First impressions aren’t necessarily Chet Holmgren’s strong suit. He was in third grade when he first came out for Grassroots Sizzle, the AAU program that would eventually become his home squad. Everything about that day was forgettable. If only Holmgren could actually forget it.
“I showed up to the first practice in cargo shorts,” Holmgren remembers. “I was this long, lanky, awkward white dude. I looked terrible. I couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t dribble. Everybody’s making fun of me. I just wasn’t ready.”
Holmgren is still a long, lanky white dude, but there is absolutely nothing funny about his game. Now a 7-1 junior, in less than a year he’s gone from an anonymous Minnesota high schooler to a top-five prospect in the 2021 class. Always tall for his age, Holmgren initially was a reluctant hooper, but his love for the game grew alongside his height and his skill set. And from the beginning, that skill set was suited to a much smaller player.
“From when I started with Sizzle, my coach never put me on the block,” Holmgren says. “He always put me with the guards, taught me everything he taught the guards. I guess it’s just paying off.”
Even in the unicorn era that is coming to dominate the game, Holmgren stands out for his combination of ridiculous length and deadly outside-in game. The big change—literally—came when he was in eighth grade and grew almost eight inches over the course of the year. In the short term, it was rough—“My body hurt from growing so much, and I couldn’t move too well,” he says—but once he had a chance to adapt, he started to become a problem. He was a non-factor early in his freshman year but a solid contributor by the end of the season; as a sophomore, he and teammate Jalen Suggs—a top-10 guard in the 2020 class—started dominating opponents. Both seasons ended in state titles.
But it was last spring and summer when Holmgren’s game, and name, really blew up. Playing with Sizzle in the Under Armour Association in April, he earned tournament MOP honors with averages of 19.8 ppg, 7 rpg, and nearly 9 bpg. He carried that momentum into the summer season, a run that included one of the craziest highlights any high schooler has ever posted. Running pick-up at Stephen Curry’s SC30 Select Camp last August, Holmgren found himself guarded by the two-time MVP. Attacking from the wing, he squared up Curry, put the ball behind his back with his right hand and immediately whipped it back with his left, essentially using one of Curry’s own signature separation moves to blow by him and drive for a two-handed dunk.
“That double crossover, Jamal Crawford, whatever you want to call it, that’s what most people know me from,” he says now. “It was crazy.”
It wasn’t just that Holmgren had the nerve to try that move, but that he pulled it off so smoothly. Those who know him weren’t surprised. “Chet is one of my favorite kids,” says Chandler Sentell, a Minnehaha assistant coach who has worked with Holmgren for years. “I think a lot of times, just based on the way he looks, there are a lot of assumptions that go along with that. But he’s tough. He doesn’t back down from anyone.”
The rankings have reflected it: After being an afterthought in most 2021 rankings, he’s now a contender for the top spot in the class. There’s still plenty of room for polish in his game, not to mention the obvious need to get stronger, but Holmgren is already adapting to the pressure of being one of the best players in the country. “It used to be that I stepped on that court like, ‘I’m coming at you.’ Now it’s the other way around—people are trying to come at me,” he says. “But I still have that same mentality. I’m trying to rip your throat out.”
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Portraits by Wale Agboola/DEEN.