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HomeSports'He wasn't scared': How Chet Holmgren became a perfect fit for SGA...

‘He wasn’t scared’: How Chet Holmgren became a perfect fit for SGA and an OKC team built for a dynasty

THE DRIVEWAY INTO the small private high school on Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles is purposely nondescript. A security guard is stationed out front. A name must be on a list to get beyond the retractable metal gate.

The luxury cars in the parking lot are the only tip-off to the caliber of basketball players who come to train at the gym here.

Two summers ago, on a blisteringly hot day in August, it was Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan and Victor Oladipo — all regulars at the runs organized by longtime NBA trainer Drew Hanlen.

They also were joined by a tantalizing but mysterious talent who’d just been drafted second overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

At 7-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Chet Holmgren stands out in every gym. To see him standing next to the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid was almost worrisome, like one powerful post-up by Embiid — or a strong gust of wind — would level him.

Inside the gym, the run began — All-Stars competing against All-Stars, the familiar squeaks of basketball shoes echoing off the walls. Then there was the slim rookie in a blue Thunder T-shirt and white shorts, undaunted by anyone.

As play began, Holmgren didn’t act or play like a rookie going up against All-Stars.

“No,” Holmgren, 22, told ESPN before a recent playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks. “I was just like, ‘I’m going to play basketball, work on my stuff.’ That’s what the summer is for. That’s what I always try to do when I step on the court.”

He ran into the post to defend Embiid and blocked his shot. Then Holmgren got DeRozan and Tatum too. He blocked shots from behind, from the side. He closed out hard on the perimeter, tipping 3-pointers that were hoisted without enough respect for his long arms.

It was unlike anything the longtime NBA vets had ever seen. Whatever questions the pros in attendance might’ve had about the rookie’s ability to compete in the NBA had been answered — and fast.

“I remember telling Drew I liked him because he wasn’t scared,” Tatum told ESPN. “Yeah, he was skinny. But he was going right back at dudes. I respected that.”

Holmgren remembers that summer and those runs fondly too. But not for the same reasons.

“I was healthy,” he said. “That was my last basketball before I had to take a pretty long hiatus.”

Less than two weeks later, Holmgren suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot while playing in a pro-am in Seattle. There is perhaps no scarier foot injury for a young big man. The Thunder weren’t about to mess around with their prized young center. They’d been patient in their rebuild after losing Kevin Durant in free agency in 2015 and trading Russell Westbrook in 2019. They could be patient again as Holmgren sat out his entire rookie season.

The question was whether their budding young superstar, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, would remain patient, as well. The Thunder had gone 90-246 in his three seasons with the team, and they had netted a collection of talented young players through the draft and literally dozens of additional picks. But with Holmgren delayed by a full year and Gilgeous-Alexander starting to flash All-Star and All-NBA potential, external pressure to win was growing.

Internally though, Gilgeous-Alexander had seen enough to be patient.

“I’d played with [Holmgren] a little before he got hurt,” Gilgeous-Alexander told ESPN. “I knew how good he was. When you have that many gifts and intangibles, it’s going to click for you.”

The modern NBA has been shaped by superstars who’ve grown tired of waiting for a co-star to materialize. Be it LeBron James in Cleveland (both times), Paul George in Indiana then Oklahoma City, Carmelo Anthony in Denver or Anthony Davis in New Orleans.

But this year’s playoffs, and the teams that remain, feature a different kind of a superstar duo, ones in which a foundational star stayed, ignored outside noise and pressure, allowed his team to find the right superstar partner and gave the partnership time to bake: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in Denver, Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards in Minnesota and Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving in Dallas.

And the youngest and perhaps most tantalizing of all: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren in Oklahoma City, set to face off against those Mavs in a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). It is a unique pairing — the stoic, steely point guard who built himself into an MVP candidate and a fashion icon alongside the bouncy, sharp-shooting big man who prefers Nike sweatsuits or oversize denim. And it has clicked better — and faster — than anyone could have dreamed this season as the Thunder finished with the conference’s best record for the first time in 12 years.

Whether they’re ready to be the faces of the West or just the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head soundtrack to the “What a Pro Wants” commercial that keeps airing during these playoffs remains to be seen.

