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How About That 2022 Thunder Draft Class?

How About That 2022 Thunder Draft Class?

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Last week’s draft was a whirlwind. There was a sizeable shakeup at the top of the draft and there were a few inaccurate tweets making waves and causing panic for some Thunder fans. In the end, the Thunder used their first top-five selection since 2009 to select, as expected, a hopeful franchise cornerstone in Chet Holmgren. GM Sam Presti did make a big trade for pick number 11 (from the Knicks), and left with four total picks–three of them in the top 12. At the time of this writing, it looks like three lottery picks from one team is a first in NBA history.

It’s been a fairly polarizing draft for Thunder fans, at least initially, with mixed reactions ranging from love to dislike for each player Oklahoma City selected. At the end of the night, the team had gotten better and added some pretty intriguing pieces throughout the roster at a variety of positions.

OKC walked away with multiple perimeter ball handlers and passers to go along with two big men. Presti continued his recent trend of drafting average to below average athletes with passing acumen. This has been a fascinating shift from Presti, whether by design or coincidence, as he keeps adding players who are tall and who can move the ball. This should make for a really fun and enjoyable team to watch if they can make some outside jumpers, a hypothetical not so new to Thunder fans.

Let’s look first at the cocky, lean, shot-blocking machine from Gonzaga, the crown jewel of this draft class.

#2: Chet Holmgren

After a bit of a curveball thrown with Paolo Banchero surprisingly going first overall, Chet Holmgren landed where he was projected all along: in Oklahoma City. Chet was arguably the best defender in the country this past season as a true freshman, and put up a monstrous 12.6% block rate. He put up the fifth highest BPM since 2008 for a freshman, trailing only Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Michael Beasley, and Kevin Love, per Bart Torvik. The Thunder sported a solid to above-average defense last year when everyone was healthy without a rim protector down low; Holmgren will immediately anchor the defense inside. He’s not as good as Evan Mobley on the perimeter, but he’s just as good if not slightly better prowling the paint and deterring shots at the rim.

His perimeter jumpshot looks promising, as he shot 39% from three on 105 attempts throughout the year, in addition to a solid 71.7% on free throws. He did a fair amount of damage from distance in transition, whether as a trailer or a pull-up shooter, ranking in the 93rd percentile as an overall transition player. Holmgren’s connective passing traits are fairly good for a player of his stature and position, and he should fit in well with OKC’s philosophy of ball movement. An underrated skill, in general and for Chet himself, is offensive rebounding. We just watched Kevon Looney and Robert Williams feast in the postseason on the offensive glass, and Chet was in the 99th percentile there this past season per Synergy. The Thunder were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the NBA last year. Combine this micro skill for Chet with his insane touch at the rim? He should immediately provide great value to Oklahoma City’s offense.

I even believe there are some skills that Chet can show in OKC that he didn’t get to showcase at Gonzaga. They rarely ran him any dribble handoffs on the perimeter and he saw very few reps as a roll man, something he should do much more in OKC. He should also have more freedom in general playing for a team that has has talent development as its primary goal, trying those things he could get away with in high school and AAU but not against college competition.

Again, Chet was my number one overall player from the 2022 draft and I am very excited he’s been added to this OKC core.

#11: Ousmane Dieng

The Thunder acquired Ousmane Dieng from the New York Knicks for three heavily protected 2023 draft picks, which came as a surprise. This is a pretty good trade to me on paper for pick 11, but there are a few players I would have rather had at #11 like Jalen Duren and AJ Griffin. Regardless, Dieng always seemed like Presti’s current type of player: he’s tall, played in the NBL, and can pass.

Standing at 6’10, 220 lbs. with a 7’0 wingspan, Dieng is a lengthy wing with fluid movement abilities despite an overall lack of burst and vertical athleticism. Dieng is fairly skinny and, frankly, weak for his age, but as with Chet I don’t worry too much about weight and strength with young prospects. The final stretch of the season was promising for Dieng, as he averaged 13/4/1 on 60% TS and 36.6% from three in his final 10 games for the New Zealand Breakers. Being 6’10 and having the ability to run pick-and-roll is impressive for someone who just turned 19, as 28.2 percent of his possessions this past season were in the PnR. Dieng’s passing is a great skill and one that Presti clearly values a lot. The Frenchman’s potential to run actions as a primary ball-handler and make live dribble passes also makes him a good fit next to Josh Giddey (shooting concerns aside) as another jumbo playmaker, although Dieng is not at the same level as Giddey.

