearance. His individualism makes him compelling. It makes him competitive. One day, it could be the factor that turns him into an NBA All-Star. In sports, different is good. Different is interesting. There’s nobody more interesting in college basketball than Chet Holmgren.
There is 1) what he can do, 2) what he will inevitably be able to do, and 3) things we dare not conceive. Holmgren is changing expectations around how the game can be schemed. And it’s all for him. Basketball has been around more than 130 years. There was never someone like this dude until now, and there’s no telling if another 7-foot human with a wingspan that conjures visions of a Pteranodon will come again. He’s as game-breaking on offense as he is philosophy-warping on defense.
“Whenever I step on a court, I can do some things that not very many people do,” Holmgren said. “I definitely want to leave my mark, leave my stamp wherever I go. And I feel like if I come in here, I work hard, I do what they tell me, I feel like all the special stuff will happen in between.”
Holmgren arrived at Gonzaga last summer as the No. 1 recruit in his high school class. He was refined-yet-raw, a rail-thin talent teeming with potential to be the once-in-a-lifetime piece to finally help get the Bulldogs their first national championship. In the months since, Holmgren has not just gotten better, the growth has been exponential. A lot of it has transpired behind the scenes, in the quiet echoes of a gym where it’s often only one or two voices, plus the bounce of a ball that ricochets off walls.
‘There’s nothing that he leaves to chance’
Holmgren has been honing and tweaking, improving and sharpening. There is always more work to be done. He is still young enough that the dividends of his talents, though starting to show, appear as flashes. There will come a time, either later this season or once he is paid millions of dollars in the NBA, when all of it explodes into a supernova. He’s sure of it, even if he doesn’t say it, because the actions suggest he won’t accept anything other than greatness.
“He’s very pragmatic and has a plan,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “There’s nothing that he leaves to chance, even how he manages all the NIL opportunities coming his way. They are never a distraction because he’s very organized. He’s a great communicator.”
Holmgren is inquisitive, curious. Someone will drop a casual comment, and he’ll catch it in the air and ask for more. Tell me what you mean by that?
“He initiates conversation,” Few said. “He’s very mature in that way.”
Gonzaga has given this 19-year-old an independent life. It’s a crucial transitional phase before he likely becomes either the first, second or third overall pick in June’s NBA Draft.
“It was the people and the situation,” he said of his commitment to Gonzaga. “I’m in a great situation with a bunch of other great players. To come in and kind of fit in with all the great pieces that they had already, plus the coaches, the style of play, I felt it was perfect.”
College is fun, and he is embracing that, but he is no social butterfly. Holmgren represents a blend of two mindsets of the modern star college basketball player. There is the still-mainstream step of going to college and doing the one-and-done year, but there is also the business-like approach to it all. Holmgren is treating this season at Gonzaga like the dress rehearsal for the NBA that it is.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an introverted person, but I just kind of stick to myself, my team, coaches, staff, that’s my circle, kind of stick within that and don’t stray too far out,” he said.
Among the many reasons he came to Gonzaga: Drew Timme. The 2021-22 preseason pick for national player of the year is a companion in styles and personality to Holmgren.
“He’s super fun to play with,” Timme said. “There’s a lot to learn as a freshman in college. Some days are easier than others and some days are really freaking hard, you know … you take the goods and bads, then be able to learn and ask questions. He’s a guy you can be really creative with. And he’s a great passer and scorer. We can do a lot of things together, which is pretty cool.”
It’s been an education on and off the floor for Holmgren, as the two have bonded while becoming the best frontcourt pair in college hoops. Over the past eight months, the two have made each other better in practices and workouts. Timme is not the NBA prospect Holmgren is, but he’s an incredible leader and quintessentially great college basketball player. Holmgren owes some of his defensive development to trying to stop his friend Drew in drill after drill after drill.
