Party of one: Why Chet Holmgren's unique game is the talk of the NBA draft
There are moments on the court when Chet Holmgren seems less like a basketball player than a figment of a fevered imagination. These moments generally occur after Holmgren either a) blocks a shot and snatches the ball out of the air with a dismissive nonchalance, or b) grabs a defensive rebound. Following these relatively mundane events, and only when the spirit strikes, Holmgren accelerates up the court, each dribble covering about 20 feet, and doesn’t stop until he has slammed the ball through the hoop on the other end.
Holmgren, the most unique and overly dissected player in this year’s NBA draft, is 20 years old and 7 feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds. He looks like he could raise his hands over his head and shower in a garden hose. His arms extend to a condor-like wingspan of 7-foot-6. When he sits on the court before the game and stretches, soles of his shoes together in front of him, elbows pushing down on the inside of his thighs, his knees drift far enough away to appear disembodied. But this body, in those moments, travels the distance from one hoop to the other with both grace and power, two of the last things you’d guess by looking at him. And that is why, after those moments unfold, it can feel as if the ground is opening to reveal the rarest thing: something entirely new.
For instance: a game against the University of San Francisco, late in Holmgren’s only year at Gonzaga. He grabbed a rebound and took an observational dribble, surveying the court without betraying his intent. Seeing that nobody was taking him seriously, he began to accelerate, suddenly becoming the world’s skinniest big rig. The USF players, who did not at this time believe in the power of limitless possibility, didn’t seem interested in stopping him, each apparently assuming Holmgren would eventually see the ridiculousness of the act and simply stop himself. And so they watched him cross half court, and they watched him cross the free throw line, and they watched him gather himself, hold the ball with both hands, leap into the air and throw it through the hoop with primal force.
These moments are wild, and weirdly difficult to define, and always followed by a period of collective introspection. Holmgren’s kinetic energy is multiplied exponentially by the element of surprise. Nothing in physics accounts for the audacity of an act. As always, the expression on Holmgren’s angular face never changes. Even as everyone around him practices their personal expressions of incredulity — and basketball games provide a master class in performative incredulity — he retains the heavy-lidded, loose-jawed look of the eternally unimpressed.
It always feels like an experiment: What happens if the tallest and most obvious player on the court decides to play the game as if he’s the only one in the gym?
Holmgren, who averaged 14 points, 9.9 rebounds and nearly four blocks per game at Gonzaga, is a consensus top-three pick in the draft, along with Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Duke’s Paolo Banchero. Most prognosticators have Smith going first to Orlando, and Holmgren second to Oklahoma City, but pre-draft posturing is the lingua franca of the NBA. Besides, there are players like Smith and Banchero in every draft: smooth-shooting, sturdy-looking plug-and-play guys who promise to be Harrison Barnes for the next 10 years. There is not, and maybe never has been, anything like Holmgren: a 3-point-shooting 7-footer who handles the ball like a point guard — OK, let’s say a 2-guard — who could play on the wing on offense and lead the league in blocked shots for the foreseeable future.
Talent evaluators and suite-level decision-makers face the same issue as the USF Dons and many others before them; they’ll be forced to wrap their minds around what they’re seeing. In the parlance of the industry, Holmgren is the ultimate high-ceiling/low-floor player. If he plays to the talent, which he did in spurts at Gonzaga, where he followed his high school and AAU teammate Jalen Suggs, he’ll be generational. If his narrow frame gets tossed around the court by the types of large men who get paid fantastical sums to do such things, he could be relegated to roam the game’s exurbs, where his skills would be minimized.
You will no doubt hear the word unicorn a lot on draft night; it has become the easiest and laziest way to describe the uniqueness of Holmgren’s physique and skill set. Unicorn is meant as a compliment, but it is dismissive and unfair, a rhetorical surrender; unicorns — apologies to Kristaps Porzingis — don’t exist. Holmgren is here, flesh and blood and bone and very little fat, and the teams at the top of the draft must deal with the reality of his existence, and what it all might mean.
The story of Chet Holmgren’s evolution as a basketball player might as well begin at the beginning, when legendary Minneapolis-St. Paul AAU coach Larry Suggs — father of Magic guard and last year’s No. 5 pick and single-season Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs — got a call from a friend who said, “I’ve got just what you need: a 6-foot third-grader who can really play.”
“Tell me more,” the elder Suggs said.
