Updated: Jun 15
The potential top overall pick in 2022 is a unique player, and how he gets his blocked shots might be one of the most distinctive traits of all. This is the last of five mini articles that will focus on the top big men in the 2022 NBA Draft and their ability to defend, notably with unique tracking data geared toward exactly how they accrued their blocked shots during this past season and what we can learn from them.
In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse’, Pro Insight contributor Bjorn Zetterberg concludes the shot-blocking study chapter of ‘Data Tracking,’ a new series that explores some of the nitty-gritty nuances surrounding different groups of 2022 NBA Draft prospects. Without further adieu: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren:
In full disclosure, I started this ‘big man blocked shot study’ with one question and player in mind. It was mostly based around ‘when does length adequately counter lack of strength and how often would it show up for a leaner frame shot blocker?’ The player I had in mind for the query was Chet Holmgren for his unique frame combination of length (7’5” wingspan) and slight build at 7’0” and 195 pounds. Holmgren was top-five in NCAA blocks per game and top-10 in block percentage as a freshman this season. How he was managing to consistently turn away shots despite likely taking contact at the rim with his slender build felt atypical, and just how often was he facing significant collisions on those plays? Did he show preference to going up with a specific hand after contact? Was he making plays defensively on ball, or coming from help? Was he effectively using verticality to challenge shots? These are the types of questions I sought to answer about Holmgren and how he compared to his peers in this draft class, and now we have the results, so let's discuss them.
Holmgren is a predominantly right-handed shot blocker, turning away 85 of 107 (79%) attempts that I tagged from him this season, which tied for the most in this study with right-hand usage. With his volume of blocked shots, he had a fair share of lefty (13%) and two-handed challenges (7%) as well. He does a pretty good job of going up with both hands raised, but shows a tendency for choosing one hand mid-air to swat down with as the shot is going up, habitually opting not to leave them up and vertical throughout the shot. Chet had two-thirds of his blocks from playing on ball defense (71 total), but one-third of his help defense blocks is significant with 36 total. He also had by far the highest share of ‘forward facing’ contests relative to the shooter with 93% coming in their line of sight. Perhaps most surprising was that only seven total blocked shots from Chet came from behind or off to the side of the shooter. This seemed peculiar given his length and mobility to not be making plays trailing the shooter, since he seems capable.
Looking at the contact Chet took and his verticality attempting to contest shots, this is where things start to get really interesting for him as a shot blocker. He does a fairly good job of going vertical with both hands up on the initial effort, but has a tendency to lower his arms after an initial hit of mid-air contact, typically to the gut or chest. Holmgren only registered a 15% rate of completely vertical contests in the paint, well below median value for the study of 25%, an indication he’s ball hunting instead of holding position ‘straight up and down.’
He can get into trouble in these situations swatting at the ball, as he played 9 of 32 games this season with 4+ fouls. While there were only three games where he fouled out, he still played 27 minutes in those contests, which is about his season average.
As one would expect from a 7-footer who weighs under 200 pounds, Chet gets moved fairly easily after being contacted in the paint. This situation at the rim is where length appears to be a suitable counter to getting pushed, as even when he’s knocked back, Chet’s wingspan still has plenty of slack to get at least a finger on the ball. Of his blocks in the paint, Holmgren avoided contact on 80-percent of them, the second-lowest rate in the study. However, when he was in a mid-air paint collision, he was ‘moved’ from his aerial position after physical contact about 80-percent of the time, a stunningly high rate which was by far the largest rate of the group after being aerially bumped. With a number like that, you assume he’s going to lose just about every mid-air collision and have to compensate with length, which he routinely did. It’s also worth noting that, of the 19 blocks with mid-air contact, only one was made with his left hand while six were made with both hands up. So it’s clear that, with contact, Chet leans in with his right hand, as shown by the 12 blocks post-collision.
One of the more amusing things from watching his blocked shots was that Holmgren frequently would take an elbow or shoulder to the midsection. This would happen after the shooter lost their dribble in the paint, but just before they went up for the shot, in hopes they could clear some space. The significant pre-shot hit happened on a stunning 25 of 99 (~25%) paint possessions where the attacking offensive player initiated contact before going up for the shot, and yet still resulted in a block. It’s very understated how tough Chet is, and seems even tougher to conceptualize with his build. He defends the paint with an edge and physicality, a relentless willingness to get right back into his man after taking a knock. He has impressive reaction time defensively and gets off the floor fast, something that seems to come almost second nature with his quick feet and ‘tough as nails’ mindset.
Physical profile plays a significant role in his game and will continue to until he fills in frame, but it’s amazing how productive he is despite it being perceived as a “weakness.” The baseline on his game is already very high for a paint defender, and even as he’s getting knocked around, he’s not shying away from contact, rather embracing and offsetting it with that length. He has incredible mobility for a switchable big defender with striking range, capable of leaping from the free throw line to three-point arc in a bound to contest a jump shot. There’s talk about ‘unicorn’-type players entering the NBA in recent years, and Holmgren truly is one. The situation and opportunity for Holmgren as an NBA rookie next season are going to be fascinating and his play will be endlessly scrutinized wherever he lands. Regardless of if one is a fan of his upside or skeptical of his pro prospects, it’s going to be entertaining to see how his game and physical frame develop at the next level.
Bjorn has worked in the NBA for about a decade as an associate analyst with the Orlando Magic, Video Analyst Manager for the Portland Trail Blazers and Advance Scout for the Idaho Stampede. You can follow him on twitter @bjornzetterberg and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.