Chet Holmgren plays too big in 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, it does not even belong to the top three of the consensus.

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

While the NBA’s 2010s were dominated by the big wing, a new breed of big men are currently ruling the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have combined to win the last four MVP awards, and that pair and Joel Embiid went 1-2-3 in this year’s voting. But none of them made it to the conference finals, raising questions, again, about the big men’s role on the contenders. (Of course, all three also suffered from roster weirdness 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 playoffs also reinforced an element of the need for a big man: The conference’s four finalists ranked higher on defense than on offense in the regular season, and the two teams that reached the final also boasted the two best defenses in the league. And what is the most important principle of NBA defense? Protect the rim. Enter Holmgren, the league’s next stop defenseman.

At Gonzaga last season, Holmgren blocked 12.6 percent of opposing 2-point attempts, according to KenPom, who ranked 10th in the nation and first among Kevin O’Connor’s top 30 draft prospects. And Holmgren wasn’t just bullying weak overmatches in the West Coast Conference. His block rate against teams ranked in KenPom’s national top 100 was 12.4%, essentially the same as his overall rate. On a per game basis, Holmgren averaged 3.7 blocks in 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, perhaps allowing them to function as NBA greats, their college block rates were just 3, 8% and 2.7%, 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. (This is the first year with detailed KenPom player data; this tally doesn’t include not players without any NCAA stats or James Wiseman, who only played three games for Memphis. Here we define “big men” as players who spent at least 25% of their NBA minutes at center, according to designations of Basketball-Reference position.)

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

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

Player Year BLK %
Player Year BLK %
Jaren Jackson Jr. 2018 14.3%
Anthony Davis 2012 13.8%
Greg Oden 2007 12.7%
Chet Holmgren 2022 12.6%
Hashem Thabet 2009 11.9%
Joel Embid 2014 11.7%
Karl Anthony Towns 2015 11.5%

It’s a meaningful indicator for Holmgren’s future in the NBA: As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote, the block rate translates better from college to pro than any other stat. And in this sample, this relationship also holds most of the time. For example, at the other end of the list, only five greats in this sample had a college blocking rate below 5%: Marvin Bagley III, Thomas Robinson, Drew Gooden, Cody Zeller and Jahlil Okafor. Greats who can’t protect the rim in college don’t make it in the NBA.

Each dot represents a big man chosen in the top 5 of the draft since 2002

To be fair, the list of college big names doesn’t provide a perfect NBA success rate: Persistent injuries derailed Oden’s career, and Thabeet is one of this century’s great draft puffs. But there’s also a massive chasm between the rest of Holmgren’s game beyond his shot blocking and the rest of Thabeet’s. Holmgren possesses mobility that heavy-footed Thabeet never had, and his attacking potential is immensely higher.

Chet Holmgren vs. Hasheem Thabeet in final college season

Statistical Chet Holmgren Hashem Thabet
Statistical Chet Holmgren Hashem Thabet
US% 22% 19%
Attendance rate 12% 3%
FT % 72% 63%
3P 41 0
3PA 105 0
3P% 39% n / A

Expand the comp pool to all the lottery greats since 2002, and there are more duds among the rookies at the top of the college block leaderboards. Mo Bamba is a recent example of a great who did not succeed as hoped when he went no. 6 in the 2018 draft, and others like Cole Aldrich, Ekpe Udoh and Hilton Armstrong failed to convert college production into NBA success.

But that’s where Holmgren’s offensive abilities come into play, as with the Thabeet comparison: Unlike those failed lottery picks, Holmgren turns his stupendous shots to the edge into a two-way production. There’s a reason Aldrich, with a dominant 13.0 percent block rate in his final college season but little offensive play, fell to no. 11 picks instead of going to the top three, as Holmgren will surely do this week.

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

Very few big men over the past two decades have offered anything close to Holmgren’s peculiar combination of rim protection and shooting skills. This chart includes every great lottery player of the past 20 years with at least an 11% block percentage and 70% free throw accuracy in his last college season. It’s not a long list. (It also demonstrates the appeal of Duke’s Mark Williams, who could be picked in the lottery with Holmgren on Thursday.)

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

Player Choose, Year BLK % FT %
Player Choose, Year BLK % FT %
Jaren Jackson Jr. 4, 2018 14.3% 80%
Anthony Davis 1, 2012 13.8% 71%
Chet Holmgren ???, 2022 12.6% 72%
Myles 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-time All-NBA winners who have signed max contracts. Jackson is still in development, but was worth a nine-figure extension before he even finished 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 inside force, as a two-time blocking champion, who can be played on the floor in some matchups. On offense, he provides spacing as a capable 3-point shooter, but only averages 10-15 points per game each season of his career because he never commanded the ball as a high-powered creator. use.

It’s a conceivable result for Holmgren, but barring Odenesque’s injuries, it seems to be the worst case result, as he foresees that Holmgren will not grow beyond his current skills at all. Due to his unique physique, Holmgren is considered more of a “high cap/low floor player” than his peers at the top of the draft boards, but his floor resembles Turner, who is still one of the best players in the class. draft 2015 by any measure. (I admit I might be biased here, as a longtime Turner supporter.)

Concerns about Holmgren’s stature and frame still abound, but his height hasn’t slowed him down during his incredibly successful stints in high school or college, and he’ll have plenty of time to put on weight past 200 pounds. . It might never match pound for pound with Embiid, but as J. Kyle Mann wrote for The ring in a detailed scouting report from Holmgren, other high picks, from Davis to Kevin Durant, added significant muscle once they hit the NBA.

Ultimately, Holmgren encapsulates all of the most important skills for a modern great: rim protection, mobility to contain the guards, rim-level finish and floor spacing. Combine all of these disparate parts into one lanky 7-foot body, and the results are statistically spectacular.

Holmgren’s plus-minus box – an all-in-one statistic that estimates a player’s total value – is third best for a freshman in the Sports-Reference database (which extends to in 2011-12). Everyone else in the top five is a big man who’s already an NBA star or, in Evan Mobley’s case, well on his way. And Davis, Towns and Jackson are all high on that list as well.

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

Player BPM
Player BPM
Sion Williamson 20.1
Anthony Davis 17.2
Chet Holmgren 15.0
Karl Anthony Towns 14.3
Evan Mobley 13.7
Lonzo Ball 12.0
Joel Embid 11.9
D’Angelo Russel 11.9
Jaren Jackson Jr. 11.7
Cody Zeller 11.7

Holmgren isn’t much of a high cap/low floor player. He has the highest cap in the 2022 draft and an extremely high floor. Come Thursday night, a lucky fanbase can start cheering on his immense potential.

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