Jalen Suggs remembers the first time he saw Chet Holmgren ball. It wasn’t pretty.
“He came in as a goofy guy who looked like he didn’t know how to play basketball at all,” says Suggs.
The former Gonzaga point guard, projected to be a top 5 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, is reminiscing over Zoom about his childhood friend from Minneapolis. When they first connected on the basketball court during their days in elementary school, Suggs was the superior player, and Holmgren—“super skinny, long feet,” Suggs recalls—was just trying to stay on the court.
Fast-forward roughly a dozen years later and Suggs can’t stop gushing about how that super skinny kid morphed from a goofy baller who barely belonged to a supremely gifted player collecting national awards like it’s a hobby. Suggs was honored Wednesday to present his friend, whom he considers a brother, with one of the most prestigious awards in high school basketball as Holmgren, of Minnehaha Academy, learned he was named the 2020-21 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Suggs couldn’t do the honors in person since he’s currently training for life in the NBA and Holmgren’s enjoying the final few days he has at home before he leaves for Gonzaga where he’ll follow in the footsteps of his buddy. But surprising him with the news—Holmgren’s family, coaches, and teammates presented him with his trophy—was totally unexpected and perfect considering Suggs and Holmgren are so tight.
“I was definitely surprised when he hopped on the Zoom call,” says Holmgren. “Nobody had given me the heads up or told me Jalen was going to present it. But when I saw Jalen hop on and give some words and present me with the award it was definitely cool to get it from a childhood friend and teammate that I’ve known for so long.”
The bond between the two dates all the way back to when Holmgren was in the third grade. The way he describes it, Suggs made Holmgren a better basketball player as he progressed through AAU and high school because “he pushed me and he always put up with me.” Clearly, it paid off since Holmgren will headline another stacked class for a Gonzaga team that played for the national title this past April thanks to the heroics of Suggs—his overtime buzzer-beater against UCLA in the Final Four will go down as one of the NCAA Tournament’s most incredible shots.
“He always gave me the knowledge that he had—he’s been very good for a long time,” says Holmgren. “And putting up with me, I wasn’t very good. He would drop me a no-look pass and it would bounce off my head, or something like that. But he continued to pass me the ball, continued to coach me up as a teammate or friend.”
Now Holmgren, who experienced a ‘7 growth spurt during his middle school days and is currently listed at 7’1” and 190 pounds, has the kind of all-around skills that are ultra-rare for somebody his size. Sure, he’s still thin and needs to bulk up at the next level, but he possesses an extremely potent inside-outside game and recruiting analysts have raved about his uncanny ability to block shots. He joins a prestigious fraternity of past Gatorade National Boys Basketball Players of the Year that include LeBron James (‘01-02 and ‘02-03), Jayson Tatum (‘15-16), Ben Simmons (’14-15), Bradley Beal (’10-11), and Kobe Bryant (’95-96), to name just a few.
The honor isn’t solely about athletic excellence. Winners must also maintain high standards in the classroom and display impressive character on and off the court. Holmgren is helping organize a clothing and athletic gear drive in Minneapolis Sunday with his barber to help out the city’s less fortunate.
“We are recognizing Chet as the best high school boys basketball player in the nation because of his dedication to performing on the court, in the classroom, and in the community,” Brett O’Brien, Gatorade’s senior vice president and general manager, said in a statement. “We take pride in looking at the whole athlete, not just the stats, and Chet is a role model for all of us.”
From a strictly basketball perspective, Holmgren deserves all the credit for transforming himself into a player that couldn’t handle a pass to being considered the consensus No. 1 recruit in this year’s class. He could easily be a top 5 selection in the 2022 NBA Draft should he declare after his freshman season. While his coaches and family absolutely deserve some shine, Suggs deserves some props for constantly motivating his friend and refusing to dial down the intensity just because they’re boys.
“Never took it easy on Chet. Ever,” says Suggs. “Every practice, whenever we would play against each other—again, I’m competitive, so I’m always going to give it my all—he was either going to bend over and fold or he could stand up. Every day he would get knocked down, bumped, beat up, but he showed up the next day ready to work. And then he started beating people up and really just growing into his own and into a man.”
Holmgren put up impressive numbers during his final campaign at Minnehaha, averaging 20.8 points, 12.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 4.7 blocks per contest. He was named a McDonald’s All-American and also earned 2021 Naismith High School Player of the Year honors. The next time you see him play it will be for Mark Few and the Bulldogs. Prepare to be wowed.
“You’re going to see truly a once-in-a-lifetime player,” says Suggs.
They don’t give you the kind of award Holmgren just picked up unless you’re the real deal.