We're all gaga over the size and skill of Victor Wembanyama, and rightfully so, but Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren can do a lot of the same things at close to the same size. The offensive stuff will get the headlines, but Holmgren, like Wembanyama, is already an elite defender.
It starts with his instincts, positioning, and his size, of course. He's 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. But it's how he uses that length that is already setting him apart.
Specifically, Holmgren, at just 21, has already shown a masterful sense for the art of defensive verticality. It's a must for any successful shot-blocker who intends to stay out of constant foul trouble.
What is the rule of verticality? The NBA defines this legal defending position in four parts:
- The defender must, first of all, be in the air to defend the shot when contact occurs. If the defender is on the ground, and inside the restricted area, even if his arms are "vertical" when contact occurs, he will be assessed a blocking foul.
- The defender must maintain a vertical trajectory by jumping straight up. If the defender jumps toward or to the side of an oncoming player, he will be assessed a blocking foul. A defender may, however, angle his jump backwards slightly in such a way as to absorb the impact of the oncoming player, and of course, he may land behind where he leapt from because of the force of the contact.
- The defender must maintain vertical alignment, with his body (arms, hands, torso, legs and feet) in a nearly straight line that is perpendicular to the floor. If a defender leans his arms forward or "jackknifes" his legs toward the oncoming offensive player, he will be assessed a blocking foul.
- The defender cannot turn sideways. If he does, he will be assessed a blocking foul.
So, what does defensive verticality actually look like? This:
Look at Holmgren's arms. Fully extended and straight up. Look at his body. He jumps from Point A, and he lands on Point A. He does not move into the shooter or even in his direction. He holds his ground, to which he is entitled. It is the offensive player coming into his space. The result: Two clean blocks.
For this next clip, we refer back to the following portion of the verticality rule: "A defender may, however, angle his jump backwards slightly in such a way as to absorb the impact of the oncoming player, and of course, he may land behind where he leapt from because of the force of the contact."
Again, Holmgren keeps his arms and body straight up. This time, he doesn't jump totally straight up, but that's still legal in this case, as he is merely "jumping backwards slightly" to "absorb the impact" of the 6-11 Evan Mobley, who is the one crashing forward into Holmgren. It's another perfectly vertical block -- one of the seven Holmgren recorded (an Oklahoma City rookie record) in the Thunder's 108-105 victory over the Cavaliers on Friday night in just his second NBA game.
If you want to see them all, here you go.
An important note: Holmgren keeps these blocks inbounds, thus leading to Thunder fast breaks. That is a bonus to any blocked shot, and Holmgren is in a better position to do that because he's vertical, rather than swatting at the ball like a volleyball spike. Those kills do look great on the highlight reel, but all that sending the ball into the fifth row does is just give the ball right back to your opponent.
Additionally, the verticality approach limits the likelihood of being called for fouls, which is why Holmgren -- despite being as active has he obviously has been -- only has three in each of his first two games.
In OKC's opener against the Bulls, Holmgren wasn't credited with any blocked shots, but don't let that fool you. Even when he's not recording an official block, he's consistently disrupting shots, without fouling, by keeping his arms high, his body vertical, and by jumping straight up. A few examples:
The blocks will always get the attention, but Chet Holmgren is a transformative defender b/c of the types of shots he's able to alter, even when he doesn't block it. Threw in 3 reps from 1st 2 games, 1 where he affects ball handler & big in P&R, & 1 with a transition hold. pic.twitter.com/Xq4jKPlGqo— Brett Kornfeld (@KornHoops) October 28, 2023
Heck, even when the guy does commit a foul it looks pretty damn close to textbook verticality.
What gets Holmgren whistled here is his momentum takes him forward, slightly, into Isaac Okoro, who has just enough of an angle on Holmgren to force him to leap from Point A to Point B to contest the shot. But it isn't by much.
Otherwise Holmgren is in pretty classic vertical position, his hands and body perpendicular to the ground. It serves to illustrate the instincts and muscle memory he's already developed that he's defaulting to the most legal positioning possible even when the play doesn't allow for total, or certainly natural, verticality.
This is elite, veteran shot-blocker stuff, and with this package of size, skill and smarts, it's why Holmgren is likely going to throwing block parties for NBA opponents for years to come.