MINNEAPOLIS — The top-rated high school basketball player in the country can’t seem to escape his most viral moment.
A YouTube video that shows Chet Holmgren, a 7-footer at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, dribbling past and dunking over Stephen Curry at the NBA All-Star’s camp last year has nearly 600,000 views. The video, which Holmgren describes as “overplayed,” introduced a new audience to the multifaceted athlete with an uncanny set of skills.
Holmgren is agile and can handle the ball. He can block shots and lead the fast break. He’s comfortable in space and can knock down 3-pointers.
Although Holmgren is the first Minnesota player to secure the top ranking on ESPN’s top-100 recruiting list, he’s far from alone in a region that has emerged on the national scene. The fourth-coldest state in America (after Maine, North Dakota and Alaska) is stocked with young basketball standouts worth your attention.
“It’s definitely cool to represent not only my state but my friends and family who live here,” Holmgren told ESPN of his No. 1 ranking in the 2021 class.
Elsewhere in the recruiting rankings, Kendall Brown, ranked 17th in the 2021 class on ESPN.com, committed to Baylor last month. Will Tschetter, a three-star prospect, recently committed to Michigan. Camden Heide, a Wayzata, Minnesota, product in the class of 2022, has offers from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa State and Arizona. Tre Holloman, a point guard ranked 58th in the class of 2022, has drawn offers from multiple Power 5 programs. Buzz about Ibrahim El-Amin, son of former UConn star Khalid El-Amin and a 2023 prospect, has grown over the past year too.
“Minnesota has always had very talented players,” said Royce White, the former Minnesota Mr. Basketball who was the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA draft after leading Iowa State to the NCAA tournament. “It was always about who saw us. It was always about exposure.”
Holmgren, per local basketball insiders, will only magnify that exposure for the players in the state’s upcoming classes.
“It means the world,” Ryan James, Minnesota recruiting expert at GopherIllustrated, said of Holmgren’s place atop the prospect rankings. “We’re getting repeated players at that top level. It helps so much for the future. Chet helps that so much. He brings respect to them.”
This season’s crop of college basketball talent has strong Minnesota representation, too. Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga) and Dain Dainja (Baylor) will join programs this season with legitimate national title aspirations. Top-50 recruit Dawson Garcia of Prior Lake, Minnesota, is a 6-foot-9 forward who should help Marquette.
Top-tier talent at the high school and collegiate ranks, of course, can only mean a greater chance for NBA success as those players develop. Amir Coffey (Los Angeles Clippers), Gary Trent Jr. (Portland Trail Blazers), Mike Muscala (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Tyus Jones (Memphis Grizzlies) have all made solid contributions to their respective franchises this season.
Three Minnesotans — Duke’s Tre Jones, Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji — are projected to be selected early in the second round this year, per ESPN’s most recent 2020 NBA mock draft. That might count as a blip for other states, but it stands as a gold rush for a region that hasn’t produced an NBA All-Star since Kevin McHale in 1991.
The surge of prospects has turned the state into an increasingly popular destination for college basketball’s top coaches. At the lowest levels, more resources have been devoted to development, which has helped the overall quality of play within the state. Population growth in the Twin Cities — nearly 3 million people now live in the metro area — is a factor, too.
“There are so many high-level players from the state of Minnesota,” said one Power 5 coach who has signed multiple Minnesota-based players in recent years. “The high school and AAU coaches have done a great job helping players develop and receive college scholarships.”
“Coaches recognize there is talent here,” said Larry McKenzie, the only high school coach in Minnesota with multiple state championships at two schools (Minneapolis North, Patrick Henry). “At the same time, it’s not just a wake-up call for us. It’s a wake-up call for [college] coaches. People know we get players now.”
AAU and high school coaches in the state will tell you that Minnesota’s talent pool has always been respectable. They’ll point to Minneapolis North High School product Khalid El-Amin, who helped UConn win its first national title in 1999. Seven years ago, Joel Przybilla finished his 13-year NBA career. Former Minnesota star Kris Humphries was the 14th pick in the 2004 NBA draft. Although a trickle of local products turned pro in the years that followed — Cole Aldrich, Alan Anderson, Jon Leuer, Royce White — it was the group of Minnesota players who blossomed a decade later that altered the reputation of talent in the state.
