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Chet Holmgren Plays Too Big on Defense to Fail

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Chet Holmgren is the most controversial player in the 2022 NBA draft. To some talent evaluators, he appears to be the best player available; othersit is not even in the top three consensus leaders.

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

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While the NBA was dominated by big players in the 2010s, a new breed of big players now rules the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have won the last four MVP awards together, and the pair and Joel Embiid finished 1-2-3 in this year’s voting. But none of them reached the conference finals, which again raised questions about the role of big men in rivals. (Of course, all three also suffered lineup oddities beyond their control, from costly injuries to Chris Middleton, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to the Ben Simmons and James Harden debacle in Philadelphia.)

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But even with that playoff setback, the 2022 postseason also reinforced one element of the big man’s need: All four conference finalists outperformed on offense in the regular season, and the two teams that made it to the Finals also boasted the top two. defensive indicators in the standings. league. And what is the most important defensive principle in the NBA? Rim protection. Enter Holmgren, the league’s next closing quarterback.

Holmgren blocked 12.6% of his opponent’s two-point shots last season at Gonzaga. by Kenpomwhich ranked 10th in the country and first among Kevin O’Connor: Top 30 draft picks. And Holmgren didn’t just intimidate weaklings at the West Coast conference. His ban rate against teams ranked in the top 100 by KenPom was 12.4 percent, nearly matching his overall. Holmgren averaged 3.7 blocks per game in all his games and 3.7 blocks per game when he faced top 100 opponents.

Other players at the top of this draft are no match. While Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Bankero both register at 6ft 10in, which seemingly allows them to work as big players in the NBA, their college block rates were only 3.8 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. Holmgren is the only member of the trio who can secure the defense.

Holmgren’s college performance also compares favorably with the 24 big men with college stats who have been selected in the top five since 2002. Wiseman, who played only three games for Memphis. We define “big men” here as players who, according to the Basketball-Reference positional notation, spent at least 25 percent of their NBA minutes in the center.)

Of this group of 24 players, the only players with better ban percentages in recent college seasons than Holmgren are Jaren Jackson Jr., Anthony Davis and Greg Oden; next to Holmgren are Hashim Thabit, Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns.

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

Player Year BLACK%
Player Year BLACK%
The Jackson Jr. 2018 14.3%
Anthony Davis 2012 13.8%
Greg Oden 2007 12.7%
Chet Holmgren 2022 12.6%
Hashim Tabit 2009 11.9%
Joel Embiid 2014 11.7%
Karl-Anthony Towns 2015 11.5%

This is a significant indicator for Holmgren’s future in the NBA: ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote, block percentage translates from college to pro better than any other statistic. And in this sample, this connection is mostly preserved. For example, at the other end of the list, only five large companies in this sample had college block rates below 5 percent: Marvin Bagley III, Thomas Robinson, Drew Gooden, Cody Zeller, and Jahlil Okafor. Big players who can’t defend the rim in college don’t make it in the NBA.

Each dot represents a major person who has been selected in the top five in the draft since 2002.

To be fair, the college honors list doesn’t make for a perfect NBA hit: persistent injuries have crippled Oden’s career, and Tabitha is one of the best draft picks of this century. But there’s also a huge gap between the rest of Holmgren’s game, aside from his blocking, and the rest of Tabitha’s game. Holmgren has a mobility that the heavy-legged Tabitha has never had, and his offensive potential is far greater.

Chet Holmgren vs. Hashim Tabitha in his final college season

Statistics Chet Holmgren Hashim Tabit
Statistics Chet Holmgren Hashim Tabit
USG% 22% 19%
Help 12% 3%
foot% 72% 63%
3P 41 0
3PA 105 0
3P% 39% n/a

Expand the pool of awards to all major lotteries since 2002, and there will be more misses among inductees at the top of the college block rankings. Mo Bamba is a recent example of a big player who didn’t live up to expectations when he pulled out. 6 in the 2018 draft, while others like Cole Aldrich, Ekpe Udoh and Hilton Armstrong failed to turn college jobs into success in the NBA.

But that’s where Holmgren’s offensive ability comes into play, as it does in comparison to Tabit: Unlike those bad lottery picks, Holmgren turns his stunning rim shots into a two-way production. There’s a reason Aldrich, with a dominant 13.0% block rate in his final season in college but little offensive play, lost. 11 instead of making it into the top three, as Holmgren is sure to do this week.

For a modern big man, Holmgren boasts an almost perfect set of offensive skills. He hits nimbly under the basket – his 73.7 percent 2-point accuracy leads Division I players with at least 100 attempts – and is already a capable and ready shooter, with a 39 percent 3-point mark in college at three attempts per game. . His 72 percent free throw accuracy also bodes well for long range, as free throw percentage is an even better indicator of NBA shooting potential.

Very few big men in the past two decades have offered anything like the special combination of under-the-rim defense and Holmgren’s shooting prowess. This chart includes every lottery big man over the past 20 years with at least 11 percent block percentage and 70 percent free throw accuracy in his final college season. This is not a long list. (It also shows the appeal of Duke’s Mark Williams, who could be drawn in the lottery along with Holmgren on Thursday.)

High block and free throw lottery (since 2002)

Player Choice, year BLACK% foot%
Player Choice, year BLACK% foot%
The Jackson Jr. 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 Towns 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 medalists who have signed the maximum number of contracts. Jackson is still developing, but he was worth a nine-figure renewal even before finishing fifth in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Turner deserves close attention given the few warning signs on Holmgren’s profile. On defense, Turner is an inside force as he is a two-time block champion who can be played off the court in certain matches. On offense, he provides spacing as a capable three-point shooter, but averages 10 to 15 points per game in every season of his career because he never handled the ball as a high-load creator.

This is a possible outcome for Holmgren, but aside from Auden’s injuries, it seems worst case result because he predicts that Holmgren will not develop beyond his current skill set at all. Because of his unique physique, Holmgren is considered more “high ceiling/low floor player” than his peers at the top of the draft boards, but his gender is similar to Turner, who is still one of the best players in the 2015 draft class by any measure. (I admit that I may be biased here, as a longtime Turner supporter.)

Concerns about Holmgren’s height and physique still abound, but his growth hasn’t slowed him down during his incredibly successful high school or college years, and he will…


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