“The kid’s fearless. He can climb trees. He’s always on top of the roof of his house. Linebacker on his football team. He has no fear.”
“Sounds like my type of kid,” Suggs said. “Six-foot, climbing trees, hanging out on the roof, not scared of anything? I’ve got to see him.”
Suggs is sitting in his backyard in a leafy St. Paul neighborhood. He laughs and rolls his eyes. “So then he shows up,” he says, clapping his hands and settling in for a good story. “First of all, this kid wasn’t 6 feet tall. Tall, yes, but not 6 feet tall. And second, think of your worst grammar-school buddy who couldn’t play basketball. Right away in two-line layups you know. Couldn’t make a layup. Couldn’t dribble. He was air-balling.”
Not only that, but Chet Holmgren may or may not have arrived at the gym for that first practice wearing cargo shorts — teammate and friend Cole Ewald says he did — but there’s no question he was gangly and awkward and 8 years old.
“I thought I was good because I played rec league before,” Holmgren says, “but then I walked in there, and everybody was actually good. I realized pretty quickly: I wasn’t good.”
Team Grassroots Sizzle — God love AAU team names — was full of 8-year-olds who played and won tournaments against 11- and 12-year-olds. (Remarkably, eight of them would go on to play Division I football or basketball, and next year two — both top-5 picks, almost assuredly — will be in the NBA.) Holmgren, to his credit, tried as hard as he could during this first practice. He didn’t appear to be discouraged, which was another plus, and Suggs says he detected a flicker of understanding in the way Chet watched the other players, like Jalen, and understood the talent differential.
At some point Suggs became aware of a presence in the doorway. David Holmgren, all 7 feet of him, stood there watching his son. Larry Suggs looked at David, and then back at Chet. Possibilities that didn’t exist seconds before suddenly became possible.
When practice was over, Suggs asked Chet, “So, do you think you can play at the level these guys play at?”
Chet looked him in the eye and said, simply, “No.”
Suggs was impressed by the kid’s self-awareness — “I wouldn’t say I was self-aware at that point in my life,” Holmgren counters, “but I was wired to understand what was happening.” Still cognizant of how the air in the room changed the moment the 7-foot dad entered the gym, Suggs asked the kid one more question:
“Do you want to be as good as these guys?”
“Then come every day and I’ll teach you the game of basketball,” Suggs said. “But you’ve got to listen.”
David Holmgren played two years at the University of Minnesota, his career cut short by chronic knee issues. He is as lean as his son, and just as tall, and looking at him it’s easy to imagine Chet in roughly 35 years, including the ponytail. David carries himself with a distinct countercultural vibe, and he remembers chafing every time he would get a rebound and a coach would instinctively tell him, “Get it to a guard.” If his son was going to become anything in basketball — and the jury was clearly out at this point — he at least wanted him to learn to do more than stand with his back to the hoop, his hand in the air and a defender behind him. In other words, David didn’t want Chet to become David.
Time and place aligned perfectly. Thanks mostly to the European way of coaching and playing, the basketball world was just beginning to welcome 7-footers who could handle the ball, shoot 3s and defend on the perimeter. Dirk Nowitzki was an MVP. Kevin Durant was the future, and Larry Suggs was a man who believed every player needed to be trained and coached like a point guard.
“He’s not going to be Shaq,” David Holmgren told Suggs. “Look at me. This is what he’s going to be.”
Chet Holmgren was in eighth grade, in the process of growing from 6-2 to 6-10 over the course of a single year — an inch every six weeks! — when Suggs began telling anyone who would listen that this kid would someday be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
Suggs didn’t dash off this prediction without thought. He says Chet was “terrible, just terrible,” for several years before the growth spurt met the drive and everything came together like a lucky laboratory accident. Suggs studied the list of players who would graduate in Chet’s year, and he couldn’t see anyone he would project to be better.
He had watched Chet play endless games of one-on-one with Jalen after practices, and he saw the talent gap close every season as the competitive fire — at times verging on vengeance — grew. He and Brian Sandifer coached Chet to play by their unique philosophy — “European basketball with the iso game of the ’80s,” Suggs says — which meant the tallest kid on the court was often the Sizzle’s point guard. Sandifer was the tough one, bringing a mentality typified by team T-shirts that read, “We Want All The Smoke.” Sandifer watched the crowds and opposing teams and coaches, who were nearly all Black, look at Holmgren skeptically before being won over by his game and toughness. “Chet worked his ass off,” Sandifer says. “If you can play, people respect you. And at the end of the day, if you’re white and you’re that good, you stick out like a sore thumb.”