Twin Cities standouts Reid Travis, Rashad Vaughn and Tyus Jones were all top-30 recruits in the class of 2014 and were all selected to play in that year’s McDonald’s All-American game in Chicago. They went on to excel at the collegiate level.
Travis was a three-time all-Pac-12 selection at Stanford before he averaged 11.2 PPG as a grad transfer at Kentucky during the 2018-19 season. Vaughn averaged 17.8 PPG for UNLV in the 2014-15 campaign, his lone collegiate season before he was selected 17th in the 2015 NBA draft. He was joined in the first round by Jones, the 24th pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves after he led Duke to a national title and earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Significantly, it was Jones who kicked off the Minnesota-to-Duke pipeline that both boosted the Blue Devils and turned the Twin Cities into a more important hotbed for elite coaches. His brother Tre, Gary Trent Jr. and Matthew Hurt were all decorated Minnesota prospects who chose to play for Krzyzewski after him. Other Minnesota players had starred for Power 5 programs in the past, but Tyus Jones both won a national title at Duke and reached his NBA dreams after one season.
“[Jones] was the first player I knew going to Duke,” said Hurt, who averaged 9.7 PPG last season. “Seeing how successful he was made me want to go here even more.”
Five years after Jones won a national title, Holmgren’s rise could mark another shift in the perception of the state’s top players.
Holmgren listed Minnesota, Gonzaga, Memphis, North Carolina, Georgetown, Michigan and Ohio State in a June tweet identifying the seven schools that made the cut for his services. At least one person isn’t convinced he’ll ever play college basketball, though.
Grassroots Sizzle head coach Brian Sandifer, Holmgren’s coach on the AAU circuit, said the No. 1 prospect in the country should turn pro and pick the new G-League route after high school.
“He just needs to go pro,” said Sandifer, who has coached Holmgren since he was a third-grader. “He’s doing the school [he chooses] a favor by even going. He’s gonna be a lottery pick. He’s gonna be top-three no matter what. There is no benefit in Chet going to college right now.”
Holmgren said it’s too soon to make that call.
“It’s too early to really rule anything out,” he said. “It’s also really early to make a decision.”
Chet’s father, Dave Holmgren, said he is analyzing every potential option, but college remains his top choice.
“I personally don’t know enough right now,” Dave said. “We’re planning on going to school. That’s our plan. It has to be the right fit. He doesn’t want an ‘NBA combine’ school.”
Should the hometown Minnesota Golden Gophers win the Holmgren sweepstakes, it would represent another subtle shift in the recruiting strategy Richard Pitino expected to employ when he was hired as coach in 2013. Pitino always figured he could build a team in Minneapolis — but not with talent from the area. The emergence of the state’s talent pool has changed the paradigm.
“I think when I first took this job, I was always under the impression that it was a hockey state,” he said. “Minneapolis is a national city, but [the sentiment was] ‘You’re just going to have to recruit out of state because it’s so hockey-centric.'”
Now Pitino finds himself battling college basketball blue bloods to prevent an exodus during one of the strongest runs for recruiting in the state.
Oturu, who grew up in the eastern suburbs of Minneapolis, was an exception more than a rule. Ranked 57th in the 2018 class, he helped the Gophers reach the NCAA tournament in 2019, marking the program’s third appearance since 2010. With only one Division I team in the state (University of St. Thomas will soon begin a transition to Division I) and less than a handful of spots in each recruiting class, prospects know early that they must set their sights wide. Outside recruiters certainly understand that dynamic, too.
“There is only one Division I program in Minnesota,” said Minnesota native Freddie Gillespie, who played at Baylor last year. “There are 14 roster spots at Minnesota and all of these talented kids in the area. I think that’s what the issue is.”
Although the issue is not a new phenomenon, the city’s critical place on the basketball map is. Twenty years ago, most local players just hoped to secure a Division I scholarship. Only a handful of players turned those opportunities in pro careers, and those local standouts were celebrated because they did not represent the norm.
That’s why Holmgren matters. He has already altered the perception of what’s possible for a kid from Minnesota. Now, locals wonder if he could become the state’s first NBA star since McHale 30 years ago and create an even brighter beacon as more college coaches scour the state to find talent like Holmgren.
“When I used to tell other players that I’m from Minnesota, they’d say, ‘You didn’t play anybody,'” Gillespie said. “Now when I say I’m from Minnesota, they say, ‘Whoa, did you play against this person or that person?’ Yes, hockey is big here, but we play basketball, too.”