“I’ve been a pretty good defender over my years, and it’s definitely a great challenge,” Holmgren said. “To go up against somebody like that who, one-on-one, can get a shot off and you’re not really in contention to block it? You’re just trying to alter it enough to make him miss, really.”
Gonzaga has been fortunate to deploy two good big men at a time over the years, but never like this. Timme and Holmgren are in the conversation to be All-Americans. One could wind up on the First Team, the other on the Second Team.
“The two words that come to mind with him are smart and confident,” Timme said. “He understands the game, he understands situations. He understands concepts and the ebbs and flows of the game. But he’s also confident in what he does. He’s not going to do something and hesitate or immediately question himself. He always believes in himself. That’s 90% of the battle right there.”
Holmgren, Gonzaga have turned it up lately
Gonzaga — the top-ranked team in every advanced metric — is poised to retake the No. 1 spot in the polls next week, so long as it wins its next two games. From there, the school’s fifth No. 1 seed could be in the offing in March. The Bulldogs again are an onslaught on offense, scoring better than 1.2 points per possession and beating WCC opponents by more than they ever have. This has dovetailed with the best stretch of Holmgren’s career.
“Early in the year he was passing up shots that were hurting us and him personally,” Michaelson said. “He was passing up good shots because he wanted to make the right team play.”
Recently, that hasn’t been the case. It’s getting worse for WCC teams because it’s getting easier for Holmgren. In the Zags’ game against San Diego on Feb. 3, Holmgren scored 11 of his 23 points in a minute and a half and effectively ended the game.
“He’s been awesome all year, it’s just exploding to a level that’s indescribable recently,” Michaelson said. “Part of it is his work ethic. He’s such an elite worker that has an understanding of what his opponents are doing and how he can counter that.”
Holmgren’s best game of the season was that win vs. San Diego. The scene prior to that game helps explain why. It was less than 20 minutes before tip and Michaelson was in the locker room when a Gonzaga manager came to find him and tell him Holmgren needed him on the floor. Michaelson was a little concerned over the timing, but it turns out Holmgren wanted to triple-check that he was fully understanding the scouting report and the video they’d gone over the entire week.
“He’s just so far ahead maturity-wise,” Michaelson said. “The film thing has been really, really impressive to me. The willingness to want to ask, ‘How is this opponent going to want to guard me, and based on that, how is that going to open things up?’ We had a quick session right there on the court about what shots would be there early tonight. Kids don’t think like that.”
Since entering conference play, Holmgren’s shooting numbers have gone cosmic. He’s 69% from the field and 60% from 3-point range. He’s in the conversation to have one of the shooting seasons of any men’s basketball player in the past three decades. When you account for his three-plus 3-point attempts per game, it’s absurd.
“I think we all knew and hoped he would get to that point shooting the ball where he is right now,” Few said. “It didn’t start out that way. He was a little slow numbers-wise and then oddly enough we were on him, on him, on him with how many shots he was pump-faking his way out of it. I think that lends itself to how sensitive he was to being a good teammate and not rocking the boat when he first got here.”
In his last five games Holmgren’s averaging 19.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks. His offensive rating at KenPom is a lofty 137.6 in that span (compared to an excellent 128.5 for the season). The efficiency as of late is borderline appalling. Holmgren’s last five games: 21-of-27 2-point shooting (77.8%), 14-of-23 3-point shooting (60.9%). That’s an effective field goal percentage of 84% — brilliant. His season-long 73.0 eFG% is No. 1 nationally, as is his 73.6 true shooting percentage. Holmgren leads the sport in win shares per 40 minutes (.320), box plus/minus (15.5) and defensive rating (78.1). He’s second in 2-point percentage (75.2%) and 30th in 3-point accuracy.
“He has gotten stronger, he has added to his game,” Michaelson said. “I think it’s a natural progression, but it’s a natural progression with someone that’s already a scary talent, so that’s how you get this production.”
Some analytical models have him as college basketball’s No. 1 player (EvanMiya.com) or No. 2 player (KenPom).
