Before 7-foot high school phenom Chet Holmgren joins NCAA runner-up Gonzaga’s basketball program this summer, the Minnehaha Academy star added one last big honor to his impressive prep resume.
And it was only fitting the Gatorade boys’ basketball national player of the year award presented to him Wednesday came from a familiar face: Jalen Suggs.
“To be able to be a part of his presentation,” said Suggs, who declared for the NBA draft after a standout freshman season at Gonzaga. “I thought it was an honor for me to be able to do that.”
Holmgren is replacing Suggs as the incoming college freshman everyone is talking about, but he can’t forget how special it was to see his longtime friend become a household name, especially after Suggs’ now iconic half-court buzzer beater to beat UCLA in the Final Four.
“When we were watching March Madness when we were younger, we talked about hopefully one day playing on that stage,” Holmgren said. “Watching him do it last year and excel the way he did was definitely a lot of fun to watch. Me and my friends were going crazy in basements watching.”
Not long ago, Suggs and Holmgren were making fans in Minnesota and around the country go nuts as the biggest show in high school hoops.
As Minnehaha Academy teammates, they packed gyms and made videos go viral. They both picked Gonzaga to play in college, but a year apart. And while Suggs was part of a memorable run with the Zags to the NCAA title game last season, Holmgren ascended to be the nation’s No. 1 senior and won another state title.
Minnesota is no longer only the state of hockey. Suggs and Holmgren continued what many others before them started by putting Minnesota basketball on the map, but they dreamed about their moment to shine from a very young age.
“Our team from third grade had eight out of 12 guys end up on a D-I roster,” Holmgren said. “Playing up against them at such an early age and pushing each other to be better and great every day, it helped me strive [for] a lot.”
Suggs is leaving some big shoes to fill at Gonzaga, even for Holmgren’s immense talent.
The 6-4 do-it-all point guard went from being the highest rated recruit ever to sign with the Zags to leading them to a 30-0 record before falling to Baylor in the national championship game in Indianapolis. Suggs, who is projected to be a top-five pick in next month’s NBA draft, is confident Holmgren’s impact will be significant as well, as a highly-skilled, highly-competitive, shot-blocking force of nature.
“He’s been a pleasure to watch,” Suggs said. “He’s gone from being goofy and uncoordinated to being the best player in the country. He’s one of the best basketball players I know … He’s got that same killer instinct with him. That’s one of my favorite parts about him.”
Holmgren has more hype than any recruit entering college next year as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2021. He averaged 20.8 points, 12.6 rebounds, 4.7 blocks, and 4.4 assists to lead the 20-1 Redhawks to the Class 3A Minnesota state championship. Among his other national accolades, he was a McDonald’s All-American and the Naismith high school player of the year.
Overshadowed by his star power, though, is Gonzaga’s quest for the national title that Suggs felt alluded them. Holmgren joins a perennial power that was on the cusp of a historic undefeated season.
There will be help with Gonzaga returning All-American big man Drew Timme and also bringing in a high-profile recruiting class with other top prospects.
Still, Holmgren understands the lofty expectations of following in Suggs’ footsteps.
“I’m going in with the mindset of working hard,” Holmgren said, “And doing what I have to do to try and have another successful year as a team.”