Chet Holmgren on His Blistering Rookie Year, the Surging Thunder, and Ignoring the Wemby Rivalry Talk

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Chet Holmgren was watching film and eating breakfast when his head coach, Mark Daigneault, dropped by with a question. It was January 18, and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s schedule had been hellish since Christmas—they’d had four back-to-backs and never more than a day off between games. That morning, they were preparing to play at Utah, their third in a row on the road.

Holmgren was feeling it. “Our schedule was fucked up,” he recalled. “It was beating my ass.”

But after missing what was supposed to be his rookie year with a Lisfranc injury, Holmgren had at that point started every single game for the surging Thunder, and he had no plans to stop. So when Daigneault asked if he wanted to take a night off, Holmgren didn’t hesitate: No.

That night against the Jazz, Holmgren put up 15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks in 32 minutes in a narrow win. Two nights later, he put up another 15 points in 33 minutes in another win on the final leg of that long road trip, against Minnesota. And he has kept going like that—the world’s tallest, thinnest Energizer Bunny—not only starting every game, but playing 30-plus minutes per night and averaging 16.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 blocks. And he’s started every game since.

For Holmgren, starting every game isn’t just about winning the Rookie of the Year race between him and fellow seven-foot sensation Victor Wembanyama. (Because Holmgren missed his rookie season, he's eligible for the award this year.) It hasn’t even been all about keeping the Thunder in the first-place race in the Western Conference, either. When he blinks back a black eye or walks off a thigh contusion, he’s proving a more personal point.

“I’ve been hearing it my whole life: ‘He’s not gonna be able to hold up. He’s too skinny,’” Holmgren told me on the phone in late March. “Then last year happens, and it’s like, ‘Ah, fuck, I gotta hear it 10 times as much for this whole year.’”

“If there’s a game where health-wise it’s not smart to play, yes, I’ll put my health in front of my ego,” he continued. “But if I can go out there and play, I’m gonna go out there and play. If you give me the option to play, I’m gonna play.”

After four years of first-round exits from the playoffs during the Billy Donovan-Russell Westbrook era and three years of mediocrity during this recent rebuild, the Thunder are in a dead heat with the defending champions in the West. And they seem set up to contend for that crown beyond just this season. This team looks ready to rival the run of the original Big 3—Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant—in OKC. Or even, potentially, to surpass them, by finally hanging a championship banner.

Holmgren’s play this season isn’t the only reason that the Thunder have gone from a sub-.500 squad to a genuine Finals contender. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has ascended into a bonafide MVP candidate, Jalen Williams has gone from All-Rookie to borderline All-Star, and 2023 first-round pick Carson Wallace has infused 20 solid minutes off the bench each night. But those changes were incremental. Holmgren has helped key a metamorphosis.

Although Holmgren’s individual stats haven’t kept pace with those of fellow 7-foot phenom Victor Wembanyama, his teammates believe the Thunder’s transformation should be the reason he wins Rookie of the Year. “What’s his case for Rookie of the Year?” said Williams. “Well, I think his numbers speak for themselves. He’s put together a hell of a year so far. We were basically .500 last year without him, and now we already have 50 wins. To me, that’s a pretty good case.”

Holmgren insists that Wemby is an opponent like any other—but their boundary-breaking games seem likely to define the league for the next decade.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder

Holmgren insists that Wemby is an opponent like any other—but their boundary-breaking games seem likely to define the league for the next decade.
Logan Riely/Getty Images

From the outside, it seems like Chet Holmgren has fit onto this Thunder team seamlessly. But that smooth transition from injured to instrumental has disguised the work led into it. Rookies often talk about how pace is the biggest difference between college balls and the pros, and Holmgren had to get back up from the bench to a game speed that he’d never experienced before. Although he won Rookie of the Month in the West in November and December, Holmgren said he was still getting used to rapid decision-making demands of the NBA.