He is a one-person scouting report nightmare. His dead-eye straightaway 3-pointer is one of the scariest weapons in college hoops. Holmgren is shooting 56% from the top of the key. With the way Gonzaga plays, he can sometimes flow into the trail spot and catch the ball in rhythm as he shoots the 3-point shot. It’s like a lash of a tail — you can see the wind-up and then the thwack can knock a team sideways.
Holmgren’s such a natural high-low passer as well, which allows Gonzaga to put him up top and feed the ball to a variety of places, especially to Timme. Additionally, the Zags’ middle-ball-screen actions unfurl him atop the key, which can twist a team into a tight spot with whomever winds up face-guarding Holmgren. Then there’s the times when he’ll bring the ball up the floor because he’s fluid shooting off the bounce. Because Timme’s such a dominant scorer, teams get rightfully concerned with having a bogey on him. You’ve got a 7-1 reaper dribbling at your defense, Timme blitzing to the paint, and opponents’ big men get caught in a no-man’s land.
“You can’t replicate that on any scout squad,” Gonzaga assistant Roger Powell said.
The scary beauty of Gonzaga’s offense (No. 1 again in 2-point accuracy) is how open it is. Holmgren has more than scratched the surface, but he’s not out there hunting for 20- or 25-point nights. The mere threat that he could if he wanted to is what makes Gonzaga daunting to defend.
“The scoring is starting to get really, really good, but the beauty of Chet is that’s the last thing he’s done,” Michaelson said. “His value is in overall production.”
The skinny kid from Minnehaha Academy
Holmgren’s been skinny and tall for as long as he can remember. His father, Dave, played 57 games in four seasons at Minnesota in the mid-1980s. The sport called to Chet from a young age. By high school, he took it seriously. This is not the story of a boy fated to be a No. 1 pick, though.
“If I told you I knew I was gonna be where I am right now, at the beginning of high school, I’d be lying,” Holmgren said.
He emerged as an intriguing Division I recruit in April 2018 when he was a 15-year-old freshman playing two years up on Jalen Suggs’ 17U grassroots team at the NY2LA Swish ‘N Dish in Milwaukee. Coaches who watched didn’t know what to make of him. Alarmingly skinny but blocking shots, showing athleticism. No one knew what he was or could be.
Playing for Suggs’ father, Larry, would be instrumental to getting Holmgren where he is now. Suggs put the ball in his hands and trained him to be a player who could play all over the floor. His frame would, practically by necessity, require him to spend some time on the perimeter. He had a natural feel for dribbling, but it got better with each year in high school.
“He opened my eyes to what’s possible and not telling me — because everybody knew I was gonna be tall — not telling me, ‘This is what tall people do,'” Holmgren said. “And kind of saw where the game was going and opened my eyes to that. He gave me some ball skills, and from there I just kind of loved playing basketball.”
The pickup games around his hometown also helped Holmgren grow. Greater Minneapolis regularly produces Division I talent. As Holmgren got older, taller and better in high school, playing with a variety of players gave him more confidence in his abilities.
“You’ve got to be able to get your own shot. Otherwise, you’re just kind of running up and down the court,” he said. “Playing a lot of pickup led me to learn from my mistakes.”
Michaelson saw him in the summer of 2018 at an Under Armour event in Cartersville, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. He was there to see and continue recruiting Jalen Suggs. Holmgren — a rising sophomore at the time — stuck out but Michaelson didn’t pursue. Later that year, in December, Michaelson went to see Suggs play again, this time with his high school team, and Holmgren’s development was obvious. Gonzaga was in. (So were dozens of other power-conference programs.)
Within a year Holmgren ascended to top-10 status in his recruiting class. At a tournament in Chicago near the end of his sophomore season, he had a triple-double with blocks. By the end of the summer of 2019 he’d done enough to convince the amateur basketball world that he had all the tools to be the No.1 player in 2021.
