Chet Holmgren Plays Too Big on Defense to Fail

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 seems like the best player available; for others, he doesn’t even belong to the consensus of the top three.

As the center position continues to evolve and adapt to the modern NBA, Holmgren, a 7-footer with guard skills, could be just the big man teams are looking for. And while he still has his doubts about him, and will until he proves himself in the NBA, all the numbers and highlights point to a certain strength: Holmgren’s defense is so impressive he can’t fail.

While the 2010s in the NBA were dominated by the big wing, a new generation of big men currently rules the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have combined to win the last four MVP awards, with that pair and Joel Embiid going 1-2-3 in this year’s voting. But none of them made it to the conference finals, raising questions, once again, about the role of the big men in the contenders. (Of course, all three also suffered from roster oddities 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 setback in the playoffs, the 2022 postseason also reinforced an element of the need for greats: The conference’s final four all rated better on defense than offense in the regular season, and the two teams that made it to the Finals also featured the two best defenses in the regular season. league. And what is the most important principle of NBA defense? Protecting the edge. Enter Holmgren, the next tight defender in the league.

At Gonzaga last season, Holmgren blocked 12.6 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts, according to KenPom, who ranked 10th in the country and first among Kevin O’Connor’s top 30 draft prospects. And Holmgren wasn’t just intimidating the overmatched weaklings in the West Coast Conference. His block rate against teams ranked in KenPom’s national top 100 was 12.4 percent, essentially the same as his overall rate. Per game, Holmgren posted an average of 3.7 blocks in all of his games and 3.7 blocks when he faced 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 are both 6-foot-10, possibly allowing them to operate as NBA bigs, 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 college performance also compares favorably to the 24 big men with college stats who have been drafted in the top five since 2002. (That’s the first year with detailed player data from KenPom; this count doesn’t include players without stats.) the NCAA or James Wiseman, who played just three games for Memphis. We’re defining “big men” here as players who have spent at least 25 percent of their NBA minutes at center, based on positional designations from Basketball-Reference ).

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

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

Player Year % BLACK
Player Year % BLACK
Jackson Jr years 2018 14.3%
anthony davis 2012 13.8%
greg oden 2007 12.7%
Chet Holmgren 2022 12.6%
hasheem thabeet 2009 11.9%
Joel Embid 2014 11.7%
Karl-Anthony villages 2015 11.5%

That’s a significant indicator for Holmgren’s NBA future: As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has written, block rate translates from college to the pros better than any other stat. And in this sample, that relationship also mostly holds. For example, at the other end of the list, only five greats in this sample had a college block rate below 5 percent: Marvin Bagley III, Thomas Robinson, Drew Gooden, Cody Zeller and Jahlil Okafor. Giants who can’t protect the rim in college don’t succeed in the NBA.

Each point represents a big man selected in the top 5 of the draft since 2002

To be fair, the roster of high-blocking college greats doesn’t provide a perfect NBA shooting rate: Persistent injuries derailed Oden’s career, and Thabeet is one of the biggest draft contenders of this century. But there’s also a huge gulf between the rest of Holmgren’s game beyond his shot-blocking and the rest of Thabeet. Holmgren has a mobility that Thabeet never had, and his offensive potential is vastly greater.

Chet Holmgren vs. Hasheem Thabeet in college senior season

Statistics Chet Holmgren hasheem thabeet
Statistics Chet Holmgren hasheem thabeet
USG% 22% 19%
attendance rate 12% 3%
FOOT% 72% 63%
3P 41 0
3PA 105 0
3P% 39% n/a

Expand the comp pool to every lottery great since 2002, and there will be more mistakes among the recruits at the top of the college block rankings. Mo Bamba is a recent example of a great who has not given the expected results when he left no. 6 pick in the 2018 draft, and others like Cole Aldrich, Ekpe Udoh and Hilton Armstrong failed to turn college production into an NBA success.

