Chet Holmgren Plays Too Big on Defense to Fail

Chet Holmgren is the most polarizing prospect in the 2022 NBA draft. To some talent evaluators, he looks like the best player available; for others, he’s not even in the top 3 of the consensus list.

As the center position evolves and adapts to the modern NBA, Holmgren, a 7-footer with guard skills, could be just the man teams are looking for. And while he still has and will have his doubters until he proves himself in the NBA, all the numbers and highlights point to one particular strength: Holmgren’s defense is so impressive he can’t fail.

While the 2010s in the NBA were dominated by the big wings, a new breed of big men is currently ruling the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have won the last four MVP awards together, and this pair and Joel Embiid went 1-2-3 in this year’s voting. But none of them reached the conference finals, again raising questions about the role of big men versus contenders. (Of course, all three also suffered from squad madnesses beyond their control, from costly injuries to Khris Middleton, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to the Ben Simmons-James Harden fiasco in Philadelphia.)

But even with that playoff setback, the 2022 postseason also reinforced an element of the need for big men: All four conference finalists performed better on defense than offense in the regular season, and the two teams that made the Finals , also boasted the top two defenses in the league. And what is the most important tenet of NBA defense? protection of the rim. Enter Holmgren, the league’s next shutdown defender.

At Gonzaga, Holmgren blocked 12.6 percent of opposing 2-point attempts last season, according to KenPom, who ranked 10th in the country and first among Kevin O’Connor’s top 30 draft prospects. And Holmgren didn’t just bully overwhelmed wimps at the West Coast conference. His block rate against teams ranked in KenPom’s national top 100 was 12.4 percent, which is essentially his overall rate. Per game, Holmgren averaged 3.7 blocks across all of his games and 3.7 blocks when facing top 100 opponents.

The other players at the top of this draft don’t come close in comparison. While Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Banchero both check in at 6-foot-10, potentially allowing them to act as bigs in the NBA, their college block rates were just 3.8 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. Holmgren is the only member of the trio who can anchor a defense.

Holmgren’s collegiate performance also compares favorably to the 24 great men with collegiate stats who have made the top five since 2002. (This is the first year of detailed player data from KenPom; this count does not include players without NCAA stats or James Wiseman, who only played three games for Memphis. We define “great men” here as players ranked according to the position designations of basketball Reference have spent at least 25 percent of their NBA minutes at the center.)

Out of this group of 24, the only players with a better block rate in their final collegiate seasons than Holmgren are Jaren Jackson Jr., Anthony Davis and Greg Oden; close behind Holmgren are Hasheem Thabeet, Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Best college blocking rate among top 5 picks (since 2002)

player Year BLACK %
player Year BLACK %
years Jackson Jr. 2018 14.3%
Anthony Davis 2012 13.8%
Gregory Oden 2007 12.7%
Chet Holmgren 2022 12.6%
Hashem Thabeet 2009 11.9%
Joel Embid 2014 11.7%
Karl-Anthony-Cities 2015 11.5%

It’s a powerful indicator of Holmgren’s NBA future: As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote, block rate translates from college to pros better than any other statistic. And in this example, this relationship is mostly true. At the other end of the list, for example, only five Bigs in this sample had college blockage rates below 5 percent: Marvin Bagley III, Thomas Robinson, Drew Gooden, Cody Zeller, and Jahlil Okafor. Bigs who can’t protect the edge in college won’t be successful in the NBA.

Each point represents a great man selected in the top five of the draft since 2002

To be fair, the list of high-block college bigs doesn’t offer a perfect NBA batting average: Persistent injuries derailed Oden’s career, and Thabeet is one of the biggest draft breathers of this century. But there’s also a massive gulf between the rest of Holmgren’s game beyond his shot block and the rest of Thabeets. Holmgren possesses a mobility the heavy-footed Thabeet never had and his offensive potential is immensely higher.

Chet Holmgren vs. Hasheem Thabeet last college season

statistics Chet Holmgren Hashem Thabeet
statistics Chet Holmgren Hashem Thabeet
USG% 22% 19%
support rate 12% 3%
FT% 72% 63%
3p 41 0
3PA 105 0
3P% 39% n / A

Expand the pool of comps to include every lottery big since 2002, and there are more failures among draftees at the top of the college block leaderboard. Mo Bamba is a recent example of a big who didn’t perform as hoped when he wasn’t leaving. 6 in the 2018 draft, and others like Cole Aldrich, Ekpe Udoh and Hilton Armstrong failed to convert college production into NBA successes.

