Chet Holmgren, Thunder begin season vs. Bulls with high hopes

Chet Holmgren will make his NBA debut one year later than expected when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night in the season opener for each team.

The 7-foot-1 Holmgren was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft before sustaining a Lisfranc injury to his right foot 14 months ago in a pro-am game and subsequently undergoing season-ending surgery.

Now, the Thunder are counting on the former Gonzaga star to help them rise up the standings.

“He’s progressed really well,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said last week. “It starts with the fact that he worked really hard to get himself back to this point with that rehab, with great discipline. I give him a lot of credit for that, so I’m happy for him, that he’s out there competing again, and that that’s behind him.”

Holmgren averaged 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds in his lone college season. He blocked 117 shots, made 41 3-pointers and shot 60.7 percent from the field.

The Thunder were left to imagine the impact he might have made last season while Holmgren rehabbed the foot and focused on the mental aspect of his game.

“Obviously, I haven’t played 82 games in the NBA against the best players in the world, but I have an understanding that there’s a bigger picture,” Holmgren recently told the Thunder website. “There’s gonna be mistakes, we’re gonna lose games. There’s gonna be rough spots, we’re gonna have great games, we’re gonna have games we shoot the ball well, we’re gonna have games where one dude shoots it well and no one else does. We’re gonna see everything.”

The Thunder went 40-42 in the regular season and 1-1 in the play-in round — as did the Bulls — and missed the playoffs last season.

Oklahoma City has a promising future as Holmgren will be added to the mix led by All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished fourth in the NBA in scoring last season (31.4) and led with 45 games of 30 or more points.

Guards Josh Giddey and Lu Dort, swingman Jalen Williams and forward Jaylin Williams also are key cogs. Reserve guard Isaiah Joe made a team-best 161 3-pointers while averaging just 19.1 minutes per game.

Chicago has its own core in six-time All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan, two-time All-Star guard Zach LaVine and two-time All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic.

DeRozan ranks seventh among active players with 21,685 points, LaVine set Chicago’s single-season 3-pointer record (204) for the second straight season, and Vucevic recorded 51 doubles-doubles to become the fourth player in franchise history with 50 or more in a season.

The trio is starting its third season together, and Vucevic sees the window closing for a run at the title.

“I think there have been some positive steps, so continue to build and get to where we want to get,” Vucevic said. “I said that this summer. This is probably our last shot (for the Big Three) to make something happen, and we’re aware of that and it’s on us to deliver.”

Forward Patrick Williams and guard Coby White join the three stars in the opening game starting lineup. The Chicago bench includes center Andre Drummond, forward Torrey Craig and guard Alex Caruso.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan is looking to see improvement in ballhandling and on defense.

“I think we have to get much better taking care of the ball,” said Donovan, who coached Oklahoma City for five seasons from 2015 to 2020. “That’s been clear, a pretty consistent challenge for us in all these (preseason) games. We’ve been a pretty good team the last couple of years taking care of it.

“The other part is defensively — we are not near where we had been last year. I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us there to get better.”

The Thunder swept last season’s two meetings.