Chet Holmgren out for season

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What will be the impact of Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury?

The Oklahoma City Thunder announced Thursday that the No. 2 pick of this year’s NBA draft will miss his entire first campaign as a pro after suffering a Lisfranc injury to his right foot while playing in the CrawsOver Pro-Am event on Saturday.

Although Holmgren’s untimely injury costs him a chance to play and Thunder fans the chance to see their franchise’s highest draft pick since taking Kevin Durant at No. 2 before moving to Oklahoma City, the track record of other top picks sidelined by injury during their first season suggests it shouldn’t be a major detriment to his development.

Playing without Holmgren could, however, affect the Thunder’s outlook for the coming season. Without him, Oklahoma City becomes more likely to spend another year battling for lottery position despite having a handful of core players already in place.

Additionally, the high visibility and timing of Holmgren’s injury might change how NBA teams treat offseason pro-am competitions, which have grown increasingly popular in recent years. Let’s break down the many implications.

A star-studded precedent for Holmgren’s injury

With Holmgren due to miss his entire first NBA season to injury — notably not his rookie season, since he’ll retain eligibility to win Rookie of the Year in 2023-24 — he joins a star-studded list of top-three picks to do so since 2007.

Three No. 1 picks have missed their entire first season in that span: Greg Oden (2007), Blake Griffin (2008) and Ben Simmons (2016). We also saw Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in 2014, miss two full campaigns due to a navicular fracture in his right foot.

Each of these injuries is distinct in terms of long-term impact. The microfracture knee surgery Oden underwent before making his NBA debut was a factor in his career being cut short, while Embiid dealt with injuries for years before being allowed to fulfill his potential as one of the league’s most dominant players.

Still, the common denominator is that these players played as well as could have been expected when they returned. Both Griffin and Simmons returned to win Rookie of the Year, controversially so in the latter case. Embiid finished a narrow second only because he was limited to 31 games as a rookie.

In fact, top draft picks who have missed their first season due to injury have played so well that I answered a mailbag question a few years ago wondering whether their success implied all rookies should take a redshirt year. I certainly wouldn’t say that, but that history is encouraging when it comes to projecting Holmgren’s return for 2023-24.

Is Holmgren at a greater risk for injuries?

Unfortunately, Holmgren’s injury will serve to validate fears that his 7-foot, 195 pound frame puts him at increased risk to miss time.

Holmgren is one of the leanest players in modern NBA history. Based on those listings — Holmgren did not take measurements at the NBA draft combine — his body mass index (BMI) of 19.4 is third-lowest among current players, trailing two of his Thunder teammates (Aleksej Pokusevski, 19.1, and Ousmane Dieng; 19.3).

Aside from his two teammates, only one player since the NBA-ABA merger has been listed with a lower BMI than Holmgren: 7-foot-7 defensive specialist Manute Bol, listed at 200 pounds for a BMI of 17.0. Bol played at least 71 games each of his first seven seasons in the NBA, including 80-plus four times.

A handful of other post players have been listed with BMIs lower than 20. Keith Closs, listed at 7-foot-3, 212 (19.7 BMI) played three seasons as a reserve for the Los Angeles Clippers. Ron Behagen played power forward for seven years at 6-foot-9, 185 (19.8 BMI) and played 80-plus games in three of his five seasons as a regular. And longtime forward Mickey Johnson, aka “Rubber Band Man,” was incredibly durable after becoming a regular in his second season, 1975-76. Johnson, listed at 6-foot-10, 190 (19.9 BMI) played all but three games over the next six campaigns and never fewer than 76 until 1984-85 at age 32.

Inevitably, the sample size for Holmgren comparisons is limited, but the track record doesn’t show evidence to support the idea that his frame makes injuries inherently a greater risk.

How might Oklahoma City handle this season?

With Holmgren sidelined, the Thunder’s 2022-23 roster will look remarkably similar to the group that finished 2021-22. Oklahoma City still adds a pair of first-round picks, Dieng and guard Jalen Williams, as well as second-round pick Jaylin Williams. Of that group, only the Jalen Williams drafted in the lottery seems likely to contribute much immediately, raising the possibility of a third season for the Thunder near the bottom of the NBA standings.

There are two interesting variables at play here. The first is how much internal development we’ll see from Oklahoma City’s young talent. Of the nine Thunder players who saw at least 1,000 minutes of action last season, all of whom are returning, only reserve forward Kenrich Williams is older than 24. As a result, we’d expect Oklahoma City’s players to come back at a higher level.

The other is just how much we’ll see those players, particularly in the second half of the season. Only one Thunder player (forward Darius Bazley) saw action in more than 61 games last season. Bazley played 69. Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s best player, has played a combined 91 of 154 possible games the past two campaigns. If he plays 70-plus games in 2022-23, the Thunder will be far more competitive.

At the same time, Oklahoma City has been unusually “lucky” in close games the past two years. The Thunder were outscored by 8.1 points per game last season, similar to the Orlando Magic (minus-8.0) and Houston Rockets (minus-8.5), yet won two more games than Orlando and four more than Houston, thanks in part to going 7-6 in games decided by three or fewer points.

The trend was even more extreme in 2020-21, when Oklahoma City’s minus-10.6 point differential was far and away the league’s worst yet three teams won fewer games. If the Thunder’s record in close games flips, it’s possible they could be far more competitive next season yet still end up with a similar record.

As frustrating as one more season near the bottom of the standings would be, Oklahoma City would be rewarded with another high lottery pick who could team up with Holmgren in 2023-24, potentially fueling a rapid rise toward the playoffs.

Will — and should — pro-am appearances be curtailed?

Given how protective NBA teams have become of their players’ long-term futures, it will be interesting to see what discussions come out of Holmgren’s injury — particularly in the context of Saturday’s game featuring LeBron James, Jayson Tatum and No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero among others subsequently ending early due to court conditions.

Having been in attendance on Saturday, I think it’s worth noting that condensation on the court worsened significantly over the course of the quarter and a half that was played as compared with conditions when Holmgren was injured in the opening moments.

Last Saturday also featured an unusual set of circumstances with LeBron making his first appearance in Seattle in 15 years, leading to a packed gym and crowds lingering outside, a factor that prevented organizers from opening the doors to create airflow. Add in an unusually humid day in Seattle and the gym’s air conditioning was overwhelmed. A similar crowd to see Banchero and Holmgren play at the CrawsOver in late July went off uneventfully.

Still, NBA teams could use Holmgren’s injury as an opportunity to tighten restrictions on pro-am appearances currently outside of their control. Although everything about Holmgren’s appearance Saturday was within the NBA’s rules for sanctioned pro-am events, those are subject to change with the league and its players’ association beginning negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.

I hope the league doesn’t overreact to one unfortunate injury. Serious injuries in pro-am settings are rare — injury expert Jeff Stotts of noted Brandon Knight’s ACL tear in 2017 as another example that cost a full season — and players must play basketball during the offseason for their conditioning and for their development.

Pro-ams get more attention because they’re open to the public, and in this case livestreamed, but that doesn’t make them any different from the pickup runs that are an inevitable part of the NBA summer.

Sadly, Holmgren’s most recent tweet — from just after his first CrawsOver appearance — was agreeing with Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray about the value of pro-am appearances to allow fans who can’t afford NBA tickets a chance to see their favorite players during the summer.

Let’s hope that continues and Holmgren is able to play in them again soon.