CHICAGO — Gratitude was the word Chet Holmgren used to describe his NBA debut Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft had a subtle statline: 11 points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal, but it was a debut that had been a long time coming. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 7-foot-1 center missed the entirety of last season due to a Lisfranc injury to his right foot that he sustained during a Pro-Am game. But after a year of rehab and delayed excitement, the time had come for him to make his long awaited debut.
The big man may have had a modest debut, but he did show flashes of why the unicorn moniker has been attached to him since his college days. And his first NBA bucket perfectly encapsulated that. It came nearly halfway though the first quarter, when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander found Holmgren spaced out in the corner with room to operate against Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic. Holmgren pump faked, did a little shake and bake to catch Vucevic on his heels before draining a turnaround jumper from 18 feet out.
Sure, guys five or six inches shorter than Holmgren manage to pull that move and shot off on a nightly basis, but when you see someone with a gangly seven-foot frame execute that it makes you raise your eyebrows in disbelief. He followed that bucket up just moments later with a silky layup that saw him drive to the rim from beyond the 3-point line. He finished through contact, putting both his toughness and his finesse on display.
When asked if gratitude is how he feels about getting to this moment, to finally make his debut, Holmgren agreed.
“100%, every day I’m able to wake up and play basketball for a living is a great day in my book,” Holmgren said. “I’m definitely greatful, but also understanding there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Holmgren took the approach of there’s still work to be done, as did his head coach Mark Daigneault, who opted for a bird’s eye view of Holmgren’s situation and performance Wednesday night.
“There’s a lot of good and a lot he can improve on,” Daigneault said. “He’s a competitor. He’s also a learner. A junkie. So I have no doubt he’s gonna dive into every single game afterwards and learn from it. We just have to start that process with him. Obviously we’re in the infant stages of his career.”
Holmgren may still be in the crawling stages of his NBA career, but his debut showed flashes of what he can bring to the Thunder. He displayed the ability to score at all three levels, something we already knew he possessed, but seeing it in game action solidifies it. He drained two triples with ease, which, if he’s able to keep hitting those at a high clip will give OKC incredible spacing with which to operate. Though he didn’t record any blocks, Holmgren didn’t shy away from contact at the rim, even at the expense of getting dunked on. It’s that fearlessness that Daigneault said has impressed him most about Holmgren’s development since Summer League, training camp and preseason.
“His competitiveness, great competitor, great fearlessness, willingness to put his body in plays despite his frame,” Daigneault said. “And despite what just happened on the last play, you know, he’ll he’ll get dunked on 10 straight times, if that’s what the game calls for. Now, he won’t actually get dunked on 10 times in a row, he’s gonna go get a couple [blocks]. But that’s the mindset he takes, and the vulnerability of that is something I really admire. He’s really thrust himself into competition, with risk of failure. And for a young player, that’s got a lot of hype, to have that quality is pretty special.”
Another word that should be used to describe Holmgren is patience. From an on-court perspective, he never seemed to be forcing anything, and instead took what defenders were giving him. He only took seven shots, but he impacted the game positively in other ways, which resulted in him finishing the game with a boxscore plus-minus of +14. Patience should also be applied to expectations for Holmgren right out of the gate. Despite the significant amount of hype surrounding him, it’s going to take time before he finds his place on a Thunder team that already experienced a little bit of success without him last season.
“I think it’s important, when you’re where we are to zoom out a little bit, like this is his first game of many,” Daigneault said. “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 a starting point. Regardless of what happens, it’s important to zoom out and not overreact.”