Chet Holmgren grabbed a rebound and started a fast break. He eluded a defender in open court with a behind-the-back dribble to set up a teammate for a shot. A few minutes later, Holmgren drained a deep three-pointer.
Holmgren is 7 feet tall. A 7-footer leading a fast break like a point guard and pulling up for a three-pointer like a shooting guard. Nobody batted an eye because this is basketball circa 2019.
Traditional roles no longer apply. Centers are guards, guards post up, and everyone shoots three-pointers. The evolution has swept across every level from preps to pros.
“Basketball has changed a lot,” says Rochester John Marshall star Matthew Hurt, who broke the state’s large-school career scoring record this season in part because of his three-point shooting.
The game has been evolving for some time, but the skill and versatility of players — particularly big men — look nothing like what people of a certain age remember. The term “post player” has become antiquated because big men are no longer confined to the painted area.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino joked last week that “everybody has an identity crisis.” The new basketball buzzword is “positionless.” Players aren’t pigeonholed into roles based on peach-basket principles.
Holmgren, a sophomore at Minnehaha Academy, is 7 feet with a 7-4 wingspan. A center, right?
“Whatever position I need to play,” he said.
What position would people think he plays after watching him?
“They would say I don’t know what he is,” he said.
OK, let’s try this game with Rochester’s Hurt, who is 6-9 and a top-10 national recruit. Name your position, Matthew.
“Hmmm,” he said with a pause. “Probably small forward, but I think I’m really a positionless player.”
OK, your turn, Prior Lake’s Dawson Garcia, a 6-10½ junior and high-major recruit who is one of his team’s best ballhandlers and three-point shooters. Position?
“I would say positionless,” he said.
A godfather of this nouveau basketball came to town last week. Dirk Nowitzki, the 7-footer who has shot more than 5,000 three-pointers in his Hall of Fame career for the Dallas Mavericks, played 13 quiet minutes in a win against the Timberwolves. He took four shots, all three-pointers, and made none.
Nowitzki’s legacy is far-reaching. He helped transform his sport by making it acceptable for big men to play away from the basket and shoot jumpers. That approach is no longer a basketball sin. Now, it’s encouraged.
“He changed the game in a different way — where you had to have shooting bigs,” Wolves point guard Derrick Rose said. “I think he was probably the first one to change the game like that.”
Another sign: Karl-Anthony Towns already has taken more three-pointers (850) in 3½ NBA seasons than Kevin Garnett launched (632) in 21. Anthony Davis, the NBA’s best big man, is on pace to shoot 250 three-pointers this season.
Big kids today learn the game from a totally different perspective. Holmgren’s youth coach, Larry Suggs, taught him to shoot from the perimeter in third grade. At practices, Holmgren went to a side hoop to work on form shooting by himself.
“My coach saw that the game was changing,” Holmgren said. “He taught me how to play basketball for the future, not where basketball was at the time.”
Holmgren actually worked backward in his development. He feels more comfortable on the perimeter than he does posted up with his back to the basket in the traditional big-man role. He didn’t start working on post moves in earnest until two years ago.
“I want to get to the point where I’m completely comfortable with both,” he said.
Hurt’s versatility at 6-9 makes him one of the most coveted recruits in the country. He has scored more than 3,000 points in his career, which includes 228 made threes. He also punishes smaller defenders in the post, if opponents choose that strategy. His style of play translates to a one-and-done NBA prospect.
“Bigger guys can shoot, dribble, do a little bit of everything,” Hurt said. “That’s where the game is headed right now.”
The game is taught differently, played differently and certainly looks different from a previous generation. Prior Lake’s Garcia has a host of Division I offers. He said college coaches don’t talk to him about playing a certain position in their recruiting sales pitch.
“They never really classify me under a position,” he said.
That’s because players don’t fit neatly into one box anymore.