June 29, 2022

In conversations with members of the front office over the past two months, I’ve asked a lot of questions about Chet Holmgren because he’s the most compelling and polarizing player in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Some would take him with the No. 1 pick overall. Others wouldn’t use a top three pick on him. An executive told me he considered Holmgren a future defensive player of the year. Another told me he’s the type of player who will get played on the field by teams that engage in a five-out, five-out offense.

They could both to be right.

It’s one of the reasons why evaluating prospects who are centers and only centers has become the most difficult task executives face before every NBA draft. Big centers are always great – the proof being that current MVP (Nikola Jokic) and current MVP runner-up (Joel Embiid) are indeed both centers. But for every center that exceeds reasonable expectations from where it was picked, there are three or four guys labeled misses largely because they can’t do what modern centers are asked to do. .

As a guard in space.

“Getting cooked on defense is the most important thing,” said a former front office executive. “They put you in a widespread pick-and-roll and wipe you out.”

By the way, that’s one of the reasons why so many big names – guys like Oscar Tshiebwe from Kentucky, Armando Bacot from North Carolina, Trayce Jackson-Davis from Indiana and Zach Edey from Purdue – are returning to college next season when they all might’ve been first-round picks just 10 years ago. Of course, their ability to legally earn considerable sums through name, image, and likeness opportunities proved to be a magnet for the campus. But the truth is, these players never had a choice between definitely playing in the NBA next season or definitely playing in college. They mainly chose between perhaps play in the NBA next season or certainly play in college, where they can probably make more money in the next year than they would have made as a professional.

“None of those guys you named were going to be first-round picks,” one evaluator said. “Some of them wouldn’t even have been second-round picks. Great college players sometimes don’t make it into the NBA. We used to say that about little guards. Now we say that at about traditional big players.”

The consensus assessment from scouts is: unless you can keep in space at least a little on defense and either run the rim or stretch the ground on offense, you’re probably not worth picking too much. top in any project.

So what about Holmgren?

Doubters of one-off Gonzaga’s ability to become an NBA star point to the fact that he only plays one position and is clearly not good enough laterally to keep impressively in the space – although several reviewers said they believe he will at least be “OK” for that. Its lightweight frame is another clear area of ​​concern. It is evil. But the good is so good that his believers still consider Holmgren worthy of consideration to be selected first because they project him as an elite rim protector and a legit big stretch from the ground who can play on the perimeter and reliably make 3 points. In other words, Holmgren is so good at some things that he really could be Defensive Player of the Year and an annual All-Star one day, but so questionable in other ways that he really could never. become what the first two choices are meant to become. . And, yes, there’s a scenario, given the way the game has evolved for centers, where he’s both Defensive Player of the Year and one defensive liability in certain situations as even Rudy Gobert, three-time defensive player of the year, has sometimes turned out to be a defensive liability in certain situations.

“Chet is one of the most unique prospects I’ve ever seen,” said an evaluator. “If you take it No. 1, you might regret it. But if you let it pass, you might regret it too. … I guess you can say that about a lot of prospects. But I think it’s is truer with Chet than it is with most projected top five picks.”

Traditional center vs modern center

Once Holmgren is out of the draw, who knows when the next center will be selected? It will probably be Jalen Duren, Memphis’ unique physical specimen. But, and this is the problem for most greats these days, it’s more of a traditional center than a modern center in the sense that it’s unclear how effective it will be too far from the basket at each end of the field. If Duren makes it into the top 10, he’ll be much closer to No. 10 than No. 1, despite having already been ranked No. 1 in his high school class.

He should have been born 20 years earlier.

Decades ago, Duren would have been an easy top-five pick while former Illinois star Kofi Cockburn would be up for the lottery. Now, Duren might not make it into the top 10 and Cockburn, a traditional center in beast mode, might not be selected despite being a rim-destroying two-time All-American.

Why?

Because being a big guy who destroys rims isn’t as important as being a big guy who can move his feet and stay in front of smaller players, that’s why. Consequently, extremely productive and accomplished college products that were once projected as NBA special prospects are now often undesirable at the NBA level.

This is great for the college game.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that greats like Tshiebwe, Bacot, Jackson-Davis and Edey are all going back to college just because they love it – or even for the NIL money available. That’s part of it, of course. But these players are mostly returning to college because the NBA game has changed so much for centers that they are no longer desired as they would have been in earlier eras. These players mostly come back because, with the evolution of the sport, there was no perfect place for them.

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