Sarah Harris, Chet’s mom, says, “David’s been telling me for years that Chet was going to be very good and very special. I kept rolling my eyes. Of course you’re going to say that, you’re his father.”
“I saw it in fourth or fifth grade,” David Holmgren says. “He started doing things with the ball that guards do — fluidly. He was still raw, but at that moment I knew he was going to be pretty good.”
David Holmgren drove Team Sizzle to tournaments across the Midwest and beyond: Milwaukee, Memphis, Chicago. He took the smelly sneakers out of his van and placed them on the roof every time they stopped for food or a bathroom break. “We weren’t spoiled,” Chet Holmgren says. “We were nine-deep in seven-seat cars, five people packed into hotel rooms, air mattresses on the floor. That was the culture — it wasn’t going to be handed to us.”
Ewald recalls a player being offered a spot on the team and choosing to join a different AAU team because it offered better gear. “He went to a team that got shoes,” Ewald says. “We beat them by 20.”
Suggs enlisted a local trainer, Aaron Delaney, to work with Holmgren, and his first words to Delaney were, “I want you to work with an eighth-grader who’s going to be the first pick in the NBA draft.” Delaney, who has trained professional and college athletes in multiple sports, said, “Cool. If he quits on the workout, I won’t work with him again.”
He watched Holmgren walk into the gym for the first time — pale, thin, a little bit hunched — and had one thought:
This is one tall-ass dude.
But a future first overall pick? This kid? The only thing that kept Delaney from laughing was his respect for Suggs, whose basketball acumen was such that many believed he could see the future.
“I had it planned out: I was going to make him quit,” Delaney says. “I’m just going to break him today and not waste any more of my time. This could all be hype. I needed to see.”
The workout — stability and balance work, muscle-isolation work, Bosu ball work, ending with resistance training — was planned for an hour and 15 minutes. But Holmgren was still going strong, so Delaney added 15 minutes. He looked a little sluggish, like he might be on the verge of breaking, so Delaney added another 15 to push it to an hour and 45 minutes. Holmgren stayed with it, never complaining, and Delaney thought, I like this kid. I can work with him.
From that day forward, for 180 straight days, a streak broken only when Holmgren left to play in the Iverson Classic, he worked out with Delaney. They worked on functional strength and balance without obsessing over weight gain. “You can’t put on more than 10 to 15 pounds safely without losing a step or risking injury,” Delaney says. “And Chet is way stronger than he looks.” Delaney has a video clip on his phone of Holmgren doing a 61-inch box jump, and when he’s asked if Holmgren would be able to bench-press 185 — the amount Durant famously was unable to lift in pre-draft workouts — Delaney says, “Oh, yeah — comfortably.”
In a pre-draft interview with the NBA’s social media team, Holmgren was asked to identify the biggest misconceptions about him: “I actually do lift weights and I actually do eat food.” His parents laugh at the idea that he doesn’t eat. “He never stops eating,” David says. “It’s all metabolism.”
Told that Delaney was trying to make him quit that first day, Holmgren says, “He never told me that part of the plan, but if that’s what he was trying to do, it was never going to work.”
Around the same time Larry Suggs began predicting that Holmgren would one day be the No. 1 pick in the draft (ESPN currently has him in the top three), he began telling anyone who would listen — including Holmgren — that he was destined to be the best American-born white player since Larry Bird.
“He’s said that a bunch of times,” Holmgren says, “and the first time he brought it up to me, I was in middle school. I don’t have a reaction to it, and I wouldn’t say that’s a role that needs to be filled. Nationality and race don’t change the game. What changes the game is skill.”
David Holmgren is sitting in his living room, surrounded by dark wood walls and ceilings, a grand piano on one side and a bookshelf filled with hardcovers on the facing wall. There is a “Refugees Welcome Here” sticker on the sidelight of the front door of the six-bedroom, 6,600-square-foot, 107-year-old Georgian Colonial that seems to meet the layman’s definition of mansion. Sarah, who owns her own real-estate consulting firm and is an executive for a local nonprofit that works to provide affordable housing, is on the phone from Santa Barbara, visiting Chet with one of their two daughters — Chet is a middle child — and “trying to bring him some normalcy” while he works out in preparation for the draft.
