Breaking down why the Thunder young core will have long-term success

Breaking down why the Thunder young core will have long-term success

DunkWire

Breaking down why the Thunder young core will have long-term success

- by

The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off their largest losing streak in franchise history and yet are in a great position for future success.

Due to careful cap maneuvering and asset management, Oklahoma City’s roster is loaded with tons of young talent. Since moving on from veteran players like Al Horford and George Hill, the Thunder have been featuring starting lineups younger than teams that played in college basketball’s March Madness.

Oklahoma City has some potential stars, especially in guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They can also potentially add two lottery picks in the 2021 NBA draft, which could perhaps include one of the stars projected to be available when they are on the clock to make their picks.

While the Thunder have a roster that is still fully in flux, and salary cap flexibility will make it possible for them to make bigger moves, let’s take a look at some of the players currently on their roster who have had success so far:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in Chicago, Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

(AP Photo/Mark Black)

The mark of a budding star in the NBA is his ability to create his own basket and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become remarkable at this skill.

He has scored 15.7 unassisted points per game, via PBP Stats, the most of any player in the NBA not named Luka Doncic. Only 20.6 percent of his non-corner three-pointers have come from an assist, the lowest of anyone with at least 40 attempts in this zone.

Perhaps the craziest part is that only 7.3 percent of his shots at the rim have been assisted, the lowest rate of anyone (minimum: 40 attempts) as well. This is in large part because of his reliance on driving to the basket.

Gilgeous-Alexander leads all players with 25.2 drives per game, which will go down as the most on record since tracking data first became available in 2013-14. He also joined Doncic as the only player to record more than 40 drives in a single game in that span, per FiveThirtyEight. Or as Louis Zatzman explains:

“He is able to reach such heights because of his physical and skill advantages. At 6-foot-6, he has enormous strides for a point guard and a twisting handle that baffles defenders like plot twists do viewers of M. Night Shyamalan movies. His strength and balance mean that even defenders who manage to stay in front of him have trouble bumping him off of his lines. If defenders overcommit to halting his forward momentum, he slithers through horizontal cracks with ease. And when he reaches the rim, he’s a genius at manipulating his body and decelerating his arm to release the ball from practically anywhere along his comically large wingspan.”

There are few players on the planet more skilled at self-creation than Gilgeous-Alexander, which will make him a feared slasher and one-on-one finisher off the dribble for years to come.

Aleksej Pokusevski

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - APRIL 02: Aleksej Pokusevski #17 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on April 02, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Thunder 140-103. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Oklahoma City’s Aleksej Pokusevski, a rookie from Serbia, is already one of the biggest unicorns in basketball. The 19-year-old seven-footer is the youngest player in the NBA but he has had some of the most exciting flashes that scouts dreamed of before the draft.

Pokusevski was a favorite among draftniks before he was selected in the first round last season because of his blend of size and playmaking. Since coming into the league, Oklahoma City has continued to develop his ability with the ball in his hands.

When including passes, per Synergy, he has finished 29.5 percent of his possessions as the ball handler in pick and roll sets. When is the last time you have seen someone with this much length execute a ball screen like this, below?

While he has not been an efficient player by any stretch, he has plenty of time to work out the kinks as he continues to improve over the next few seasons.

Remember, too, that Pokusevski averaged 16.0 points with 11.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists with 6.4 blocks and 4.0 steals per 40 minutes during the U18 Euro Championships in 2019. He was the tournament leader in blocks. He also averaged 3.1 blocks and 2.2 steals per 40 while playing in the Greek HEBA A2 league last season.

Now even as a rookie, per Cleaning the Glass, his block percentage ranks in the 95th percentile among all forwards. There are plenty of signs Pokusevski can become an elite interior defender, especially considering his reported 7-foot-3 wingspan. Pair that with the unique profile he brings on offense and you have the makings of something special.

Luguentz Dort

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Detroit.

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Any team can correctly identify a lottery talent but it takes a bit more skill to land an undrafted free agent that is a crucial part of your rotation within just one season. That is exactly what the Thunder have now done with Luguentz Dort.

Last month, amidst an impressive campaign thus far, Oklahoma City guaranteed Dort’s contract for the next two seasons. That was the right call considering the 22-year-old wing is a physical, versatile defender who has all the makings of a perfect glue guy on both sides of the floor.

Dort has appeared in the starting lineup in each of the 47 games that he has played during his sophomore year in the NBA. He has also enjoyed two of his most impressive importances of his career in April.

