The season is upon us with the doors of the practice facility set to open on Sept. 28. This year, the Thunder are surrounded by excitement and intrigue. They’re not necessarily going to win a lot of games, but many look forward to watching their young guys develop.
Training camp and pre-season will be spent experimenting with lineups, determining the best game plan to get the most out of the players and integrating new additions to the team.
Here are just a few things to look out for.
What type of physical condition is Aleksej Pokusevski in?
Aleksej Pokusevski is perhaps the most interesting young prospect in the NBA and the most prevalent concern surrounding him all throughout last year is his weight. At 7’0″ and just 190lbs, Pokusevski is rail thin. Adding some bulk to his frame is a crucial area in his development.
Pokusevski did not participate in the Summer League, nor the Olympic qualifiers with Serbia. The reasoning behind this decision was that he required time to work on his body.
“We have him on a specific track and plan for the summer,” said Sam Presti. “He’s having a great summer. He looks great. He’s worked his tail off, and we couldn’t be more excited about it.”
These are very promising things to hear from the GM. Adding significant weight to your frame doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen over a single offseason. But if Pokusevski can add anywhere from 10-20 pounds to his frame before opening night against the Utah Jazz on October 20th, that would be fantastic for his development. He would have an easier time on the defensive side of the ball where he often struggles in the paint and he would be able to finish through contact at the rim more efficiently.
How will rookies adapt to the NBA?
The Thunder have several rookies who will all likely see big minutes this year. 6th pick Josh Giddey, 18th pick Tre Mann, 32nd pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and 55th pick Aaron Wiggins will all see considerable playing time this year.
Three of these players got experience playing the NBA game in the Summer League, except for Giddey, who was hurt just a minute into his Summer League debut and did not play again. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the nature of an NBA game after missing a crucial point in his development. But due to the fact that he played overseas in a highly competitive league in Australia, he’s in a better position in terms of experience and basketball maturity than most. He’ll be used to the physicality and speed of the game from day one, something that most rookies often struggle with.
These rookies will likely see larger than normal roles during the four game pre-season slate as Mark Daigneault finds the best way to utilize their abilities heading into the regular season. As OKC isn’t looking to contend for the postseason this year, the rookies should receive a larger quantity of minutes, as well as bigger roles than they would have elsewhere.
Due to that, you can expect some rocky performances to begin the season. But as the year goes on, the extra playing time will showcase its benefits on their development after they have adapted their game and have been properly integrated into Daigneault’s system.
Does OKC have too many guards?
The Thunder are heavily crowded at the guard position, which raises concerns regarding fit and available playing time for certain players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon and Tre Mann are all primarily guards.
Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander can slide to the three-spot, but that is far from ideal, especially for Shai who developed into a real shooting guard with playmaking ability last season. Dort at the three full-time is also a concern due to his height, however, those effects could potentially be mitigated by his strength advantage. It’s likely we will see Dort move to the three to make room for a second starting guard, but Daigneault will certainly change things up frequently.
Giddey is also another candidate to move to the three, but he doesn’t possess the strength to do that yet. I believe Daigneault will elect to explore his capabilities as a tall point guard with top-tier passing ability for the time being.
Jerome and Maledon both received considerable playing time last year to aid their development, but it’s hard to see where their minutes come from this year behind the obvious starters Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort and the two rookies Giddey and Mann.
They could potentially hold value as trade assets towards the February trade deadline if that’s the route Presti wants to go. But both demonstrated promising flashes and potential last year, so the front office may be hesitant to abandon them so early.
Jerome impressed with his high-level shooting from beyond the arc (42.3%) and Maledon, while inconsistent, showed potential as a lead ball-handler in the offense.
I believe Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander will start at the guard spots, Dort at the three and the two rookies off the bench is the most likely scenario for opening night.
Where is the veteran leadership coming from?
The average age of the roster is just 23. With such a young team, veteran leadership is important in maintaining discipline, as well as aiding in development of young players.
This is the year Gilgeous-Alexander needs to step up into that role. He is the cornerstone of this franchise and with that comes the obligation of leadership. Former teammate Chris Paul’s leadership of the team was a large factor in Shai’s improvement over the course of his Thunder tenure. Now, he will need to step up into that role himself.
Fan favorite Mike Muscala is also returning to the team this year. Muscala is beloved by everyone in the organization and has made his dedication to the franchise clear. He may not see consistent time on the court this year, but he will be as integral as anyone when it comes to leadership.