Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault knows his team brims with potential, but he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. In Chicago for his team’s season opener last week, Daigneault emphasized, down to the decimal point, that each game constitutes only 1.2 percent of the regular-season schedule.
Which means it took all of 2.4 percent of the season, and a rousing comeback against the Cleveland Cavaliers, for Oklahoma City’s proof of concept to emerge.
Sure, the Thunder were clearly on the rise before this season. First-team All-NBA honoree Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led a young, intriguing roster to a 16-win jump from 2021-22 to 2022-23. But there’s a difference between believing in a group on paper and seeing it thrive in a real NBA game, between dreaming about a young team’s possibilities and watching it storm back from 10 points down in the final minutes to steal a win.
Now 6 percent of the way through the season, before a Friday night date against the Warriors, the 3-2 Thunder look every bit like a budding NBA power. They suffered a pair of losses in which they shot a combined 19.7 percent on 3-pointers, but the arrival of rookie Chet Holmgren has clarified the team’s vision, lineup, and playing style—and, given his impressive play on both ends, maybe even accelerated their timeline to contention.
Even in a small sample, Holmgren appears as perfect a fit as the Thunder could have possibly envisioned when they selected him second in the 2022 draft. He’s the modern, mobile, two-way big that every team is looking for. After missing all of last season with a Lisfranc injury, the 7-footer is averaging 16 points and seven rebounds per game on 60-52-80 (!) shooting splits, and he ranks second among all players this season with 2.6 blocks per contest.
As a full-time center with the body type of an inflatable car dealer tube man, Holmgren admittedly has his weaknesses, which could cost the Thunder if they make a deep playoff run soon. In Oklahoma City’s first loss of the season, against Denver, Nikola Jokic bullied the rookie big at the rim, helping the Nuggets score the most points in the paint for any team in a win this season.
Jokic’s assessment of Holmgren after their matchup? “I think he needs to be a little bit fatter, to be honest,” the two-time MVP said.
To be fair, Jokic can torment any defender he’s matched with. But he’s not the only one who’s used a size advantage to push the 195-pound Holmgren around. Jonas Valanciunas moved Holmgren fairly easily in the paint in a Pelicans win on Wednesday, and in Holmgren’s debut in Chicago, both Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond victimized him with a highlight bucket—the latter stripped Holmgren on one end, then crossed him up in transition on the other.
Expect Holmgren to keep battling against these bigger opponents, even as he works on adding more strength to his game. Holmgren’s coach believes his intense competitiveness is one of the main reasons he’s such an elite defensive prospect. “He’ll get dunked on 10 straight times if that’s what the game calls for,” Daigneault said. Then, he paused and added with a wry smile, “Now, he won’t actually get dunked on 10 straight times. He’s going to go get a couple of those, too.”
He’s gotten more than a couple, in fact. In the Thunder’s second game, against Cleveland, Holmgren tallied seven blocks, becoming just the fourth player on record—along with David Robinson, Shawn Bradley, and Mark Eaton—to record so many stuffs in his first or second career game. He rejected four Pistons and two Pelicans in subsequent games as well.
Even that impressive haul doesn’t fully encapsulate Holmgren’s defensive influence. He’s also fluid and instinctive enough to, say, successfully close out on potential 3-point shooters in both corners just three seconds apart; he didn’t receive a block on this play, but he prevented his opponent from scoring all the same.
All the blocks were cool, but this may have been my favorite Chet play from last night. Closes out on two shooters in BOTH corners within two seconds of each other. Awesome awareness and hustle. pic.twitter.com/jmdFkWbyg5
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) October 28, 2023
Holmgren isn’t just the rare rookie who can make a positive defensive impactthough. His diverse offensive skill set represents the archetype of the modern big man, too. Forget comparing him to other rookies—Holmgren is just the 10th NBA player ever, at any experience level, with seven blocks and three 3-pointers in the same game.
He’s not generating his own shots yet—86 percent of Holmgren’s buckets this season have been assisted, which is the 11th-highest rate out of 122 players with at least 20 makes—but he’s already able to score at all three levels. Holmgren’s offensive pizzazz adds a new element to a Thunder offense that went 40-42 and qualified for the play-in round last season despite essentially playing without a center. Holmgren can handle the ball himself to spark a transition opportunity. He can provide a vertical spacing threat for Gilgeous-Alexander in pick-and-rolls. And he can attack a closeout when opposing bigs—afraid of his jumper—try to run him off the line.