THUNDER PRESIDENT OF basketball operations Sam Presti had been watching Holmgren for years before he decided to use the highest draft pick his organization had had since taking Durant second overall in 2007.

Presti is known for his extraordinary research into prospective players. It’s how he built the first Thunder superteam of Durant, Westbrook and James Harden, and it’s how he is attempting to rebuild it with Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and Jalen Williams.

For Presti, character and organizational fit matter just as much as talent: Learn as much as possible about who a player is to project how he’ll grow with other players on the team.

Will their skill sets mesh? Will they make each other better?

“All these guys are going to change,” Presti told ESPN.

Once a player gets into the NBA, the league will change him. The next level is projecting how that will affect the team and the other players who are already there. Two alphas might clash or they might uplift each other. A talent evaluator has to learn enough about a player to project that.

“You can’t change somebody’s history,” Presti said. “You’ve got to try to understand them.”

The more he saw Holmgren, the more Presti thought Holmgren would fit alongside Gilgeous-Alexander and the young core of players already developing in Oklahoma City.

Going into his freshman season at Gonzaga, Holmgren already had built a reputation as a potential superstar. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there hadn’t been a lot of opportunities to scout him at a high level. Finally, in May 2021, the top players in the country flocked to the Iverson Classic in Memphis, Tennessee. Holmgren, then 18, posted 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. But what stood out to Presti extended past the box score.

“He was just very comfortable in who he was,” Presti said. “Very at ease with himself.”

Presti liked Holmgren’s competitiveness and fearlessness. Presti had heard the stories of him climbing on the roof as a kid and how hard Holmgren had worked to harness his unique physical gifts. But Presti also appreciated how much he seemed to care about his teammates and commitment to defense and passing.

Hanlen felt similarly the first time he met Holmgren.

“Most young guys are focused on establishing themselves in the league and scoring,” Hanlen told ESPN. “Chet was focused on how he’d fit in and help the Thunder.”

AND HERE’S HOW Holmgren helps best: with righteous blocks that border on reckless, like the one with 6:31 left in the second quarter of Game 3 against the Mavs. It was his fourth block of the first half.

Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. turned the corner and got a step on Williams. Holmgren saw it out of the corner of his eye and rotated from the weak side. Seeing Holmgren, Hardaway tried a floater but was viciously denied. As Holmgren descended, he was either going to land on Hardaway — and get called for a foul — or the floor and take whatever lumps resulted from it.

Holmgren avoided the contact and landed hard on his stomach and stayed down. Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams immediately came over to check on him and assess the damage. Holmgren waved them off.

“Just needed a few extra seconds to catch my breath,” he said. “I was fine. At least I got the block.”

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault wasn’t taking any chances. Holmgren tried to wave off the substitute, but Daigneault had made up his mind.

“I don’t want to be a crash test dummy out there,” Holmgren said. “But I also don’t want to be hesitant. My instinct is just go make a play. If you’re out there worrying about getting hurt, that’s how injuries happen. And you’re also not putting everything on the line for your teammates, which I feel like I always owe to them.”

This is always how he has been wired. Team first. Fearless on defense. A skilled shooter and finisher on offense, skills that fit with the way the Thunder had been constructed as Gilgeous-Alexander continued his ascension.

Everybody can shoot. Everyone can score. Playing a 5-out offense, the paint is often wide open for Gilgeous-Alexander to drive or kick to the best-shooting team in basketball.

Holmgren certainly can score in the post. But that’s not what the Thunder need from him. Rather than chafe at the limits of his role, he has embraced it.

“I feel like I’ve always had a great perspective towards my health and my ability and I never really took it for granted,” he said. “When I got hurt, I kind of just built that appreciation. And now, I try to have that every single day no matter what’s happening, whether I’m tired or this hurts or that hurts or I’m sick or whatever happens, just wake up and be appreciative of the opportunity and the ability to go out there and play. And I feel like until I’m no longer able to play, that’s how I look at it.”

THAT PERSPECTIVE IS what makes him a perfect fit for Gilgeous-Alexander and this Thunder team, full of young, similarly minded players.

Consider the time during his first summer league, when Holmgren pulled the team’s security guard into his postgame interview. And how that moment has now turned into half the team getting pulled into postgame interviews.