He recorded 42 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals while shooting a solid 7-for-11 on his three-pointers against the Utah Jazz on April 13. He also had 29 points on 5-for-8 from beyond the arc when the Thunder faced the Toronto Raptors on April 18.

Already an above-average perimeter defender, if he keeps showcasing scoring potential in the games without Gilgeous-Alexander, he will have even more value for the Thunder.

But either way, Dort has plenty of fans around the league. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton recently ranked him as the sixth-best sophomore in the NBA – one spot behind 2019’s third-overall pick RJ Barrett and ahead of 2020 postseason breakout star Tyler Herro.

Kenrich Williams

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kenrich Williams plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Detroit.

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kenrich Williams is exactly the kind of player who would make sense on a playoff team, playing well within his role despite a low usage rate. But he gives a bit of a competitive scrappiness to this rebuilding organization instead.

He was a solid defensive playmaker for the New Orleans Pelicans, where he was a spot starter. But after shooting just 30.4 percent from beyond the arc during his first two seasons in the NBA, the hope for Williams was simply that his shooting would eventually come along.

Fortunately, that is exactly what happened for Williams, who is now shooting 43.3 percent from long distance. Williams has lowered his total output to improve his shot selection but is now one of the more efficient shooters in the league.

Meanwhile, he has increased his field goal percentage at the rim from 56 percent last season to 67 percent in 2020-21. He has also increased his assist percentage from 8.8 percent all the way up to 14.5 percent and his assist-to-usage rate (0.96 percent) falls in the 94th percentile among forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.

Williams plays hard and contributes to winning basketball, which is backed up by the fact his net rating ranks as the best among the 10 Thunder players who have played the most possessions.

Oklahoma City has Williams locked up for the next three years on a contract worth $6 million and this deal could quietly be among the most economically friendly in the league based on what he is able to contribute.

Darius Bazley

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 16: Darius Bazley #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives his teammates during a timeout in the first quarter of the NBA game against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on April 16, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Even though Darius Bazley was fairly quiet as a rookie, scoring just 5.6 points per game last season, he has increased that all the way up to 13.4 points per game in 2020-21.

Bazley, who is still just 20 years old, has played especially well in April after coming back from an injury that sidelined him for most of March. He has reached double-digit scoring figures in all but one of his ten games since his return to action.

He contributed 21 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Boston Celtics on April 27 and eclipsed 25 points in back-to-back games on April 19 and April 21.

He is a highlight reel dunker who moves well with the ball and only needs a few dribbles from the perimeter to attack the basket for a ferocious slam. Plus, he can embarrass his defender with a pretty nasty crossover package in the process.

While he still struggles with efficiency on offense, he maintains good defensive awareness. In fact, he records defensive fouls less often than any other big in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Much like Pokusevski, there are some point-forward tendencies that make him an incredibly exciting young talent despite how raw he can be at times.

Moses Brown

Mar 29, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Moses Brown (9) dunks against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

If we had not written about big man Moses Brown in more extensive detail recently, the seven-footer would warrant his own section.

We are talking about a 21-year-old who is 7-foot-2 and has already recorded a game with 21 points and 23 rebounds on just 10 attempts from the field. Even though he is a bit inconsistent, the upside is there for Brown, who led the G League in rebounding during the 2021 bubble season.

Theo Maledon

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 26: Theo Maledon #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on April 26, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

While he is just 19 years old, we have seen some absurd performances from Theo Maledon.

He eclipsed 25 points on two different occasions in April and became the only rookie besides Russell Westbrook in franchise history to notch at least 30 points in a single game, finishing with 33 points against the Phoenix Suns on April 2.

His turnover rate is concerning and he is still only just an average playmaker, but it is easy to imagine him eventually playing a significant role during his time in the NBA.

Ty Jerome

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - APRIL 02: Ty Jerome #16 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Jevon Carter #4 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on April 02, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Thunder 140-103. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Before he was a first-round pick in 2019, Ty Jerome was a starting point guard for a Virginia team that won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship.

He has since made just one appearance in an NBA starting lineup during his first two professional seasons but he has made strides that give us reason to believe he projects as a rotational guard.

Jerome is shooting 40.8 percent from beyond the arc and he had two games with more than 20 points in April, hitting at least four three-pointers in both appearances.

Isaiah Roby

Oklahoma City Thunder center Isaiah Roby plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Detroit.

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

After playing just 11 minutes total during his rookie campaign last season, Isaiah Roby is now averaging 23.7 minutes per game.

In the process, he has also contributed as an above-average playmaker for his position on both sides of the ball. While his highs have not been as high as his teammates, he has played the part of a solid role player in the NBA.

More HoopsHype