There are plenty of mile markers to measure the progress of a college basketball team, but the two most prominent are “How much have you won” and “Who can you get to commit?” And for schools like Gonzaga, there are few things left that can signal the next phase of their development as a powerhouse or “new blood.”
But landing the number one overall recruit in the nation, Chet Holmgren, is undoubtedly one of those milestones. He is the consensus overall freshman in the country, the first since RJ Barrett in 2018. The McDonald’s All-American went wire-to-wire his senior year with the top ranking. He enters what is likely his only collegiate season as a favorite to be one of the first greeted by Adam Silver in next year’s draft.
Holmgren is the first player of this caliber for Gonzaga to land in the recruiting trail and the first player with his style of game to lace up in the Kennel. The word “unicorn” gets thrown around a lot regarding position-less, sleight-of-frame big men with handles. But it’s not clear how many unicorns could score at all three levels and impact opponents on defense quite like the 7 foot tall, 190 pound Minneapolis native.
Ever since the crushing loss on April 5th to Baylor, fans have been building countless rotations that could ensure that a tournament disappointment isn’t repeated. Holmgren and his range of skills make that effort impossible to pinpoint, if not laughably irrelevant.
Head coach Mark Few and his staff already had an embarrassment of riches. Now they have a swiss-army-knife star that could slot into three positions immediately.
Holmgren passes and dribbles like a guard. He’s a shooter with NBA range. A player who can frustrate the hell out of a defender in the post with footwork beyond his years. He has the handles that could blow by Steph Curry (with his own move).
Im a Chet Holmgren Fan‼️Watched him play at Top 100 & decided to keep an eye on him and he’s very skilled, versatile and tough. He’s a player! https://t.co/lauH7PrCMg— DWade (@DwyaneWade) August 7, 2019
On defense, Holmgren’s a terror. He is formidable as a face-to-face defender and a cheat code crashing off-ball to volleyball swat from the blindside. He is, without a doubt, the best shot blocker to put on a Gonzaga uniform. His 7’6” wingspan allows him to affect the game in a multitude of ways. He averaged 2.7 blocks at the FIBA U19 tournament, where he only played 21.4 minutes each game and earned tournament MVP.
Skeptics—as much as one can be of a guy who has been compared to Anthony Davis, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant—will point to his playing weight and slim shoulders as a possible limitation for him against more mature, larger post players. And while Holmgren weighs 105 pounds less than Prezemk Karnowski his senior year, basketball just isn’t played back to the basket any longer. But watching his tape, he doesn’t shy away from physicality. You can expect him to keep defenders off balance with his fade away and frustrate them with his reach and ability to pin fouls.
Holmgren will be a nightmare as opposing coaches try to prevent him from driving or crashing the weak side for putbacks. As if it was going to be fair trying to limit 65% shooting and likely preseason player of the year Drew Timme, now you have to fend off this.
Fans and the Zags should expect a significant amount of zone defensive looks from opponents this season. Opposing coaches will try anything to slow down the number one offense in KenPom for three years running. Holmgren will no doubt complicate this approach, as he comfortably and routinely sinks perimeter shots.
This summer, he sank 7 out of 13 attempts in lightwork at the FIBA U19 tournament and has used his range throughout his high school career to keep defenders on their toes. You could argue that he’s in contention with sophomores Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris as the best perimeter shooter on the roster.
If Gonzaga didn’t have the bevy of ball handlers they do this season, it would be fun to see how Few could adapt to the abilities of a point center like Holmgren. If you watch just a few minutes of highlights, you’ll see him bully heavy-footed big men by taking the ball up the court and attacking from the top of the arc.
What makes Holmgren so invaluable is that even though he can do seemingly everything, he is willing and able to do precisely what you need from him. He’s an efficient scorer that is happy to pass to better looks for his teammates (something the Bulldogs pride themselves on). He plays within the offense and is just as capable off the ball as with high-usage possessions.
It speaks to Holmgren’s character. Even as the number one high school player in the country, he found a way to always champion his teammates. Part of the delay in his signing announcement was not wanting to distract from his team steamrolling their way to their state high school championship.
And that unselfishness is what makes Holmgren so scary to game plan against. His high efficiency can’t be conflated as passivity because of how well he maintains a high motor. He’s always engaged on defense and will dice up his man when the matchup is favorable.
As remarkable of a year this looks for the Gonzaga Bulldogs as a team, fans will be fondly looking back at the gift of seeing Chet Holmgren as one of the Dudes for 30 games.