OKC’s Chet Holmgren shows his growth against smaller defenders

OKC’s Chet Holmgren shows his growth against smaller defenders

Chet Holmgren is hard for anyone to guard, but the Wizards in particular struggled Friday night.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 24, 2024, 6:05am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 24, 2024, 6:05am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The ball found Chet Holmgren in the post, and the guy guarding the Thunder center was surrendering a literal foot. 

At 6-foot-1, Wizards guard Tyus Jones had precious little prayer to slow the 7-1 Holmgren. And so the OKC rookie caught the ball deep in the paint and did what he was supposed to do. 

He turned and scored. Easily. 

It hardly was the most punishing play in the Thunder’s 147-106 blowout of the Wizards on Friday at Paycom Center. On a night when Washington struggled to make anything difficult, Holmgren’s basket was met with even less resistance than most. 

But easy is important in the NBA. 

And Holmgren’s 25-point game against the Wizards showed a glimpse of the kind of simple scores he could help the Thunder (39-17) find down the stretch and into the postseason. 

“He’s just refining on the offensive end of the floor,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “He’s shooting his catch-and-shoots with a lot of confidence right now, regardless of make or miss. He’s also getting his size into the game around the basket, especially against switches.”

And though offense against an undersized player might seem easy, Daigneault said it’s been an adjustment for Holmgren, who “hit the ground running” against regular coverage but — typically, for a rookie — still is learning to recognize and attack switches. 

Sometimes, those switches give him chances like the one he got against Jones in the post. 

Other times, Holmgren can set a screen and roll to the rim; or fake a screen and slip to the basket instead. 

And defenses will give him chances to attack smaller defenders because he’s so difficult for bigger ones to guard. 

“I think for Chet, it’s he gets that (switching) look a lot just because he’s so good on the perimeter they have to switch on him,” teammate Jaylin Williams said. “And when we throw it to him in the post and he has a mismatch on him, it makes it harder for the defense… . They don’t know what to do. “

The Wizards hadn’t a clue. 

Washington’s defense had struggles all over the floor. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 30 points. The Thunder’s 147 points were a season high, and OKC shot 72.7% in the first half, including 80% in the first quarter. 

But even on a night when Gilgeous-Alexander scored 30 or more for the 41st time this season and five Thunder players scored between 11 and 13 points, Holmgren’s offensive game was a standout. 

In addition to the post-up, he caught two lobs for dunks and had another on a putback. He made two 3-pointers. Three times, Holmgren got the ball on the defensive end via rebound or blocked shot and took it coast to coast for a score. 

On the last of those, he discarded Wizards defender Kyle Kuzma with a lowered shoulder, flashing physicality that belies his slender build. 

That part is nothing new. 

“One of the things that was always impressive to me, even early on, was how physical (Holmgren) is on offense,” Daigneault said. “He delivers hits. He’s very rarely getting knocked around on that end of the floor. And so he’s kind of done that from day one.”

Now, Holmgren is learning how better to “apply” that physicality, Daigneault said, and that’s producing results. 

And though Daigneault said those lob dunks — a Thunder weak spot in recent years — are now “an emphasis,” looking for Holmgren in the paint doesn’t mean OKC is about to enter an identity crisis. 

The Thunder posts up 1.7 times per game, the third-fewest in the NBA, and Holmgren accounts for 0.3 of those. Gilgeous-Alexander averages one post-up per game. 

To punish small defenders the way he did Jones, Holmgren would need more post touches. 

But not too many more.

“I feel like a lot of it is just getting to the post-ups more, but also understanding that we’re a drive-and-kick offense, so not plugging up the whole offense and slowing everything down, especially with guys who can really play off the dribble,” Holmgren said. “I don’t want to get in their way, but I also understand that I can take advantage of my size.”

In two games since the All-Star break ended, Holmgren has taken advantage of defenses as effectively as he has all season. 

In wins Thursday against the Clippers and Friday over the Wizards, he combined for 42 points on 17-for-26 shooting, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range. 

For good measure, he pitched in 10 rebounds in each game. 

It’s a reminder that the rookie needed a rest, and he’s looked refreshed. 

But Holmgren also is showing growth, and doing it within the Thunder’s system. 

He conceded that’s a balancing act, figuring out when to attack a smaller defender in the post vs. keeping the paint clean for his slashing guards. 

Like most of Holmgren’s game, that tightrope walk seems to be improving. 

“It’s gonna tilt more one way or the other based on the night, the matchup, the trust that I’ve built in that with the team as well,” Holmgren said. “So it’s gonna consistently change. Whatever I end up doing I just have to make sure it’s kind of in the pursuit of winning, obviously.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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