Chet Holmgren grew 6 inches in eighth grade, a painful spurt that helped define the Minnehaha Academy 7-footer, now considered the top boys’ basketball recruit in the nation.
“Chet’s greatest attribute is how athletic he is,” Minnehaha Academy coach Lance Johnson said of his returning senior, who recently moved up to that top position in ESPN’s ranking. “That sudden growth spurt didn’t affect him athletically. What it showed was his mental toughness.”
Agile and versatile on both ends of the court, Holmgren isn’t imposing at first blush. But he’s still intimidating, especially on defense with his nearly 90-inch wingspan to swat away presumably uncontested shots.
More suited as a wing than a low-post player, he also can run the floor, filling the lane for a slam dunk or pulling up to bury a three-pointer with his feathery touch.
“We have a 20-point lead before the game even starts because of what he brings to the court defensively on a nightly basis.”
While his recruiting stock has gone up, Holmgren’s list for a future college home narrowed Friday when he announced his final choices in a Twitter post showing seven college jerseys: Minnesota, Michigan, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Georgetown, Memphis and North Carolina. He had received offers from more than 30 schools.
“I think I fit in well at all the places I selected,” Holmgren said. “They all have great coaching staffs, I see them becoming a big part of my family, and they will push me to get better.”
With recruiting travel restricted, Holmgren has found himself doing a fair share of Zoom calls with college coaches.
“I just won’t get the campus feel or experience,” he said. “I’ve tried to enjoy every one of them, but it can get overwhelming. I’m taking it one step at a time.”
His biggest step forward just might have come in eighth grade, his most difficult season, when he grew from 6-2 to 6-8.
“That was a pretty rough year,” said Holmgren, a varsity player at the time. “My body hurt really bad all of the time.”
His growth spurt followed much of the same timeline as that of his father, David, who attended high school at Minneapolis Central and Prior Lake before playing for the Gophers.
“It was going to come sooner or later,” David said. “I was more concerned about how we were going to handle it.”
They did so by setting Holmgren up with a physical therapist.
“I had issues just moving,” Holmgren said.
Physical therapy was an alternative David didn’t have during his playing days.
“All anybody kept telling me is that you will outgrow it,” said David, who wound up a quarter-inch shy of 7 feet.
Tendinitis in his knees limited David’s college career. He appeared in 57 games for the Gophers in the late 1980s, averaging only 5.4 minutes, 1.0 points and 0.7 rebounds per game.
“My ligaments would get really tight,” David said. “The more I played, the worse they would get.”
He didn’t want to see his son go through the same agony. The physical therapist helped him with stretching, running and jumping, trying to keep his hips properly aligned. They also worked on his posture.
“I don’t have any more growing pains,” Holmgren said. A year later, he grew another 3 inches. What’s more, tendinitis that he developed in his knees appears to be behind him.
“I have to be careful with Chet,” Johnson said. “He will try to play through anything.”
Taking the next step
As he’s grown taller, Holmgren has focused on adding weight.
“It’s definitely not easy and my No. 1 concern,” said Holmgren, who weighs 185 pounds. “I don’t need to add weight as much as I do strength. I need to become stronger and quicker.”
A stronger frame will add another dimension to his already well-rounded game. He boasts a quick spin move to the hoop and excellent hands to score on put-backs after an offensive rebound. He’s also an outstanding passer.
“It will help with my ability to get through contact,” Holmgren said. “I’m not afraid of contact. I just need to get stronger to get through it and be able to finish.”
His competitiveness and willingness to do whatever it takes to win allow his footwork to go unnoticed.
“I’m a little slow on my feet, but relative to my height I’m pretty quick,” Holmgren said. “I still need to get faster.”
He played significant roles in the Redhawks’ three consecutive Class 2A titles from 2017-19, increasingly wowing fans with his versatility. It reached a pinnacle last summer when a video went viral of him beating Golden State superstar guard Steph Curry with one of his own moves — a double behind-the-back dribble — for a slam dunk at Curry’s select camp.
“What that video did for Chet was huge,” Johnson said. “His popularity exploded.”
This past winter he averaged 14.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.9 blocked shots per game. He showcased his defensive ability against nationally ranked Sierra Canyon of California with 12 blocks and 10 rebounds in a 20-point victory on Jan. 4 at Target Center before 17,000 fans.
The talented Redhawks, led by Gonzaga-bound Jalen Suggs, were the top-ranked Class 3A team at 25-3 when the season was halted on March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They had just defeated Totino-Grace in the section final to earn a spot in the state tournament.
“He is always working on something here and there,” David Holmgren said. “He picks up things pretty fast. It’s all second nature to him.”
Pride playing defense
Holmgren’s defensive work comes to the forefront for Johnson’s squad.
“We have a 20-point lead before the game even starts because of what he brings to the court defensively on a nightly basis,” Johnson said.
Holmgren quickly credits Suggs and other Redhawks teammates for making him a better defender: “If you’re not a good defender playing against our guys in practice, you’re going to be embarrassed.”
Holmgren works out with Suggs and other Redhawks players at the school. He routinely guards the 6-5 Suggs in pickup games.
“Chet is a three-level scorer who is an elite defender,” Suggs said. “He will go to war with you no matter what the situation is.”
With Suggs’ graduation, Holmgren will become more of a focal point offensively for the Redhawks. He also has outstanding court awareness.
“I’m not going to be selfish or force anything,” Holmgren said. “If I attract defenders, it will open up things for my teammates.”
He’s also concentrating on being “more of a vocal leader,’’ he said. Personable, smart and witty, the energetic Holmgren enjoys lighting up a room.
He also knows he has plenty of work ahead in preparation for his final high school season and a future at the collegiate level.
“There is a lot of improvement to be made,” Holmgren said. “I have to keep working hard and stay true to my values.”