Dieng was 11/36 on open catch-and-shoot jumpers this past season and, despite his good final stretch, still finished shooting 27.1% from three and 66.7% from the line in the NBL. His scoring is a real worry because he doesn’t have the athleticism or strength to offset this lack of perimeter shooting. If he isn’t a threat to make open jumpers, his value plummets. However, the shot form looks good; it definitely isn’t broken, but it’s just not gone in so far. He should have the freedom to play and take shots without many repercussions in OKC next season which should bode well for his development. His ball handling is impressive for his size and age, with a variety of dribble moves in his bag to get to his spots on the floor. It would help a ton if Dieng’s shot started to fall more, but even the flashes without that element have been special.

Despite his thin frame, Dieng profiles to be a pretty good perimeter defender at the next level. A very fluid mover at 6’10, he was good defensively in the NBL at the point of attack. His lack of strength could be a problem against the bigger wings in the NBA at first, but there is plenty of time to improve on that. Dieng profiles to be more of a wing than a pseudo big at the next level, as I don’t think he’ll be able to protect the rim at an acceptable level due to his aforementioned lack of athleticism.

I’m curious if we’ll see Dieng in the G-League at all this season. Aleksej Pokusevski and Tre Mann both saw minutes in the G-League as top 20 picks for this Thunder team, and they may want Dieng to oscillate between leagues if they wish to let him experiment with the ball in his hands and more freedom on the court.

#12: Jalen Williams

A shocking pick to most, Jalen Williams was someone I thought Presti really loved but would be too much of a reach at #12. Turns out, Presti agreed with me somewhat. A dramatic riser during this draft cycle, Williams is a 6’6 guard/wing with a ridiculous 7’2 wingspan. Williams has a similar frame to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but he’s likely to end up being more of a wing than a lead ball handler on this team. He was All-WCC this past season at Santa Clara and put up an impressive 18/4/4 on 60% TS and 40% from three. He should provide the Thunder with shooting from behind the arc, as he ranked in the 97th percentile as a spot-up shooter per Synergy. Williams experienced a little, sudden boost in accuracy this season shooting wise, but the FT numbers remained relatively steady throughout his three-year college career and he finished spectacularly on floaters, a good sign of touch.

The Thunder are now loaded with a bunch of potential ball handlers, Williams the latest addition. He very well might be the best PnR ball handler in this class, where he ranked in the 86th percentile on over 200 possessions. The passing ability is real for Santa Clara Jalen, as he has the ability to make skip passes and other creative ambidextrous deliveries out of similar actions by using his craft and skill rather than relying on athleticism. Williams plays at his own pace, always. He is never sped up; his patience in the PnR is a thing of beauty as he waits until the very last moment to dish that pocket pass. It will be fun to watch him make plays on this team, and hopefully he develops a good PnR connection with some of the new and returning Thunder big men.

Speaking of his athleticism, Williams is not a very good athlete. Like Dieng, he lacks a lot of speed and verticality and relies more on craft and change of pace to get by defenders. Learning under Gilgeous-Alexander’s wing could be valuable for Williams, as SGA has some of the best change of pace and deceleration traits that I’ve ever seen from a player. I’m very interested to see how the Thunder use Shai, Giddey, and Williams in the ball handling pecking order. Williams had the ball in his hands frequently this past season but might have to downsize to a more tertiary role in OKC’s backcourt. In theory, that should be a great fit since Williams can excel as a C&S player who can run secondary actions effectively.

Williams’ length provides him with a great starting point on the defensive end of the floor. His steal and block numbers were mediocre at best (1.9% steal rate, 1.5% block rate) so he doesn’t project to be much of an event creator on the defensive end of the floor. Despite this, he was solid and should continue to be in the NBA with a smaller, less demanding offensive role.

The long-term fit is a bigger question. Williams is 21 years old, a changeup from Presti’s usual first-round age preference. There’s also already a logjam of guard playmakers on this team. I’m curious to see how this plays out in the future, but Williams is a pick I can accept even if it wasn’t my first or second choice at this spot.

#34: Jaylin Williams

There’s more to Jaylin Williams, the 6’10 center out of Arkansas, than the oddity of his shared name with the Thunder rookie selected before him. I love Arkansas Jaylin. He rates quite high by a few analytical draft models, for whatever you think that is worth. He’s very similar to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in a sense, a relatively “boring” and high floor selection at #34. He is a phenomenal passer for a big man who should be able to read the defense quickly and make smart decisions the second he steps on an NBA court. His short roll passing is outstanding and he fits seamlessly in OKC where Presti is hoarding good passers. Some Jalen-to-Jaylin short roll playmaking could be super fun at the next level, too.

