The Thunder’s Chet Holmgren is an NBA force and has the scars to prove it

The Thunder’s Chet Holmgren is an NBA force and has the scars to prove it

Why is Holmgren’s face such a magnet for NBA defenders? Most of it has to do with how skilled and forceful the Thunder big man has become in his rookie season.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 21, 2024, 2:30pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 21, 2024, 2:30pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — A long, old cut slid down Chet Holmgren’s nose. His face remained scratched from previous skirmishes. The residue of a two-week-old black eye, which originally made Holmgren look like a cyborg, was not gone.

A fortunate night for Holmgren these days is when he gets hit in a place that doesn’t leave a mark. Like the forehead. 

Wednesday night, Utah’s Talen Horton-Tucker chopped Holmgren upside the head during one of Holmgren’s five dunks, knocking Holmgren to the ground and sending Thunder trainer Vanessa Brooks on one of her frequent house calls onto the court. But an hour or so later, Holmgren’s forehead sported scant evidence of the assault. Maybe because the rest of his face remains so battered.

Holmgren’s face was scarred. His game was not. Holmgren had 35 points, one shy of his rookie-season high, and 14 rebounds, matching his rookie-season high, as the Thunder routed the Jazz 119-107 in Paycom Center. Holmgren didn’t get that bundle of points with a 3-point barrage. He made just one long ball. Holmgren scored on five forceful dunks and nifty lay-ins off bounce passes as he rolled to the bucket.

“Systemically, that’s about how you draw it up, right there,” Mark Daigneault said. “He played totally within himself tonight, the system yielded 30-something points on a night when he didn’t even shoot the 3 well. He just had a really really solid diet.”

But Holmgren also took another shot to the face, and down he went, and while Holmgren has recovered somewhat more quickly than his face would suggest, you wonder how many more times he’ll bounce up so easily.

Holmgren, the Thunder’s 7-foot-1 rookie phenom, has become a punching bag. Not a Kendrick Perkins/Andre Roberson/Josh Giddey punching bag. A literal punching bag. Think Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull.”

Except Holmgren’s face is not a box. Not a square. It’s a rectangle, like the rest of his body. Long and thin. You wouldn’t think it would be an easy target to hit. But Holmgren all season has been catching strays, be they elbows or hands or whatever NBA opponents can find to stop this science-fiction rookie.

And if you’ve wondered why Holmgren looks like a beat-up boxer after most Thunder games, know this. He has only himself to blame.

Holmgren refuses to go gentle into that good game. He’s 7-foot-1 and hardly ever plays with his back to the basket. Holmgren is facing the game. Facing the basket, facing opponents, facing the danger that comes from trying to score against big, bad men who don’t like to be scored on.

Holmgren also runs toward the fire on defense. He crawls out of bed trying to block shots. Any shot. Every shot. All while staying in relatively solid defensive position.

“His nose is in every play, literally,” said Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who describes Holmgren’s style of play as sacrificing. “He tries to block every shot. He blocks most of ‘em, affects most of them. He just literally puts his face on the line, 90 percent of the game.”

Daigneault is a pragmatist. He’s not an emotional coach. He doesn’t answer all our questions with a simple, “that’s life in the NBA,” but that’s really what he means.

Except on Holmgren’s health. Daigneault admits to a little worry when it comes to the hits Holmgren is taking.

“Yeah, when it’s in the head,” Daigneault said. “That’s concerning. But other than that, he’s a pretty tough guy. He kind of eats the punches.”

Like Jake LaMotta? Funny comparison. Remember when the scouting book on Holmgren was wonderfully skilled for such a tall young lad, with shot-blocking instincts that can change the world? Such a unique combination figured to overcome Holmgren’s spindly frame. At 7-1, 195 pounds, Holmgren came into the NBA thinner than spaghetti noodles. Skinnier than a No. 2 pencil. Then he suffered that Lisfranc injury in the goofy summer exhibition game, costing Holmgren the entire 2022-23 season, and we thought, oh brother, this guy can’t hold up.

Boy were we wrong. There is nothing fragile about Chet Thomas Holmgren.

The Thunder has played 68 games this season. Holmgren has answered the bell 68 times. He’s going 15 rounds every game night.

“I’d say I just never wanted to let somebody say they got one over on me,” Holmgren said. “Just try to live life that way.”

Holmgren’s numbers are wondrous for a rookie: 17.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 21.5 blocked shots per game; 54% shooting; 38.9% 3-point shooting. Holmgren is a generational player; if not for Victor Wembanyama, who is whatever lies north of generational, Holmgren would be the runaway Rookie of the Year.

Holmgren is feisty. Aggressive and feisty and competitive. Basketball likes its 7-footers to be docile, like Nikola Jokic, or stoic, like Tim Duncan, or quirky, like Shaquille O’Neal, or introspective, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But alley fighters? We don’t know how to deal with that. We want our mean 7-footers in a Spiderman movie, not on an NBA court.

And when 7-footers are aggressive, NBA players are aggressive back. Next you thing you know, you’ve got a Raging Bull poster.

“I don’t know why it happens,” Holmgren said Wednesday night in his low-volume tone. “Yeah, it happens. It’s not so bad anymore. I had braces growing up. That was the only time it was really annoying. Now it’s kind of just part of it.

“You always want to try and play with force. But not necessarily let it get into a wrestling match, where I’m not usually the bigger, heavier guy. So just try to play to my strengths. So be forceful, but also use my skill as well.”

And maybe that’s the reason Holmgren is on the wrong end of frustrating, physical play, whether it’s a Jusuf Nurkic elbow to the eye or a Talor Horton-Tucker slap on the forehead. Big men tend to draw more physical play, sometimes out of perceived necessity, and big men often are officiated differently, as if they can sustain physical play better than closer-to-normal-sized people.

Holmgren doesn’t totally fit that narrative, because of his thin frame. Massive players like Shaq are more natural villains. And Holmgren plays outside so much, because of his skill, that you’d think it would lessen the opportunity for the rugged interior play.

But that skill might be the root of some frustration. Holmgren is 7-foot-1 but shoots a lot of 3-pointers, and his ballhandling is uncanny for someone that tall, be it drives to the hoop or even leading the fast break, and his coordination around the basket is more aligned with a slick wing than a shot-blocking skyscraper.

We saw that against Utah on Wednesday night. Long before the five second-half dunks, Holmgren gave the Jazz fits.

In the first quarter alone, as Utah’s defense played aggressively high on Gilgeous-Alexander pick-and-rolls,  Holmgren scored on a left-handed layup off a Josh Giddey bounce pass, a 4-footer in traffic after cutting for a bounce pass from SGA, and a left-handed cutting layup off another SGA bounce pass.

A guy with Holmgren’s length shouldn’t have that kind of dexterity.

“We’ve worked hard as a team, and the players have worked hard to make sure we’re finding him on rolls,” Daigneault said. “He’s such a vertical threat. Not only because you can throw it up to him, but you can throw it on the ground to him and he’s skilled enough to catch it and not travel, and use a dribble or a move to get into the basket.”

So Holmgren is skilled and oppressively tall. A menace on both ends of the court, doubling the chances of foes resorting to physicality to counter the sci-fi sorcerer. And Holmgren doesn’t back down.

“I think he’s played with pretty good force this year,” Daigneault said. “He’s probably gotten more confident and stronger as time’s gone on.”

All it’s cost Holmgren is a cut nose, a cyborg eye, a face that makes most us squeamish and the elimination of anyone ever again thinking that he is some kind of gentle giant.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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