Everywhere he played in his youth, Chet Holmgren, 21, heard the same prejudice: that the White Beanstalk couldn't be good at basketball. But he proved the doubters wrong every time. The American is currently excelling in his first season in the NBA, and partly because of him, his club, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is one of the best teams in the competition.
Anyone who sees Holmgren does not immediately think of the star that experts say he could become, and perhaps has already become. Yes, he's 2.16 meters tall, but he looks a bit thin, walks hunched over and still looks like he has to rub the sleep out of his eyes. Because of his beard, he is sometimes likened to Abe Lincoln, the 1.93-meter-tall former President of the United States.
About the author
Koen van der Velden describes De Volkskrant About sports in the United States. Lives in New York.
But watch him play and you'll know enough: On the basketball court, Holmgren can do a lot, if not everything. Last week, he showed his versatility when Oklahoma City defeated the Boston Celtics, the best team in the NBA. Holmgren hit three 3-pointers, had seven turnovers, and hit Celtics star Jayson Tatum's layup like a volleyball player — one of his four blocks.
His stats don't lie: Holmgren is having a season that allows him to emulate the brilliant newcomers of the past. He's averaging about 17 points per game, but especially defensively he's already one of the best players in the league. His windmill wings are feared by weapons.
Dear first year?
The basketball player from Minneapolis is the main candidate for the election of the best freshmen of the season. He wasn't given much of a chance beforehand, as French prodigy Victor Wimpanyama is taking his first steps in the NBA this season for the San Antonio Spurs. It's impressive, too, but Holmgren is keeping up so far.
Unlike Wimbanyama, who has to settle for less selection, he helps his team win. Interestingly, Holmgren plays alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the best players in the NBA and a standout for the Canadian team that finished third at the World Cup last summer, at the expense of the United States. Holmgren and the playmaker make a good tandem.
On paper he is a rookie, but in reality he has been in the NBA for a year. His entry last season was canceled after he suffered a serious foot injury during an exhibition match in preparation. It cost him his season, but he looked around carefully during practice and on the sidelines. This season, Holmgren is reaping the benefits of training.
He wasn't born, he became a basketball player. When he started at about age eight, there wasn't much he could do. Holmgren didn't know where to go, so his shots went beyond the ring. His father David in particular, who was a talented basketball player at the University of Minnesota, saw his son's potential.
Mom Sarah rolled her eyes when her husband reminded her again that young Chet could be an outstanding basketball player. Even at home, Holmgren was suspect.
His growth spurt occurred when he was 13, when centimeters seemed to be added almost every day. Holmgren got better and better, being the best on his school team and often the best on the field. He was often viewed with suspicion in the predominantly black basketball culture. “I was a white kid with a weird haircut,” Holmgren told the sports blog. Andscape. He can't do anything about it, people said. But I didn't worry about that.
His appearance was a smokescreen through which he was able to surprise opponents. Holmgren played with swagger and did not mince his words. “He's the opposite of what you'd expect from him,” said Julian Strother, his former Gonzaga teammate. “You think this big, skinny 7-foot-1 guy is quiet and shy, but he's actually the most confident guy in the room.” Holmgren also isn't intimidated in the NBA.
The basketball player grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis and experienced the black culture that characterizes American basketball at an early age. “I'm glad I was exposed to different influences,” Holmgren said. “I learned all kinds of food, music, and clothes. I made it my own.”
In the summer of 2020, Holmgren took to the streets after the killing of black George Floyd by a police officer in his hometown. His family advised him not to do so, but he wanted to participate in the demonstrations anyway.
He might actually be able to compete for accolades in young Oklahoma City this season. This is unusual for first-year students, who typically join teams under construction. So Holmgren is ahead of schedule, but still hungry. “I haven't proven anything yet,” he said after the win over Boston. “I'm just getting started and I still have a long way to go.”
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