Most of all, he can complement his star guard as a shooter. Gilgeous-Alexander has led the NBA in drives four seasons in a row and is an elite free throw shooter at high volume; opposing coaches are terrified of giving him too much space in which to operate. “If we get spread out defensively against him and he’s got gaps all over the place, there’s nobody on our team that’s keeping him in front,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who’d previously coached him for a year in Oklahoma City.
All of this makes Holmgren—the only member of the Thunder’s starting lineup with an above-average 3-point stroke—something of a skeleton key for OKC.
Thunder Starters’ Career 3-Point Shooting
Holmgren’s 3-point ability is crucial not just because he’s the best shooter in the lineup, but also because of the position of the defender whom he drags away from the hoop. If an opposing big man is a step too far away from the paint or a step too slow to crash because he’s concerned about Holmgren beyond the arc, that’s all the opening SGA needs to finish at the rim.
That guard-center compatibility should form the foundation of the Thunder’s identity for years to come—and promises to bring out the best in SGA, who remains the clear best player and leader of a team full of talented youngsters. His development represents a necessary step—perhaps the hardest step—toward building a championship roster. Unearthing back-of-the-roster gems and undrafted surprises is valuable, but nothing is more important to a title run than a leading star. The 2003-04 Pistons remain the only team since 1980 to win a title without a recent first-team All-NBA selection.
In this regard, the Thunder are way ahead of other rebuilding teams, who are merely hoping that the likes of Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero and/or Franz Wagner, and Scoot Henderson can develop into championship-level no. 1 options. But the Thunder already know they have their guy, after SGA finished fifth in MVP voting and was named first-team All-NBA last season.
Beyond SGA and Holmgren, they also have Cason Wallace, their newest lottery pick, who entered the league with a defense-first reputation but has made 81 percent of his shots thus far. They have Jalen Williams, who surged to a second-place Rookie of the Year finish last season. And they have Josh Giddey, a jack-of-all-trades combo guard with a side job as the best inbounds passer in the NBA. The “SLOB wizard” uncorked these two beauties in the same half last week:
Then like four minutes later, Josh Giddey threw this thing off of a sideline out of bounds play. A. sick play by the OKC staff. B. Look at the anticipation on this ball from Giddey. Shai still behind the 3-point line, throws it the second SGA gets the leverage toward the rim. pic.twitter.com/g2v6jMPwFv
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) October 28, 2023
Each member of Oklahoma City’s core four—Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren, Williams, and Giddey—has the potential of a plus two-way player. (Daigneault singled out Giddey’s defense as one of the most “critical” improvements he’s seen over the past year.) That’s especially important given recent trends in the postseason, when teams have been more aggressive about scouting and targeting players’ weaknesses. If a high-scoring guard can’t defend, other teams will hunt him with a surfeit of screens; if a Tony Allen type can’t shoot, other teams will ignore him to overwhelm the offensive stars.
And the Thunder players still have so much room to improve. Oklahoma City has the youngest team in the NBAand its top 10 players in minutes this season all check in at 25 or younger. It was funny for a moment, in Chicago, to hear Holmgren talk about the 25-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander as the wizened, experienced leader of the team—but SGA has played more NBA games than any other player on the Thunder roster, with the exception of the little-used Davis Bertans.
Thus, the team exists on a completely different timeline from all the old veteran teams that have gone all in for the 2024 title. The Thunder place 29th in our All In-dex rankingswhich means, first, that they’re way ahead of schedule as a quasi-contender already and, second, that they have enough draft capital to acquire any on-the-market star they want, should they seek an upgrade around their young, existing core.
But Holmgren’s arrival might just speed up the Thunder’s timeline. As a no. 1 recruit out of high school and the no. 2 pick in the draft, with a dominant college season sandwiched between, he has the pedigree of a prospective superstar. And through just five games, he’s already demonstrated how he opens up new possibilities, and new heights, for this Thunder squad.
“It’s important, when you’re where we are, to zoom out a little bit,” Daigneault said about both Holmgren in particular and his team at large. “He’s a young player. He’s going to have a long career. We’re going to have a long tenure with this particular core of players that he’s a part of, and this is just the starting point.”