“I’m going out there trying to help my team and do whatever it is to win,” Holmgren said. “And if you end up with 10 blocks on the stat sheet, more times than not your team’s gonna end up winning. So, striving for that is great, but at the same time, don’t kind of get so focused on that you kind of lose your way in the game. If it happens, it happens.”
As he became a famous high school player, his reputation for playing with a swagger increased. As a few people told me, he’ll play with F-you in his game all night long. (One insight into his psyche: Holmgren’s Twitter banner picture is a photo of Michael Jordan giving a death glare to Magic Johnson.) He’s not afraid to take the hits. Not ashamed to fall.
“It’s how I play,” he said. “That’s how I grew up, being taught to play. If you’re just gonna let somebody punk you, you’re gonna come sit on the bench,” he said. “I know I’m skinny. Everybody knows I’m skinny. So they’re like, ‘I’m going to try and out-strong this dude.’ So, I got to hold my ground. And then, I just work hard. If you work hard, you’re confident in what you do.”
He is undergoing an internal test of will each time he plays an opponent. There is never a perfect game. The way he describes it, it’s almost as if the guy who’s matched up against him is a casualty of Holmgren’s basketball dogma. Me vs. me and then me vs. me vs. you.
“It’s less about trying to prove it to a person, it is more about trying to prove it to myself,” Holmgren said. “Just go out there and, whoever it might be, take my matchup personally. At the end of the day, it comes down to trying to win games, so I’m not going out there trying to step outside of the team and do some crazy stuff. I’m trying to play my game and do what I can to help our team win.”
It might be impossible for anyone to be harder on Holmgren than he is on himself, but he carries an uncommon desire to be coached pugnaciously and continually critiqued. It’s a sign of not just a player who wants to be great, but probably also someone who already knows he is. Gonzaga has never been a program to give any player special treatment. Accountability for all is a mantra most coaches sell in college hoops, but it’s not always the truth. For Gonzaga’s players, it is. That was attractive to Holmgren.
“I definitely prefer it,” Holmgren said of being coached hard. “It’s not about ‘being coachable’ because you don’t have an option, OK? We coach you. You are coachable if you come here. If you’re not, either you’re not going to be here or you’re not going to be on the court. That’s how it should be. College basketball is a coaching league. I wasn’t coming here expecting to be the freshman that is bigger on campus than the 30-year-tenured coach. You look up, see all the banners and that’s the man that did all this.”
Talented players come in many varieties with their mental approach and day-to-day habits. Some are more disciplined than others. The key is having focus and making the time. Gonzaga’s staff says there hasn’t been a day when Holmgren half-assed things or dipped out on an extra session of training. He’s around the facility as much as anyone, coaches included. And he has an insatiable appetite for studying basketball.
“I’ll hear him asking for more game film. That’s not normal for anyone, let alone a freshman,” Michaelson said. “The weight room thing is the same. People probably question that. The public perception because of how his body is built. The guy is in the weight room all the time. There’s never a day where he has an excuse.”
His strength is up significantly from all prior markers. June to November to January, Holmgren’s steadily put on a little more muscle. His tree is still growing.
“There were a couple plays against BYU where I was like, ‘Oh that’s another jump,” Michaelson said. “I know it’s been getting better, and there’s another jump up.”
Holmgren’s Go-Go-Gadget limbs taunt just as much as they intimidate. He can cover more ground and airspace than nearly anyone. Opposing coaches will tell you preparing for what he does defensively is arguably more challenging than his offensive skills because he’s always present on the defensive end.
“The rim protection aspect is real, and he’s been able to make some plays in regard to that even have surprised me,” Few said.
Against BYU there was one transition possession, after Holmgren missed a shot, where he was caught on the weak-side elbow. BYU’s Alex Barcello had momentum and an angle, so he took it to the far side rim. Holmgren recovered, made up his ground and swatted it.
“I don’t see dudes do that,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “I live in this game and I have not seen a guy do that. It’s unbelievable.”