“You want to feel like you’re in a rhythm,” he said, “not like you’re calculating and thinking about everything. It’s like playing the piano—you don’t want to have to think about every key you have to hit.”

At times early on, he was hesitant to pull up for three-pointers, particularly because he didn’t want to be a selfish shooter. But as he learned how much work an offense goes through to get one guy a good look in 24 seconds, he realized that, in some situations, it was more selfish not to shoot. “You don’t think about that stuff when you’re not playing,” he said. “You have to be playing to get in these situations to fuck ‘em up—and figure out that you’re fucking ‘em up. Then you can figure out what you should be doing and get it right.”

His most publicized—and scrutinized—performances have come, of course, against the Spurs. This would-be unicorn rivalry has the potential to be a key storyline in the NBA for the next decade, but it didn’t actually begin this year. Holmgren and Wembanyama first met at the FIBA U19 World Championship in 2021. Wemby was the game's leading scorer, but Holmgren got the gold medal. In the Thunder’s three games against the Spurs this season, Wembanyama has had the statistical edge on Holmgren. But the Thunder are 2-1 in those games.

Holmgren said that going up against Wembanyama does bring out an extra competitive edge in him—but not because of any media narrative around their budding rivalry. “Whenever you’re going up against other good players, it brings out the best in you,” he said. “But that’s the NBA. It doesn’t matter if it’s Victor or [Nikola] Jokic or Anthony Davis. It’s naturally going to bring the best out of you. I don’t need any extra motivation.”

Holmgren was reticent to weigh in on the Rookie of the Year race. When I asked him directly if he should win, he declined to answer, calling it a “bait” question. When I pressed, he replied: “I would never sit here and say, ‘I don’t want to win Rookie of the Year.’ Individual awards are huge, but at the same time, you can't let those peel you away from what you’ve bought into as a team. Usually when you focus on your own success, it takes away from what you’re trying to do as a team and it hurts you in the pursuit of the award too.”

Daigneault, who has been dismissive of the growing narrative about a rivalry between Holmgren and Wembanyama, did not directly compare the two players. But in keeping with the team-above-all approach he preaches to his players, he said he believed that the Thunder’s season should factor into the Rookie of the Year race.

“Team success is baked into most awards—All-Star, All-NBA, MVP,” he said. “The Defensive Player of the Year award rarely goes to a guy on one of the worst defensive teams. What’s made Rookie of the Year different is that teams who take the best rookies are usually living in the lottery—and living in the lottery for a reason. It’s a little bit of unfamiliar terrain for a rookie player to be this high-impact on a team having this level of success. Should that be factored in? It is with every other award.”

For now, Holmgren’s main motivations are to help the Thunder finish first in the West and to start every remaining game. “Anybody who has played 82 knows what it’s like,” he said. “Anyone who hasn’t played 82 doesn’t. But they talk like they do.”

If he doesn’t seem concerned about individual hardware, that’s because just being able to play basketball again has been its own reward. Last year, he was able to practice with the team—and even play the role of practice-squad Brandon Ingram—during the play-in tournament. And this summer, he was playing pickup games every chance he got. Whenever he got hit hard, he’d argue with the medical staff until they let him get back out onto the court. “Of course I wanted to prove myself,” he said. “I want to prove that I can be healthy and play as many games as possible.”

More than at any point in the season, those goals may now be perfectly in sync. At the end of their conversation in Utah, Daigneault and Holmgren started brainstorming late-season scenarios. What if the Thunder were locked into their seeding? Would Holmgren be willing to sit out those games? Or start and then sub out after just a couple of minutes?

“In the moment, I told him I would want to play,” he said. “And I would want to play my full 30 minutes. I mean, to play 10 seconds just to say that I played, does that even really count? Hopefully this race [in the Western Conference] is so tight that it comes down to the last game. Hopefully we come out on top. Hopefully I can accomplish both goals at once.”

Originally Appeared on GQ