On the first night Chet Holmgren arrived in Oklahoma City — less than 24 hours after becoming the face of the Thunder’s franchise — he texted his new running mate Josh Giddey with something of a challenge.
The 20-year-old, yet to settle into his hotel, wanted to play his Australian point guard in a game of one-on-one.
And that night, the two of them battled it out alone. It was Holmgren’s 7-foot wiry frame contorting and bodying against Giddey’s 6-foot-8 point guard build.
“He won,” Giddey later said. “He was doing the fade-aways, the dunks and everything else you see. He really didn’t have a lot of faults in his game.”
It took just that one night for Holmgren to prove himself as a special talent to his teammate. And a couple of weeks later, the Thunder’s No. 2 overall draft pick made a similarly swift announcement to the world in his first game as professional basketball player.
In his summer league debut in Salt Lake City, Holmgren shot, spun and dunked his way to a 23-point, seven-rebound performance that displayed just about every reason why people believe he is a generational talent.
He danced at the 3-point line, burying four of six from deep. He battled inside, gobbling up a summer league record six blocks. And in between, he hit one-legged fadeaways and dished out four assists.
“The most impressive thing is he did it all within the flow of our offense,” Thunder summer league coach Kameron Woods said.
And that truly was the most impressive part about Holmgren’s arrival onto the NBA stage: he made it look effortless in the process, never pressing or going out of his way to make the offense about himself.
Holmgren followed up his debut with another solid outing: 11 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks against the Memphis Grizzlies.
This week Holmgren earned praise from another 7-footer that was drafted No. 2 overall by the Thunder, Kevin Durant.
“I’m never going to say I had the perfect game,” Holmgren said. “You can always get better. Just got to get back into the gym. ... It was fun to be out there.”
But like those before him with that skill set and unorthodox build, Holmgren is still a work in progress. He is learning the physicality of the NBA level, still himself under 200 pounds.
On Tuesday, he was challenged several times by 290-pound Kofi Cockburn and 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall. Holmgren had his wins. He blocked several shots and drew fouls. He also had his learning moments where he was nearly run over by Cockburn and misread defensive assignments.
“I think the one thing is the NBA season is a grind, 82 games. He is going to be banging with guys like Joel Embiid,” Giddey said. “He will get used to it after playing in a couple games.”
But for now, that is in the distance. Throughout the summer, the Thunder have been focused on building Holmgren up and enmeshing him in the collective growth of the team.
It is partly why the organization made the decision to have Holmgren play summer league with so many players who already have NBA experience, not just borderline un-drafted free agents who will not make the roster.
And the OKC coaching staff has been adamant the growth of Holmgren and the team is a holistic process. So much so that they have declined to say exactly how much weight they would like to see Holmgren gain to be NBA ready, or even specific basketball points they want him to grow, like his low-post ability.
“We are still getting to know him and he is still getting to know us,” Woods said. “We have been really big-picture with everything we are trying to do in summer league. I think we stay away necessarily from specifics. It is more about trying to get five guys out there that can play to our style and then we will continue to find different things [to work out].”
In the interim, though, Holmgren is showing why the Thunder went all-in on a player that for years has been seen as once-in-a-generation.
It was an NBA Summer League debut so impressive that it echoed the last Thunder franchise star to make a debut. That was when a young Durant scored 29 points against the Jazz to open his career with a flurry of foul-line fade-aways and silky threes.
With Holmgren, it almost looked like it was coming full circle.