And how that has now turned into the league’s most bizarre tradition — a Williams-led bark that originates in the huddle of teammates gathering for the interview. It has become as much a part of the culture in Oklahoma City as the winning that precedes it.

“You don’t want boring people around,” Daigneault told ESPN. “The existence is boring enough, and our players are not boring.

“It breathes energy into an otherwise long season.”

There are all sorts of theories on why Holmgren first did it. Was he shy in the spotlight? Did he just want to share it with others?

Either way, the tradition has come to define this Thunder team.

“He’s a weirdo, so that doesn’t really shock me too much,” Williams told ESPN. “It’s a share the stage thing, but it’s also a funny friend thing. I don’t know, to embarrass whoever he brought in.”

And then there was another moment just three weeks ago after a dominant Game 2 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, a first-round game in which Gilgeous-Alexander posted 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting.

With his arm around Gilgeous-Alexander — and surrounded by Williams, Jaylin Williams and Aaron Wiggins — Holmgren was asked in TNT’s postgame interview what message he was going to reinforce coming into Game 3.

The rookie sped through myriad cliches. That they needed to be ready for the opposing team’s best punch, that the Thunder needed to come ready to play.

Then he took the microphone and looked down to his left.

“I got one more thing to say,” Holmgren said, turning to face Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s too humble to say it, but this is the MVP right here. MVP of the league. I’m going to say it for him, because he won’t say it.

“That’s all I got.”

Gilgeous-Alexander, visibly uncomfortable, cocked his head back and rolled his eyes. As Holmgren and the rest of the crew dispersed in laughter, the 25-year-old vet couldn’t help but smile.

He’d pulled a similar move while Holmgren was out last season, telling anyone who would listen that the injured big man would be the Rookie of the Year when he finally took the court.

“I called it how I saw it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I guess he called it how he sees it, too.”

HOLMGREN THOUGHT BACK to those pickup games in Los Angeles all the time while he was rehabilitating his foot last season. It was a long and tedious process, and Holmgren tried to stay connected to the team as much as he could. But he also didn’t want to be a distraction.

The team scheduled him to come in before practice for rehab work, then shift to weights while the team was practicing. He’d often come back to the facility at nights with Hanlen for extra drills.

“The whole time he was asking me for the edits I was sending Joel or Jayson,” Hanlen said. “Then when we’d train, he’d turn his phone on “Do Not Disturb” so he could record the whole session and watch it back later.”

Holmgren knew his teammates were waiting on him, that they needed him. And they saw how much it hurt him to be away.

“He just always was working, always was in the gym,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Once he was cleared to be on the court, he was always on the court. He was always asking questions, trying to learn and be ready for this year.”

The Thunder finished 40-42 and made the play-in tournament last season, beating the Pelicans in the Nos. 9-10 game before falling to the Timberwolves on the road. For a team that had lost 58 games the season before, it was a giant, unexpected leap forward.

“I think a telling sign was, we were in a lot of the games last year and that kind of gave us confidence that we could kind of play with everybody in the NBA,” Williams told ESPN. “Then knowing we were going to have Chet back, cleaning up some of our rebounding and rim protection problems, was really exciting for us.”

Still, no one expected the kind of leap Oklahoma City made. The Thunder finished ahead of the defending champion Nuggets to win the stacked Western Conference. Gilgeous-Alexander finished second to Nikola Jokic in MVP voting. Holmgren finished second to Spurs phenom Victor Wembanyama in Rookie of the Year voting.

The plan, the Holmgren/Gilgeous-Alexander partnership, the yearslong wait to finally cement the duo that could define the Western Conference for years to come, finally came to fruition.

In the first round, the youngest team in the league answered those who doubted their playoff bona fides by sweeping the Pelicans.

In this second-round series against the Mavs, the two combined for 52 points — 17 in the fourth quarter — to rally the Thunder back from a 14-point deficit to win Game 4 on the road and even the series 2-2.

“That’s the front office. I give them a lot of credit. They know what they’re doing and they’re doing it the right way,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m a firm believer that if you do things the right way, good things happen to you.

“I felt like if I did what I’m supposed to do, and they do what they’re supposed to do, eventually it’ll all come together — and it has.”

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