March 8, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) against the Saint Mary’s Gaels during the first half in the finals of the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to get a consensus on anything in America, and if you want to spark a debate just mention Chet Holmgren’s name. The gangly Gonzaga seven-footer will likely be one of the first three players taken in the NBA Draft next Thursday.

Is Holmgren the next evolution of the sport? Or is he simply a solid player with a fragile frame?

The Orlando Magic are on the clock with the top overall pick, and the pressure is on to get this right. The franchise doesn’t want to miss out on a potential generational big man. The franchise also doesn’t want to ignore potential warning signs. 

Orlando, which had the league’s second-worst record, needs a star to lead its young core. The Magic will probably choose between Holmgren and Auburn big man Jabari Smith.

Smith might be a “safer” pick. But Holmgren’s raw talent is hard to ignore. There hasn’t been someone with this kind of hype in a long, long time. If Holmgren goes No. 1, he’ll be the first American-born Caucasian player taken that high in the draft since Indiana center Kent Benson in 1977.

We’ve been following Holmgren for a while. He jumped onto the national radar in the summer of 2019, when he dribbled by Stephen Curry for a dunk at Curry’s own SC30 Select Camp. Holmgren continued his ascension to become the No. 1-rated high school player in the Class of 2021. In his only college season, he helped Gonzaga go 28-4 and be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. If not for Holmgren’s foul trouble, the Bulldogs might not have been upset by Arkansas in the Sweet 16.

In many ways, Holmgren was in an ideal situation. He joined a loaded squad. He wasn’t even the first option on his team. Drew Timme was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. That allowed Holmgren to grow into his role, and after some early inconsistencies, he finished as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

In the NBA, it will be a vastly different story. Whether he goes to Orlando, the Oklahoma City Thunder, or the Houston Rockets, he’ll be joining a young team that probably won’t reach the playoffs next season. And when you’re the first overall pick, there’s no hiding, especially when you’re a seven-footer.

Holmgren is mobile for his size. When you combine that with his 7’6″ wingspan, he could be a defensive nightmare. Last year, he finished fourth in the nation with 3.66 blocks per game, even though he was fourth on his team in minutes played (26.5). The NBA is always looking for players who can guard multiple positions, and Holmgren should be able to make an immediate impact defensively. 

This is where the debate about Holmgren starts. On the Eye On College Basketball podcast, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish said that one NBA front office member told him that Holmgren could get played off the floor in certain matchups. Parrish also said another NBA front office member told him that Holmgren could be the Defensive Player of the Year.

“I believe he has the best potential,” Parrish said. “If he becomes the best version of himself, then he is a better player than anyone else in this class. But he’s also, among the top tier, the most polarizing.”

Some NBA teams might be scared by Holmgren’s body. At a rail-thin 195 pounds, there are legitimate concerns about his long-term durability. Will he be injury-prone? He’ll need to get much more muscular to survive physical play. 

“He’ll have to get stronger,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on The Rich Eisen Show. “I don’t think his body is going to carry a ton of weight. He’s always going to be lanky and thin. .. In a lot of ways, he’s built for the NBA but his body does give you a little bit of a pause. You just don’t see guys built like that very often. He has a [Kristaps] Porziņģis-type body and there were a lot of questions about Porziņģis.” 

Porziņģis, the fourth overall pick in 2015, has had a good career. But the 7-3, 240-pounder has been plagued by injuries and hasn’t been the same player since tearing a knee ligament in February 2018.

So many unknowns make Holmgren a risk. They also make him the most interesting player in the draft.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.