NBA Summer League: Chet Holmgren slowly finding his role on young Thunder team

LAS VEGAS — Oklahoma City Thunder center and No. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren played his third NBA Summer League game Saturday night and was relatively quiet compared to his debut in Salt Lake City where he put up a stacked stat line of 23 points, seven rebounds, six blocks and four assists.

Going against the Houston Rockets, who also have a ton of youth, and the No. 3 pick, Jabari Smith Jr., the game went back and forth throughout the second half. The two top-five picks both started off slow, but had glimpses of why they were both top picks in the draft. Smith Jr. finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and four steals while Holmgren had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks as the Rockets edged the Thunder, 90-88.

"Jabari's a great player and we weren't able to come out on top tonight, so we have to get back in the lab tomorrow at practice and watch film and figure it out and get better for the next game," Holmgren said after the game. "I'm just trying to go out and compete every single game, no matter who we're facing."

Unlike his first game in Utah, Holmgren struggled a little bit on offense, particularly when he tried to take players off the dribble, committing four turnovers. Houston was switching everything and the pick-and-pop between Holmgren and Josh Giddey wasn't there, forcing the duo to find other ways to score and be productive.

"Every game is different and tonight they were switching pretty much everything so I was trying to slip out and roll a lot, but we're working on our chemistry all around," Holmgren told Yahoo Sports. "It helps a lot playing alongside a guy like Josh who sees the floor really well and gets his teammates involved. It makes life easier for everybody."

Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is guarded by Houston Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. during the 2022 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on July 9, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is guarded by Houston Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. during the 2022 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on July 9, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images) (Ethan Miller via Getty Images)

During Holmgren's one season at Gonzaga, adjustments were made each night, trying to figure out how to best utilize the 7-foot-1 playmaker in Mark Few's set offense. Holmgren would have nights where he neared a triple-double and the following game, score just six points. His role each night is going to be different, and the Thunder have enough talent on the floor to give him the freedom to impact the game in other ways, particularly on defense.

"With a guy like him, it's easy to get siloed into one specific facet of the game, good or bad for him, but he's so unique and he impacts the game in a lot of ways," Summer League head coach Kameron Woods said after the game. "His rim protection was great tonight and he opened a lot of things up for guys on the perimeter."

Early in the second half, Holmgren had back-to-back defensive possessions that were incredible and brought loud cheers from the packed arena. He blocked both Josh Christopher and Tari Eason who were trying to get to the rim and turned it into easy offense in transition that ended with two dunks from rookie Jalen Williams. Holmgren's presence in the lane is key for this young Thunder team, and he's the best rim protector in this rookie class.

"He protects the rim like no one I've ever seen before," Giddey said. "I know he's got my back on that end and we all know if we get beat, Chet's sliding over to help. We've only played three or four games together as a team and the more we play together, the more fluid his game, my game, everyone's is going to be."

There is always a learning curve for rookies when they first enter the league. The spacing is different, the pace is faster and there's more freedom on offense for iso situations. This young Thunder squad has a lot of length and talent and are going to be a fun group to watch this season. Holmgren's role is going to be different each night. Anyone who still doubts he can be impactful at the NBA level, he's going to let his game speak for itself.

"I'm just trying to learn from every single experience and every time we go out there, whether it's good or bad, I'm trying to take something from it and grow as a player," Holmgren told Yahoo Sports. "Anyone who doubts I can play this game, I don't really want to say anything. I'd rather just lace them up and prove them wrong."