However, Jaylin Williams has one skill that stands above the rest, one that might be the best individual micro skill in the entire class: his ability to draw charges. He drew 54 charges on the season, while the next closest in college was around 20. It is truly an outlier skill, one shared by Lu Dort, and those two should combine to take slew of charges next season. Aside from his offensive foul drawing, Williams is a very talented defender due to his instincts and intelligence on that end of the floor. While not the bounciest or quickest athlete, he makes up for it with quick hands and exceptional reaction time.

The scoring package is the big question mark for Williams, and the answer could unlock his ceiling. His rim finishing was average at best; he finished 63 percent of his 138 attempts there, with 66.7 percent of them being assisted per Bart Torvik. The lack of vertical explosion is what hinders him the most in this area, so a reliable floater/push shot off the short roll could be a valuable asset to his game. He had a very low 18.6% usage rate this past season at Arkansas, and he is occasionally a bit timid on offense when presented with a shot attempt. He shot 27.1% from three on only 71 attempts, and an acceptable 73% from the line. Synergy had him down in the 31st percentile as a spot-up shooter. If he could improved enough to become a reliable C&S three point guy, we could be looking at a very valuable role player in the NBA.

Williams also ranked fourth in defensive rebounding percentage among high major players this past season, so he and Chet should secure most defensive rebound opportunities if and when they share the floor together. The Thunder lack a true center outside of Holmgren (who still might be best suited at the 4), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Williams play plenty of minutes this season at the 5.

Williams projects as a prototypical glue guy and role player for today’s NBA who OKC will hope pans out as a solid defender who operates as a fun connective piece of the offense in the present and future.

The Total Package: How’d Presti Do?

This is another solid draft by the Thunder. They didn’t knock it out of the park in my view, as I have a few qualms with selections in the back half of the lottery. But these players were not awful reaches, and you can talk yourself into why Presti valued them this highly. I absolutely love the Chet Holmgren and Jaylin Williams (Arkansas) selections for this team, and while Jalen Williams (Santa Clara) and Ousmane Dieng wouldn’t have been my picks, they both possess traits that Presti covets and has sought out in recent drafts.

Some other notes: all four of OKC’s 2022 selections have a 7’0+ wingspan, a contrast from last year’s draft where every incoming player was at a +0 or a negative by the same measure. The Thunder also inked a partially guaranteed deal with undrafted free agent Gabe Brown from Michigan State, a legit 6’7 wing shooter who shot nearly 39% from three and 90% from the line for his career. He met with the Thunder twice during the pre-draft process and is a name to keep an eye on.

I’m most intrigued by the conflicting timelines here. Jalen Williams is the oldest prospect Presti has taken in the first round since Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis in 2014. Dieng and Josh Giddey are both 19, and most all of the future picks on Oklahoma City’s books will be younger still. Two years isn’t a lot in a vacuum, but draft age is like dog years when it comes to development. Two years of developmental experience is rather massive, and I’d love to know what Presti and Co. are planning internally because their draft selections do not seamlessly line up on the team-building calendar.

Another thing that I am questioning: they keep drafting similar archetype players, which I worry will in turn stunt the development of others. JRE and Jaylin Williams (Arkansas) are pretty redundant with one another, and how might Tre Mann and Jalen Williams–two non-primary creators who mostly need the ball to be effective–work together? If OKC had taken a great off-ball wing like AJ Griffin who doesn’t need the ball in his hands instead, the on-court fit would be much cleaner. There are a lot of connective passers with similar-ish skillsets on the roster, and it just seems like it will be difficult to maximize each of their developmental opportunities against quality competition. The process in general feels a little weird to me, and I don’t fully understand what Presti is trying to do, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt while it plays out.

Nevertheless, Presti loaded up with three lottery picks who could potentially be featured heavily on the next Thunder contender. There was a clear vision with these picks, and while a player like Ousmane Dieng may take some time to develop, players like Jalen and Jaylin Williams can come in immediately and play alongside Chet Holmgren and the returning Thunder pieces. Despite the overlapping skills, all these picks are distinct in their own way. I’m very excited for Summer League, and I hope each of these guys play on what should be a pretty loaded roster. We’ll also wonder how much these rookies contribute to winning in the 2022-23 season, because it’s impossible not to look ahead to the 2023 draft and get excited about another high-end pick. Players like Cam Whitmore, Anthony Black, Jarace Walker, the Thompson twins, and of course, Victor Wembanayama are all likely targets depending on where the Thunder finish this upcoming season.

I’m very much looking forward to watching the new Thunder in 2022-23, and I think Oklahoma City is finally on the rebuilding upswing now, armed with a very bright future that fans can get excited about.