The house is about four blocks from downtown Minneapolis, in a neighborhood interspersed with apartment complexes and business. A group of Somali women are walking their children to school as I walk up to the front door. David, a painting contractor, grew up near what is now George Floyd Square, a four-block area that radiates from the spot on the pavement near the corner of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street where Floyd was killed by police. One of David’s high school jobs was at a drugstore in the very same building, the one that eventually became Cup Foods.
In late May 2020, in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, protests and unrest rage a block away from the Holmgren house. They could smell tear gas from the backyard. Chet, who had just turned 18 and was a junior in high school, refused to stay home. Parents, coaches, friends — they told him not to go out. You’re 7 feet tall and known throughout the city, they told him. You’re going to be a target. But David says his son’s “frustration and anger” overrode the pleas.
“I hoop with everyone in the city,” Chet says. “All my friends and everybody I’ve played with — we’re all of different nationalities and races. Obviously, I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes in every circumstance, but I can sympathize with everybody. I definitely know how different people feel, and I know certain things are wrong and shouldn’t happen.”
Chet left the house alone, wearing all black, and eventually marched across the Interstate 35W Bridge with hundreds of others just minutes before a semi-truck barreled across the closed roadway and narrowly missed taking out a wall of protesters.
Sarah and David were home, watching it live on television. They knew Chet was with that group of protesters, and Sarah calls it “my most terrifying moment as a parent.” Seconds after the truck stopped, Chet called David to pick him up at a gas station. He had left the bridge minutes before.
“I just felt like I had to be out there,” Chet says. “This is part of my community, and it’s because I’m 7 feet and everybody knows me that I needed to associate myself with trying to help and to inspire others to jump in and help. Within my community, people obviously supported that I’m looking for change.”
Orlando, with the first pick, has the opportunity to reunite Holmgren and Jalen Suggs. (“All the way around it makes sense,” Sandifer says. “The basketball makes sense, the business makes sense. Biggest thing since Penny and Shaq.”) Holmgren and Suggs were teammates in AAU from third grade, and for four years and three high school state championships (the fourth was canceled because of COVID-19, but Holmgren won four because he played varsity as an eighth-grader) at Minnehaha Academy. They each played a year at Gonzaga before entering the NBA.
“Jalen’s had as much to do with Chet’s development as anybody,” David Holmgren says. “You know, kids are kids, and when Chet walked into the gym for the first time, it could have been, ‘What’s this geeky white kid doing in here?’ But from the beginning Chet would go straight to Jalen after practice and say, ‘Let’s play one-on-one.’ Jalen would always say, ‘Let’s go.'”
“Jalen is like a big brother to Chet,” Sarah says.
Talk to enough people who knew Chet Holmgren from the beginning, and they’ll each say the same thing: The college game restricted his movement and limited his repertoire, even at Gonzaga, which Holmgren chose in part to play in Mark Few’s high-octane offense. There’s allegedly a lethal George Gervin-style finger roll latent in the skill set, ready to awaken. There are more moves off the dribble, more face-up jumpers, more range that will benefit from the spacing of an NBA offense.
“Just wait,” David Holmgren says. “You’re going to see something a whole lot different than you saw in college. Trust me.”
Any discussion eventually devolves into an endless search for comparisons. Scouts and decision-makers, not to mention commentators, partake in it endlessly. Who does a player remind you of? Who could he possibly become? We have a compunction as a society to know What It All Means, the sooner, the better. Is Holmgren the latest iteration of Kevin Durant? If so, he’s KD with the shot-blocking ability to alter shots and change game plans. Is he Porzingis, tall and skinny and relegated by the game’s sheer mass to a life away from the basket?
So many questions. Has the game finally found, in Holmgren, its utopian ideal of positionless basketball? Or is this moment — the promise, the hope, the horizon-length vision of what Chet Holmgren could be — destined to be the main event?
“He’s always succeeded at every level,” David Holmgren says. “I’ve watched him dominate kids who are 2 years older and 50 pounds heavier. It’s never made a difference, ever. I’m not saying he might not struggle at the beginning, but there’s no way he’s not going to succeed.”
Each of the questions can be distilled down to one: What are we looking at? At this point, Chet Holmgren is an experiment without a working hypothesis, a subject without a valid comparison, a true party of one. And that, no matter how it turns out, is already something entirely different.
Holmgren was photographed at The Maybourne Beverly Hills in California.