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Lessons from preseason

Lessons from preseason
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

In terms of meaningless basketball games, the Thunder’s preseason turned out to be fairly eventful. Improved players, new faces, new ideas. Now of course, with any discussion of preseason basketball comes the disclaimer that it’s often fool’s gold and getting excited about a preseason development can make you look like an idiot down the line.

It was seven games though, all with different takeaways and lessons. I’d say these are the top things we learned:

Russell Westbrook might be getting back to assisting. His assist numbers weren’t anything outrageous (21 total), but he had games with 12 and nine, plus six in the first half last night. Westbrook has been rightly labeled as a gunner, looking to shoot first, shoot second and pass fourth or fifth. Don’t forget though, prior to last season, Westbrook averaged 8.2 assists per game and 8.0 per game in the 2009-10 season and 2010-11 season, respectively.

The question is if last season’s dip in assists was more of an aberration, more of a structural change in the team (Durant and Harden handling more) or if it was a alteration in Westbrook’s game. Preseason seems to indicate he’s looking to setup a bit more, but he certainly wasn’t shy about scoring. I think Westbrook is at his very best averaged seven assists or more a game. One thing that will help boost those numbers is Serge Ibaka as a legit pick-and-pop threat, so those numbers could come up again.

Is Serge Ibaka expanding his game? Simple stats: In his career, including the postseason, Ibaka is 3-of-11 from distance. In seven preseason games, he’s 4-of-7. The expansion of his shot to 3-point land is a clear development of his game and something that Scott Brooks is supportive of.

“We still need Serge to stay within a range where he’s going to make a high percentage,” Brooks told reporters Monday. “He’s worked on it and he makes them in practice. It’s not something that we’re just experimenting during games. He’s definitely worked on them in practice and he’s taking them. … There are going to be nights where he’s open. And we all feel confident [in him], especially in the corners. I think that range, 22 feet, he can knock that down.”

I think it’s natural for Ibaka to try and step back. He’s quietly one of the best mid-range shooting big men in the league, so why not attempt to add another dimension. It makes OKC’s offense that much more dangerous and dynamic and makes Ibaka a downright scary offensive weapon.

Cole Aldrich might be just fine. After a plain disappointment effort in the Orlando Summer League, there were legit concerns about Aldrich supplanting Nazr Mohammed as OKC’s backup center. Which isn’t a good thing to have worries about replacing Nazr Mohammed at anything.

But Aldrich rebounded (GET IT?) and proved he’s capable in the role. He put up multiple double-doubles, showed off a quality baby hook with both hands and didn’t throw up any red flags with his play. He still fouls too much, but in 10-12 minutes a night, that shouldn’t be a big problem. Again, PRESEASON DISCLAIMER, but Aldrich might even have given a bit of encouragement about the future of Perk. Is it really so hard to see Aldrich continue to progress and eventually be ready to supplant Perk?

He still lacks in his post defense and a few pick-and-roll situations, but these were really the first consistent minutes with OKC’s first and second team he’s ever seen. I think there’s reason to feel better about the Cole Aldrich Era.

Perry Jones III can play. It seems that he might have a role in the Thunder rotation, largely because it appears to be impossible for Scott Brooks to keep him out of it. His athleticism is stunning, his skillset polished and his feel for the game strong. He can absolutely contribute and as he grows more comfortable, it’s not hard to see him being the Thunder’s most versatile player, bouncing between positions and matchups. What a potential weapon.

There’s reason to be intrigued with Hasheem Thabeet. He’s clearly a work in progress, but his strong second quarter against the Bulls — playing against Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, no less — give credence to the idea the Thunder could turn him in to something.

His size is incredible and even though it looks like he’s going to fall on his face when he’s running up and down the court, he can have an impact. What Thabeet is best at is simply being tall. By no means should he have anyone talking nonsense about replacing Perk or anything like that, but in terms of a rehabilitation project, it seems that the Thunder are off to a good start with Thabeet.

Eric Maynor is back. He looked exactly like his old self. Pacing the offense beautifully, splashing 3s, setting up teammates and just basically owning the second unit. He looks completely healthy to me. Not a step slower.

Reggie Jackson gives OKC a little more security. Jackson showed flashes in summer league, but he’s obviously improving. With Maynor’s contract a big question mark, the Thunder might be able to dangle Maynor at the deadline and feel confident in placing Jackson in that role. At least more confident than they were three weeks ago.

KD is continuing his development as a passer. Durant’s assist-to-turnover in the preseason: 21 to seven. Consider this: He’s never had a season with more assists than turnovers. He got close last year with 231 assists to 248 turnovers, but with his increased playmaking meant more turnovers per game (career-high 3.8 per game).

Durant clearly has passing ability, but he’s often just lacked with the feel of making the right one. He’s forced them or been punished by Serge Ibaka’s pan hands. He’s feeling the flow of the game much better it appears and making terrific decisions. You just hope that Durant’s new-found love of passing doesn’t take away from his delicious scoring ability, but all that matters is team points and the Thunder are more dangerous when it’s not simply the Westbrook and Durant scoring show.

James Harden is oddly forcing things. It might’ve been about him trying to integrate more of a mid-range game to his attack or just experimentation, but for whatever reason, Harden forced a lot of strange shots. He attacked the paint rarely, instead settling for contested long 2s. Hopefully this is just a preseason thing.

(Note: I don’t think for one second the contract talk is bothering him. When you step on to the court, distractions are there obviously, but it’s about playing and performing. Harden’s not stupid enough to try and prove his worth in some preseason games by changing his game entirely. He’s mostly already earned his money and he knows that.)

Could Daequan Cook be squeezed out? In what seemed to be a regular season preview, Cook didn’t play at all against the Mavs last night in Wichita. And mostly in the preseason, his time on the floor was limited. Scott Brooks can be stingy with rotations and it’s hard to imagine him expanding past 10, but if Jones is part of it, he’ll have to if he wants to fit in Cook.

Who’s the 15th? I’ve spent more time writing about a likely meaningless roster spot than I care to admit, so I’ll just leave it at this: We’ll know by Monday at 4 p.m.