If Holmgren grows into an NBA All-Star, the tales of his time in the gym at Gonzaga will be the foundation of his origin story. Holmgren has a kinship with the gym. His competitiveness is maniacal, but not at the detriment of his teammates.
“We have to tell him to take a day off,” Powell said. “He’s somebody who you have to say, ‘Chet, relax. You can take a day off today.’ Because he would do something otherwise. Weights, shooting, all of it. We have to monitor him and that’s the part of what makes him special.”
One day this season Holmgren wanted to lift weights and Powell wouldn’t have it. Holmgren was insistent. A call was made to the team’s strength coach and a compromise was made. It would be stretching bands only, and Powell watched. Anything to stay in-tune.
“We don’t want him to over-exert himself, because he’s a machine, man,” Powell said.
There is no “checking in” on Holmgren. He is the initiator. After Gonzaga’s first game of the season, Holmgren texted Powell after midnight — when Gonzaga had a scheduled off-day the following day — and asked if he could get some shots up that next morning. Powell laughed, then told Holmgren it was a day of rest. Twenty minutes later, they were on the phone in a debate over it.
“Chet, you’re taking tomorrow off, first of all, and why are you awake right now?” Powell asked him.
“Man, I can’t sleep,” Holmgren said. “I want to get back in the gym.”
Said Few: “That’s an ongoing battle, quite frankly, but one I think he’s becoming more self-aware with and valuing that. Larry Suggs, his AAU coach and guy who developed him, was very much on him about that because he’s a voracious worker, learner, studier of film. I don’t think we’re quite there yet on the rest, but we’ve made significant strides.”
Holmgren listens, but it’s not like he easily accepts it. Gonzaga isn’t undefeated. There is work to do. Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Duke’s Paolo Banchero have received slightly more attention for going No. 1 in the draft. So let me get up another 400 shots tonight.
“Basketball is the center point of my life,” Holmgren said. “It’s what I’ve built my life around. So, I’m not coming to college trying to find other stuff to do.”
Whatever ego is there, Holmgren suppresses it. Michaelson recalled after a game in December when Holmgren again vocalized how he did not want the praise or attention.
“I need you guys to stay on me,” he told Michaelson and Few. “All anyone wants to tell me is how good I am. That’s not what I want to hear. I want to hear what I can do better.”
There are public glimpses into this mindset, like when he had a pair of bad plays against BYU and was pulled out of the game. Someone on Twitter noticed. Holmgren did, too.
Few calls it like he sees it. Far from a berating type of coach, he has simple, effective, direct way of critiquing his players. He doesn’t BS.
“He appreciates that,” Few said. “Some young kids will pout. There’s no pout in Chet. He takes the message and works on not repeating the behavior. He’s a ferocious worker and so conscientious. He’s on me constantly to coach him hard. His physical stature doesn’t belie just how tough he is. He’ll mix it up, he’ll take a hit, go to the ground and pop right up. There’s nothing soft about him and that’s how he approaches his career. … Through all the attention he’s been a great team guy.”
For Holmgren, basketball is an infatuation, a mania. It’s brought him to star status at one of college basketball’s greatest programs. The public sees a basketball player unlike any basketball player who came before him. Those around Holmgren see someone thoughtful, scrupulous, independent, somewhat private and as detail-oriented player to wear a Zags uniform.
“I told him a couple weeks ago, ‘I’m proud of you, man,'” Powell said. “‘Specifically, why, coach?’ he asks. ‘Because all this stuff. NIL, all this pub and increased fame. The one thing I notice about you, Chet, is you love your family.’ He loves being around his family and that to me says a lot about his character, a lot about the man he’s going to become. It’s unique when you see a guy his age who loves his parents. It’s awesome.”
This is the man most do not get to see. It is intentional. For as much as there is to work for, for all there is to gain, all of it must be protected. There are few coincidences in Chet Holmgren’s basketball life. He took a deliberate path to get to this point. There is a plan and it will be obeyed.