But this is where Holmgren’s offensive skills come in, as with the Thabeet comparison: Unlike those failed lottery draws, Holmgren turns his prodigious shots at the rim into two-way production. There’s a reason Aldrich, with a commanding 13.0 percent blocking rate in his final college season but little offensive play, dropped to no. 11 instead of cracking the top three, as Holmgren is sure to do this week.

For a modern great, Holmgren has an ideal offensive skill set. He’s a skilled finisher at the rim — his 73.7 percent 2-point accuracy led Division I players with at least 100 attempts — and he’s already a capable and willing shooter, too, with a college 3-point mark from the 39 percent on three attempts per game. . His 72 percent free throw accuracy also bodes well for greater range, as free throw percentage is an even better predictor of NBA shooting potential.

Very few bigs in the past two decades offered anything approaching Holmgren’s particular combination of rim protection and shooting skills. This table includes all lottery greats over the past 20 years with at least an 11 percent blocking percentage and 70 percent free throw accuracy in their final college season. It is not a long list. (It also demonstrates the appeal of Duke’s Mark Williams, who could be a lottery pick along with Holmgren on Thursday.)

Lottery picks with high block and free throw percentages (since 2002)

Player Selection, Year % BLACK FOOT%
Player Selection, Year % BLACK FOOT%
Jackson Jr years 4, 2018 14.3% 80%
anthony davis 1, 2012 13.8% 71%
Chet Holmgren ???, 2022 12.6% 72%
miles turner 11, 2015 12.3% 84%
Karl-Anthony villages 1, 2015 11.5% 81%
brand williams ???, 2022 11.5% 73%

It’s also an incredibly encouraging set of comparisons. Davis and Towns are multiple-time All-NBA honorees who signed max contracts. Jackson is still developing, but he was worth a nine-figure contract extension even before finishing fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season.

Turner deserves a closer look given the few warning signs in Holmgren’s profile. On defense, Turner is an interior force, as a two-time blocking champion who can play off the floor in certain matchups. On offense, he provides space as a capable 3-point shooter, but has averaged only 10 to 15 points per game in each season of his career because he has never dominated the ball as a high-use creator.

That’s a conceivable result for Holmgren, but barring Odenesque’s injuries, that appears to be the worst of cases result, because it projects that Holmgren will not develop beyond his current skill set. Due to his unique physique, Holmgren is seen as more of a “high ceiling/low floor player” than his peers at the top of the draft boards, but his floor resembles Turner, who remains one of the best players of the world. Class of 2015 project by any measure. (I admit I might be biased here, as a long-time Turner believer.)

Concerns about Holmgren’s height and body still abound, but his size hasn’t slowed him down during incredibly successful stints 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 the ringer in an extensive scouting report from Holmgren, other top picks, from Davis to Kevin Durant, added significant muscle once they reached the NBA.

Ultimately, Holmgren encapsulates all of the most important skills for a modern giant: rim protection, mobility to contain guards, finishing at the rim and floor space. He combines all those disparate pieces into a lanky 7-foot body, and the results are statistically spectacular.

Holmgren’s plus-minus chart, an all-in-one stat that estimates a player’s total value, is third-best for a freshman in the Sports-Reference database (which runs through 2011-12). All the other players in the top five are either big men who are already NBA stars or, in Evan Mobley’s case, on the right track. And Davis, Towns and Jackson also appear at the top of this list.

Best plus-minus cash among freshmen (since 2011-12)

Player BPM
Player BPM
zion williamson 20.1
anthony davis 17.2
Chet Holmgren 15.0
Karl-Anthony villages 14.3
Evan Mobley 13.7
lonzo ball 12.0
Joel Embid 11.9
D’Angelo Russell 11.9
Jackson Jr years 11.7
cody zeller 11.7

Holmgren isn’t really a high ceiling/low floor player. He has the highest ceiling in the 2022 draft Y a tremendously high floor. On Thursday night, a lucky fan base will be able to start cheering on its immense potential.

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