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Thunder’s Chet Holmgren appears poised for a strong return following season-long injury

chet holmgren
Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The prized prospect has yet to appear in an NBA basketball game, but Chet Holmgren looks ready to play in one.

After missing the entire 2022-23 NBA season while recovering from off-season right foot surgery, last year’s No. 2 pick showed promise in various ways during Summer League play both in Salt Lake City and in Las Vegas.

Though he remains slender with a listed, 7-foot-1, 208-pound frame, Holmgren appeared both bulkier and more aggressive than during his first Summer League outing.

After intriguing the Thunder with his defense during his lone season at Gonzaga, Holmgren offered sturdy rim protection and defensive versatility.

Just like San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama has shown, Holmgren displayed he has point-guard skills in a big man’s body with both his playmaking and shooting.

It’s always risky to make big-picture projections about a player’s potential based off of summer-league play alone. Therefore, make very little of the fact that Chet Holmgren averaged solid numbers in points (16.5), rebounds (9.75) and blocks (3.5) through four summer-league games overall. Holmgren will face sturdier competition during the 2022-23 regular season. After playing pickup games as well as 3-on-3 and one-on-one since last April, Holmgren looked both rusty with his conditioning, timing (11 turnovers) and shooting (1-for-9 from 3).

Nonetheless, Holmgren appears on track toward having a productive albeit delayed rookie season. Perhaps a stretch that he could win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award at the expense of either Wembanyama or Portland’s Scoot Henderson. It’s not a stretch, however, to project that Holmgren will become an instant-impact player.

How Chet Holmgren fits into Thunder’s lineup

He has all the tools needed to thrive in today’s NBA with his playmaking and rim protection. With more work, Chet Holmgren can become a dependable outside shooter. Though physical tests await him, Holmgren can rely on a skill-based game instead of one that leans solely on strength. Unlike other prized rookies, Holmgren is not expected to carry a franchise.

The Thunder just need him to complement their other players that includes a dynamic scorer (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), a promising young wing (Jalen Williams) and a crafty point guard (Josh Giddey). After the Thunder advanced to the second game of the Play-In tournament before losing to Minnesota as a No. 10 seed last season, just imagine how far the Thunder could advance with a healthy Holmgren in the mix.

Granted, the Western Conference remains loaded as ever. The Denver Nuggets lost key role players in free agency (Bruce Brown, Jeff Green), but still have the rest of their championship fabric. The Phoenix Suns have constructed a super team with a respectable supporting cast. The Los Angeles Lakers have ensured continuity and depth around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Golden State Warriors expect to have a fully healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Still, don’t be surprised if the Thunder at least make an NBA playoff appearance and become a difficult first-round matchup.  Considering the Thunder have 15 first-round picks and 35 overall in the next seven years, the franchise certainly could make significant trades this offseason and/or leading into next season’s trade deadline that alters the landscape.

chet holmgren
Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

As for Chet Holmgren, he may need more time to knock off rust, adapt to the physicality and adjust to his teammates. But those issues arguably could become minimal because of how he has spent his time after injuring his right knee during a Seattle pro-am game last August.

Holmgren has studied NBA contests from the sidelines and on footage, giving him extra time to understand the game’s nuances. Holmgren has spent all season around his teammates, giving him familiarity on what makes them all tick. Holmgren has spent substantial time in the weight room, giving him opportunities to mitigate the physical disadvantage he has against other big players.

Now, Chet Holmgren understandably seems eager to showcase all of those skills in actual NBA games. Though that bodes more significance and challenges than a summer-league contest, Holmgren at least offered a hearty appetizer during those games. That leaves the franchise hopeful that the main course will become just as pleasing.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider at Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter, on Instagram and on Threads.