Bringing the Thunder: Chet Holmgren's summer league debut was a gem

Bringing the Thunder: Chet Holmgren's summer league debut was a gem

There haven't been many displays of two-way excellence in Summer League quite like Chet Holmgren's outing on Tuesday night. Add in the fact that it was his NBA debut, and the intrigue grows. 

Before going further, let's get the boring caveats out of the way. The Utah Jazz Youth Contingent isn't a group of world-beaters. And of course, iT's JuSt SuMmEr LeAgUe. The games don't count yet, and Holmgren will face more talented teams over the next few days. He'll especially face tougher challenges once the regular season begins. We get it.

With that said, whew.

The stat line doesn't do the performance justice, but it was still nice: 23 points (3-of-3 from two, 4-of-6 from three), 7 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, and 6 blocked shots. The Oklahoma City Thunder outscored the Jazz by 26 points in Holmgren's near-24 minutes, if you care about that sort of thing.

Even with the "Summer League is for flashes" understanding, it's hard not to be impressed with what Holmgren was able to accomplish. He was a showstopper on defense, and showed enough versatility offensively as a screener, handoff hub, spacer and clear-a-side attacker to inspire confidence moving forward. There were so many flashes.

On the defensive end, Holmgren's mere presence altered things for the Jazz. The blocks were loud — and we'll get to those shortly — but more important than the blocks were the possessions like this.

The Thunder botch a guard-guard pick-and-roll between Jared Butler and Xavier Sneed, opening up a drive for Butler. A stop-and-go gives Butler an edge against Ousmane Dieng, but the rotation from Holmgren — note that he doesn't even jump and just rotates over — forces a kick-out.

From there, the Thunder can rotate to the corner and force another swing. Josh Giddey is admittedly late to close after that swing, but the possession ends with Sneed — a guy who's made roughly 32% of his threes in his college and G-League career combined — taking a triple instead of a rim attempt from Butler.

There were multiple quiet possessions like that, where a guard would find a pocket of space and quickly realize it was a fool's errand. The rotational goodness was palpable. And when Holmgren was in drop coverage, his sense for playing the gap — not playing too high and opening up a lob, but not playing too low and giving a ball-handler easy pull-up looks — shined through.

With Holmgren being such a presence in drop coverage, his teammates had simpler jobs. A simple dig from the wing or the nail was enough to throw off a ball-handler's rhythm; Holmgren's length and poise would do the rest of the work. If there's one thing I feel comfortable projecting already, it's that the shot profile of OKC opponents will look different with Holmgren on the floor versus when he's off.

But also, those blocks.

It's one thing to have insane length — Holmgren's 7-foot-6 wingspan passes the test there. It's another thing to know how to use that length well. What's tough for rookie big men is the hidden third item: Knowing when to use that length. 

Six blocks in a debut is an absurd number, and he racked up those rejections in a multitude of ways — help-side, off late switches and operating in space, 1-on-1 swats against Tacko Fall. But swatting 6 shots while only committing 3 fouls is almost unheard of for a debut. He has a feel for rim-protection well beyond his years. Here are 4 of the 6 blocks:

That is nonsense.

Offensively, it was fun to watch Holmgren grow more comfortable as the game went on. He's going to need the shot to pop for him early to open up the floor. It was encouraging, then, to see Holmgren fire up 6 threes in his debut against varying degrees of coverage. Also, how about the self-creation? The behind-the-back dribble into a stop-and-pop was a favorite of his on Tuesday night. Guys his size aren't supposed to be able to do this.

The load-up is a little slow, but the release point is high enough to where he shouldn't be bothered a ton. The main deterrent from a volume standpoint will be himself, at least early on. If he's going to shoot like this, though, coverage will get tighter. 

That would be a good thing, of course. Not only will that open the floor for his teammates, but garnering closeouts will also create driving opportunities for him. We got a few flashes of Holmgren attacking off the bounce in this one. The handle is high — a concern for when the level of competition improves — but him being comfortable enough to take already is a big deal.

It was a great debut for Holmgren, though not a perfect one. There were still possessions where the lack of strength popped up. He was an inconsistent screener throughout the night. Physicality and ball pressure led to pair of turnovers, a few more "whoa what's happening?" instances in the half-court.

But, man, it's hard not to feel good about Holmgren after the debut. It would be irresponsible to say he's answered the pre-draft questions he received — again, it was night one of Summer League action — but it's certainly fair to say his pathway to answering those questions may be cleaner than some anticipated.

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