When the Gonzaga Bulldogs faced off against the Duke Blue Devils, it was impossible not to buy into the freshmen narratives that drove that game. Chet Holmgren, the highest-ranked recruit in the Class of 2021, vs. Paolo Banchero, the second-highest. It was a battle between the presumably top-two picks in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Duke eventually won the battle, many thanks to Banchero’s herculean efforts in the first half. He finished with 21 points in 30 minutes, cramping issues largely limiting his effectiveness in the second half. Understandably, what was lost was Holmgren’s effort—by no means pedestrian.
Holmgren finished with 16 points off 8-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks. Holmgren was limited by foul trouble in the first half, and of course, he did not hit a three-pointer. By the battle of the box score, it looked like Banchero had the upper hand.
That was then. This is now.
CHET HOLMGREN WITH 11 POINTS IN UNDER TWO MINUTES pic.twitter.com/YBeBtOP71q— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 4, 2022
Since conference play has begun, Holmgren has been absolutely demolishing WCC opponents. His ORtg is 135.5. His effective field goal percentage is 80.8. He is shooting 74.4 percent from two and 60 percent from three. When Holmgren arrived at Gonzaga, this was the player he was largely expected to be, and now that he has arrived, good luck rest of the world.
The blowholes of the college basketball world, of which there are numerous, will immediately say “yeah but WCC.” There is no denying that is a fair point, but as Holmgren demonstrated in his 11 point outburst against San Diego, a Power 5 center is not going to suddenly take away the three-point threat that is a trailing Holmgren. The block followed by the coast-to-coast? Well, that came at the hands of former Power 5 Pittsburgh player and large human Terrell Brown.
What we are seeing right now is exactly what we should have expected coming into the season. There is not a single player currently in college basketball that has the skillset Holmgren possesses, full stop. Holmgren’s ability to completely alter the paint on the defensive end, thanks to his innate blocking ability and go-go-gadget arms, as well as his versatility and range on the offensive end, arguably make him one of the best players in college hoops.
The argument that this means little because #WCC doesn’t hold any water because of how the Zags generally use Holmgren in the offensive sets. A bigger and broader random Power 5 center isn’t going to body Holmgren off the block too much, because the Zags rarely use Holmgren as a traditional post-up player. That is Drew Timme’s role, and it is reflected in the statistics.
Only 46.6 percent of Holmgren’s shots come at the rim. As his three-point percentage has crept up, so have his shots from outside, which now account for 38.1 percent of his shot attempts.
Through the 13 games of non-conference play, Holmgren attempted four or more three-pointers in a game five times. Through just eight games of non-conference play, Holmgren has attempted at least four threes four times (including the past three-straight games).
Now that the threes are falling, Holmgren has turned from a borderline impossible player to guard to an absolute nightmare. As the season progresses, he is working more fluidly within the Gonzaga offensive system and is taking more leeway on such activities as bringing the ball up the court (we’ve seen that happen more and more with each passing week).
Currently, Holmgren has a Box Plus/Minus of 16.2, good for the top spot in the nation. Tari Eason of LSU follows him up at 14.5. Holmgren is second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus at 7.1, a tick behind Auburn’s Walker Kessler at 7.5. Holmgren’s defensive rating is the best in college hoops at 78.1, besting Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe by a full point. His offensive rating on the year of 131.4 ranks him No. 8 in the country.
Package that all up, and Holmgren is currently rated the No. 2 Player of the Year by KenPom, behind Tshiebwe.
Some players make the jump to college hoops a bit more ready. Jalen Suggs was a prime example for Gonzaga. Paolo Banchero is quite the same. Most likely, at the next level, Banchero will also hit the ground running in the NBA a bit easier than Holmgren. All it takes is a bit of patience, however. For those that have been willing to wait, watching Holmgren has been an absolute treat.