The novelty of the game draws you in: Kenneth Lofton Jr., a 6-foot-7, 275-pound bowling ball from Louisiana Tech and Chet Holmgren, a 7-foot slim rail with a 7-foot-6 wingspan from Gonzaga – anomalies physicals at opposite ends of the NBA ecosystem, facing each other in the NBA Summer League.
The same night the Thunder selected Holmgren with the second pick, Lofton went undrafted, eventually signing a two-way deal with the Grizzlies. Holmgren’s size and defensive instincts could force the NBA’s offenses to reorient their operation, but last week it was Lofton, the charming and hopeful actor, a big man through thick and thin, forcing Holmgren , the darling of Las Vegas, to adapt.
Lofton gave Holmgren two body shots to the chest en route from the free throw line to below the hoop, confusing his long limbs and winning the angle for a left layup that gave Memphis its first two summer league points. This is the strange beauty of summer league: potential NBA royalty and fringe oddities taking the same ground, a potpourri of hope, expectation and body type. At the end of their first game, the question lingers: if Holmgren takes the NBA to new heights, could Lofton take it to new widths?
Both are descendants of game changers. Lofton is a point guard turned inside player, built like a tight end, making up for his lack of height with sheer girth. He can shoot, handle the ball and intimidate weaker players inside. His teammates, David Roddy, the Grizzlies’ 2022 first-round draft pick, and Xavier Tillman, a third-year big man, are versions of him who fit better into Overton’s NBA window, which has widened these past few years thanks in part to a big, 6-foot-7 second-round shot perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year named Draymond Green. Lofton, the chunkiest of the bunch, is their next logical extension. Holmgren’s smooth shooting and unblockable exit point inspire visions of Kevin Durant, who recently gave him his blessing, and Dirk Nowitzki. It also stands on the shoulders of the skinny skeletons of gamers like Kristaps Porzingis, who haven’t lived up to their unicorn moniker.
To change the NBA ecosystem, Holmgren and Lofton must first find a way to survive it. It does not matter the interest of one or the other of the players if their particularities are too exposed to allow their strengths to matter. And I’ll put the obvious caveat here: it’s just summer league. Lofton finished that opener with 19 points, six rebounds, and three assists (he is averaging 11 points and 7.3 rebounds in Las Vegas Summer League overall). And while Holmgren finished 3 for 11 in his second summer league game, he found some counters, which bodes well for his ability to hold off his positional opponents in the big leagues.
After Lofton’s initial layup, Holmgren threw and jumped for Josh Giddey, who fed him for a 3 on Lofton’s stubby-armed contest.
Lofton hit his own triple, including a 28-foot-3 sidestep reminiscent of James Harden, a player he watches closely.
Lofton continued his assault to the edge, but Holmgren found a way to fight back, absorbing Lofton’s bumps while keeping his arms straight, denying the ball and fending off his dribble. Even Holmgren’s struggles suggest how he can dominate in a league where other would-be unicorns have been forced out of the frame.
In the third quarter, Holmgren helped a driver into the paint, drawing a kick to Lofton in the corner. With a spin and a pivot, Holmgren teleported to the 3-point line, rushing and getting a nail on Lofton’s 3, taking away the elite defensive skill of seemingly being in two places at once. In his debut, he blocked six shots, setting a new Salt Lake City summer league record.
It’s easy to imagine Holmgren next to Aleksej Pokusevski, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the host of larger-scale Oklahoma City youngsters deflecting shots and passes, sucking up space, fending off attackers from the edge, forcing shooters to extend their reach and changing the geometry of the court. It’s also easy to imagine teams like the Grizzlies countering by smashing their spindly frames with brick wall screens, finishing off the Thunder when they can’t jump or reach.
Despite all the differences between Lofton and Holmgren, they share many similarities. It also doesn’t look like he should be able to grab NBA rebounds, back dribble in transition and set up shooters, but both can. Both are smart defenders. Both can shoot. Although they are markers of a league that is getting weirder and more creative, their skills are far more important than their body type.
Judging by their rosters and draft histories, the Thunder and Grizzlies seem to have one type, but I wonder if they’ve been hoarding those players because it’s the opposite. As I wrote in May, the Grizzlies are determined to stick with their draft evaluation process versus conventional ideas of what an NBA player should look like.
The Grizzlies have a ton of hitters, but they also have skinny 6-foot-11 Santi Aldama, who scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Wolves this weekend. Oklahoma is littered with lanky players, but it also just extended Lu Dort, a relatively stocky 6-foot-3 athlete with the strength in his hips to side-track any ball handler.
Holmgren and Lofton are designed to prey on each other’s vulnerabilities, but their opposing skills also allow them to easily co-exist. That’s what they did in the American team. The FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2021 Final against France has been dubbed a showdown between Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama, a 7ft 2in tall with a wingspan of 7ft 9in, the current consensus no. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. But it was Lofton who emerged through the trees.
Lofton settled into the post and Holmgren fired entry passes to him that only he could power over Wembanyama’s extended 9-foot-7 standing reach. Holmgren’s shooting ability allowed Wembanyama to hover around the perimeter, giving Lofton room to work inside. Lofton also attacked Wembanyama’s body the same way he attacked Holmgren’s in Salt Lake City, pushing him back in the third quarter for a layup. In the fourth quarter, drawing a double team, Lofton handed the ball to Holmgren for an easy driving layup. After Team USA’s victory, Holmgren won the MVP title. Channeling his predecessor Durant, he called Lofton a “true MVP.”
Holmgren and Lofton are interesting because they can force the game, and each other, to change. Holmgren’s giant first step could force Lofton to cut back, while Lofton’s elbows could push Holmgren straight into the weight room. Holmgren will crush shots for the rebuilding Thunder, while Lofton’s shots are more likely to make their mark on G League opponents with the Memphis Hustle. As the NBA has evolved, it has made room for these two types of players to push it further.