While Paolo Banchero is well on his way to claiming NBA Rookie of the Year honors, NBA fans may have forgotten that his biggest competition for the award has not even played a game in the NBA yet. Chet Holmgren was arguably the most-hyped prospect coming out of this year’s rookie class prior to the Magic’s shocking selection of Paolo at No.1 despite Jabari Smith Jr. being tabbed as the likely choice.
With his lanky 7-foot-1 frame, his ability to handle, shoot, and protect the rim at high level, Chet is the next unicorn entering the NBA. After we saw glimpses of his talent in the Summer League, Chet’s rookie season was postponed after suffering a Lisfranc injury to his right foot while playing in the CrawsOver Pro-Am in Seattle.
The former Gonzaga star has been working his way back from injury and while he’s focused on preparing for his return, he’s dove into other endeavors as well. Chet recently teamed up with WNBA Superstar A’ja Wilson to be star in a March Madness commercial with AT&T.
“I always grew up seeing those ads when I was watching March Madness in class,” Holmgren tells Complex. “I probably shouldn’t be saying that (laughs), the kids shouldn’t be watching March Madness in class but you know I did. But just to be in one now is pretty cool.”
We caught with Holmgren recently to discuss the NCAA Tournament, being in a March Madness commercial, and returning from his season-ending injury.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did this partnership with AT&T come about?
I was speaking to my marketing agent and he said he had a great offer to work with AT&T on something that involves me and March Madness. We could tie in my ties to Gonzaga and I thought it would be cool to show how AT&T is helping the average fan who wants to watch March Madness.
What’s it like to already be in a March Madness ad after just being in college last year?
Definitely crazy, super cool. I always grew up seeing those ads when I was watching March Madness in class. I probably shouldn’t be saying that (laughs), the kids shouldn’t be watching March Madness in class but you know I did. But just to be in one now is pretty cool.
Looking at Gonzaga in this tournament, is this the year they break through?
Our team this year has been on a steady climb game after game. The games that I’ve watched, we’ve gotten better every time we’ve stepped out there so hopefully that continues as the tournament goes on and we hit our stride at the right time.
Take me back to last summer. I watched your YouTube video of you telling the story of your injury and you said you have no regrets of playing in the CrawsOver. Why is that?
I’m the type of person who likes to live in reality and in the present moment so me thinking back to what I did over the summer and saying ‘I wish I could’ve done this or done that’ is not something I like to do. Anybody would be better than they are today if they can go back and re-do what they’ve already done. That’s just not something I like to do. I like to focus on now and what I got to do to get where I’m trying to go going forward so I see myself working just as hard in the summer to play as much basketball as I can and get as good as I can every single day. I don’t see myself changing my demeanor in that just because of a situation like this.
It was far from a malicious play at all but did LeBron personally reach out to you after your injury was announced?
No, I haven’t spoken to him personally but at the same time, it’s not like he owes me an apology. It wasn’t his fault. Injuries happen in sports and it’s unfortunate that it happened but it just happened to be that he was a part of the play. It wasn’t like he should’ve done something different. It’s not a situation like that so I’m not expecting an apology or anything like that but no I haven’t spoke to him personally.
Transitioning to your recovery, has it been tough watching OKC compete for a play-in spot this year and knowing you could potentially be the missing piece to get them over the hump?
I don’t necessarily look at it that way. It’s definitely hard watching my team go out there t play and not being able to go out there and go at it against these other teams with my teammates. I try to live in reality. I gotta do what I gotta do to get to that point. It’s definitely a challenge not being able to play and second, not being able to go to war with my teammates.
Now your rookie campaign has shifted to next year, a class that includes Victor Wembanyama. You’re both unicorns as you can both can do it all at your respective heights. Are you coming with a chip on your shoulder to remind folks who you are knowing that everyone will be watching Vic’s every move next year?
I’d say that has nothing to do with. I like to always go out and play with a chip on my shoulder regardless of why it’s there. I’m definitely more of an underdog next year than I’ve been accustomed to the last few years just with the setback that I’ve had but it’s kind of the same demeanor regardless of the situation. I got stuff I’m trying to accomplish and a team I’m trying to help win. That’s what I got to focus on.
OKC had a young core of KD, Westbrook, Harden, Jeff Green, and Ibaka. Do you think today’s core anchored by you, Shai, Giddey, Jaylin and Jalen Williams, Dort and more can eventually reach that level and get back to being elite in the West?
Obviously I believe in the players we have on this team, I believe in the coaching staff, I believe in the organization as a whole so the answer is an obvious yes. I think we can reach really high heights. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down what the guys in the locker decide to come together and achieve. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. We’re having early success but just because we’re having success doesn’t make it easy for the next 10 years. We’re still going to have to work hard and work through different challenges. That’s something that we’ll strive to do. We got a lot of high-quality characters in our locker room so I’m excited to get out there and work with those guys.
Mentally, how is it been trying to get back to yourself on the court?
I’d be lying if I said anything other than it’s a challenge and it sucks day to day. There’s been challenges that come everyday with it. I like to stay level-headed. Never too high, never too low. I like to take emotion out of what I’m trying to do and the decisions I make. I try to do everything based off of a plan that has been put together and that’s what I’ve been sticking to. I’d be lying if I said it was easy.