But that’s where Holmgren’s offensive prowess comes in, as in the Thabeet comparison: Unlike those failed lottery picks, Holmgren turns his amazing rim shots into a two-way production. There’s a reason Aldrich fell to the No. 1 spot with a dominant 13.0 percent block rate his final collegiate season but little offensive play. 11 instead of finishing in the top three, as Holmgren is sure to do this week.

For a modern great, Holmgren has almost ideal offensive skills. He’s a skilled finisher on the edge — his 73.7 percent 2-point accuracy led Division I players with at least 100 attempts — and is also already an able and willing shooter with a 39 percent college 3-point -Mark at three tries per game. His 72 percent free throw accuracy also promises further range, as free throw percentage is an even better indicator of NBA shot potential.

In the past two decades, very few great men have offered anything that came close to Holmgren’s distinctive combination of rim protection and shooting prowess. This chart includes every great lottery man in the last 20 years with at least an 11 percent block percentage and 70 percent free throw accuracy in his most recent college season. It’s not a long list. (It also shows the appeal of Duke’s Mark Williams, who could be picked in the lottery alongside Holmgren on Thursday.)

Lottery Tips with High Block and Free Throw Percentages (since 2002)

player Choose year BLACK % FT%
player Choose year BLACK % FT%
years Jackson Jr. 4, 2018 14.3% 80%
Anthony Davis 1, 2012 13.8% 71%
Chet Holmgren ???, 2022 12.6% 72%
Myles Turner 12/11/2015 12.3% 84%
Karl-Anthony-Cities 1, 2015 11.5% 81%
Mark Williams ???, 2022 11.5% 73%

It’s also an incredibly encouraging set of comparisons. Davis and Towns are multiple All-NBA award winners who have signed Max contracts. Jackson is still developing but was worth a nine-figure extension even before he finished fifth in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year poll.

Turner is worth a closer look given the few warning signs on Holmgren’s profile. On defense, Turner is an inner force as a two-time blocking champion that can be played from the ground in certain matchups. On offense, he creates distance as a capable 3-point shooter, but has averaged just 10-15 points per game every season of his career because he has never commanded the ball as a strong creator.

It’s a conceivable result for Holmgren – but barring Odenesque injuries, that seems the way to go worst case Result because it assumes that Holmgren will not develop beyond its current capabilities at all. Because of his unique physique, Holmgren is considered more of a “high-ceiling/low-floor player” than his peers at the top of the draft boards, but his floor looks like Turner, who’s still one of the best players in the world for 2015 Design class by every measure. (I’ll admit that as a longtime Turner supporter, I might be biased here.)

There are still concerns about Holmgren’s stature and physique, but his height hasn’t slowed him down during his incredibly successful streaks in high school or college, and he’ll have plenty of time to gain over 200 pounds. He may never match Embiid pound for pound, but as J. Kyle Mann wrote for him The ringtone In a lengthy scouting report by Holmgren, other high picks from Davis to Kevin Durant added significant muscle as they reached the NBA.

Ultimately, Holmgren brings together all the key capabilities for a modern big: rim protection, mobility to contain guards, edge closure and ground clearance. Combine all of these disparate parts into a lanky 7-foot physique, and the results are statistically spectacular.

Holmgren’s plus-minus box – an all-in-one statistic that estimates a player’s overall worth – is the third-best for a newcomer in the Sports Reference database (which stretches to 2011-12). Every other player in the top 5 is a big man who is either already a star in the NBA or – in the case of Evan Mobley – on the way. And Davis, Towns and Jackson are also at the top of this list.

Best Box Plus-Minus among freshmen (since 2011-12)

player bpm
player bpm
Zion Williamson 20.1
Anthony Davis 17.2
Chet Holmgren 15.0
Karl-Anthony-Cities 14.3
Evan Mobley 13.7
Lonzo ball 12.0
Joel Embid 11.9
D’Angelo Russell 11.9
years Jackson Jr. 11.7
Cody Zeller 11.7

Holmgren isn’t actually a high-ceiling/low-floor player. He has the highest cap in the 2022 draft and a very high floor. On Thursday night, a happy fanbase can cheer on his immense potential.

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