The indoor temperature at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas reached uncomfortable temperatures as fans, scouts, coaches and fellow players compromised customary personal space to get a glimpse of Victor Wembanyama's Summer League debut. They flocked, in part, because Wembanyama is something we've never seen before -- a 7-foot-4 athletic marvel, capable of putting on a dribbling exhibition, swishing one-legged 3-pointers and swatting shots into the third row of the stands.
Worth the hype? Absolutely. Something we've never seen before? Well, we may have to rethink that one.
To borrow from aby our very own draft analyst Kyle Boone:
"He's an elite defender. His 7-foot-6 wingspan helps him affect and block shots routinely. Even when he's not necessarily in perfect defensive position, he can recover with sheer length.
On offense he's an additive force as well, ranking last season in the 99th percentile around the rim and finishing just about every shot attempt within arm's reach of the bucket. As nearly a 40% 3-point shooter, he can space the floor as a true deep threat and also has some true guard skills as a handler. There's not much he can't do as a prospect, and with his sky-high ceiling being among the highest in the draft, he has a legitimate case to be considered as this year's top prospect."
No, he's not talking about Wembanyama, despite the uncanny similarity in descriptors. That's actually Boone's 2022 analysis of Chet Holmgren, who went on to become the No. 2 overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder. After averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds in five games at the 2022 Las Vegas Summer League, Holmgren was poised to serve as a great NBA experiment during his rookie season.
Can a player of Holmgren's unique proportions -- an Ichabod Crane-like 7-foot-1, 195 pounds -- survive against the size and strength of NBA big men? How will his varied skill set translate? What position will he play?
They were legitimate questions because, at that point, we truly had never seen anything like Holmgren. Here's a list of every player since 2005 who stands at least 7-feet tall and weighs 210 pounds or less.
|Player||Height||Weight||Draft Year||Career Games|
John Butler Jr.
Pokusevski -- coincidentally (or not?) Holmgren's teammate -- is the only player in the group to receive significant playing time, but he's a good 15 pounds heavier than Holmgren and is more of a perimeter player than a big.
As we sat in anticipation during the doldrums of last summer, Holmgren was unfortunately robbed of any chance to answer those questions when he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot that kept him sidelined for the entirety of what would have been his rookie season.
Given the return from injury and the hype surrounding his upside, what Holmgren did this summer would normally be alert-worthy news -- 25 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocks in two Salt Lake City games, before averaging 12 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and two blocks per game in three Las Vegas contests, complete with multiple highlight-reel dunks and blocks.
Casual NBA fans should be hyped for Holmgren's rookie season, and he likely would have been the story of Summer League were it not for the extremely tall shadow cast by Wembanyama.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing for Holmgren or the Thunder.
While an intriguing prospect, Holmgren is not considered the can't-miss franchise-changer that Wembanyama represents, and, unlike Wemby, Holmgren will need to fit into a team that's already on the upswing.
OKC has quickly and quietly put together a promising young roster highlighted by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's ascent to All-NBA status. Widely expected to have another lottery season after Holmgren's injury, the Thunder instead finished 10th in the Western Conference last season, earning a play-in berth.
Looking at the potential 2023-24 starting lineup -- Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Luguentz Dort -- Holmgren can immediately fill a huge need in the middle for a team that finished 13th in defensive efficiency last season. Rookie Jaylin Williams, not a traditional rim protector, emerged as the team's starting center toward the end of the season, and OKC allowed four more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Of all of Holmgren's skills, his shot-blocking is the one that should translate most immediately to NBA games.
Offensively, Holmgren has a chance to be truly unique. No NBA player has ever averaged two blocks, two assists and 1.5 3-pointers per game for an entire season. If you drop the criteria to one 3-pointer per game, the only players who have done it are Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid -- pretty decent company.
In his final year at Gonzaga, Holmgren put up 3.7 blocks, 1.9 assists and 1.3 3-pointers per game. Given the pace of the NBA, the likely increase in minutes and the leaguewide emphasis on 3s, it's not hard to imagine Holmgren getting up to those historic numbers. And that's not even taking into account his scoring and rebounding.
Ben Simmons. Blake Griffin. Joel Embiid. Michael Porter Jr. Multiple players who have missed their first NBA season have come back to have fantastic careers. Just because Holmgren didn't play games doesn't mean that last year was a waste.
"He learned a ton," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of Holmgren in April. "Just the day-to-day approach. Walking into a building where you're seeing everything else you want happening in front of you every day and staying that consistent ... He's got a mind that's different."
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Now Holmgren gets to take his "different" mind -- and body -- into a season where the rookie spotlight will be in a fixed position, aimed directly toward San Antonio. That will give Holmgren room to have the normal ups and downs of a first NBA season without the meticulous scrutiny that a player of his potential usually commands.
With Wembanyama the overwhelming betting favorite to win Rookie of the Year, don't be surprised if -- when things are heading toward the postseason in April -- Holmgren's name is firmly in the mix. Fellow players like New Orleans Pelicans forward Trey Murphy III have already taken notice of Holmgren's talent and makeup, even though he's yet to play in an official NBA game.
"I'm probably gonna take Chet," Murphy said when asked who he would pick for one season between Holmgren and Wembanyama. "Chet has a little bit of grit to him. You can tell he isn't soft -- that's the easiest way to say this. He plays with a sort of tenacity that bigs need. Also, he's very skilled -- he's a little more polished than Victor is. I feel like he shoots the ball better."