It’s been clear that the last two seasons have been geared towards youth and development for the Oklahoma City Thunder, both in terms of in-game performance and roster construction. The Thunder have made it a point to acquire more assets, young players, and buckle down come draft time to make the best selection to fit the already young squad.
The young Thunder squad has made strides in the right direction in such a short amount of time. Time and time again, we’ve seen how resilient they can be. This season has featured multiple large comebacks, situations where many young teams might normally just wave the white flag. It’s a testament to the work and preparation this team puts in, fueled by Coach Mark Daigneault.
Rebuilds are typically not a short-term project and GM Sam Presti has made it abundantly clear that this will not be a quick fix. Daigneault seems to be bought into the same idea, hence his quotes over eating broccoli first and then Skittles. Daigneault has also done a good job developing this young squad and has been a good coach in the sense of relationships and building a connection with the players on the team.
Interview with Aaron Wiggins
This past week, I was able to speak to Aaron Wiggins and ask him questions about this young Thunder squad and what it’s like to play on a team so youth-driven.
The first thing Wiggins told me is that the team understands that they have to be patient and take their time with the process, but also have to enjoy the process. He follows this up by mentioning that it’s been easier since all of the players, while coming from different situations, are similar in the fact that they’re all developing and adjusting to the league.
“It definitely makes the transition from college, or for Giddey who’s from Australia, you know, it makes the transition a little bit easier because we all are kind of figuring it out,” Wiggins told me. “We feel like we’re doing a good job.”
The Thunder and the Oklahoma City Blue have been cooperating with each other and the Thunder have been utilizing the Blue in a way that not a lot of teams do. Players are sent back and forth to get more reps and get more minutes to further develop everyone on the team, rather than just developing the players with more opportunity in-game.
Wiggins said that going back-and-forth from the Blue has played one of the bigger parts in his development because of the reps. The bounce from the G-League has also boosted Wiggins’s confidence in his game, something which was on full display in his 24 point performance against the New Orleans Pelicans.
In the midst of a rebuild, the Thunder have valued having a veteran presence, which began with Chris Paul, followed by Al Horford, and one that has been with the team in the entirety of the rebuild in Mike Muscala.
“Yeah, I mean, those guys are really huge in terms of their leadership and their ability to kind of show us the way regardless of the situation they’re put in, you know, they’re always composed and just ready to face any situation with the attack first mentality,” Wiggins told me about the veterans on the team. “It’s awesome being a part of a young group, but having those little bits from the vets here and there, you know, being able to kind of give us advice and us being able to watch them is something that’s huge for our development.”
Interview with Mike Muscala
I was able to speak with a rookie about their experience playing on such a young, rebuilding team, and I also wanted to hear from a vet’s position what it’s like playing with this squad.
Something that sticks out to me with Muscala’s situation is that he chose OKC, and when the roster was shaken up right before the season, he kept his commitment to the team. Even after his first stint, Muscala chose to stay in OKC, where he felt he had found a home.
“I mean, I just feel like I still was excited about, you know, the team and the city organization and opportunity to play basketball,” Muscala told me about his original signing with the team. “It was a no-brainer for me to join.”
Following this answer, I asked Muscala why he chose to remain on a team that has long-term rebuilding plans.
“Feeling I could be a part of something that’s being built, I think, you know, in the NBA you can get moved around quite a bit by getting traded or you know, I mean, there are a lot of different opportunities in NBA, but I feel like the opportunity here, you know, was with the younger players. And I really just fell in love with the city and organization,” Muscala told me. “And I’m definitely glad that I made the decision because, you know, the season has been challenging, but it’s been rewarding at the same time.”
Muscala has made it clear that he loves the city, so I asked why:
“It means a lot, but I think just, you know, finding yourself being able to be yourself I feel like the city embraces that you noticed, embracing the different characters on the team and, you know, all the people throughout the city. You know, being hard, hard-working, and being humble. You know, having a chip on your shoulder being competitive, I feel like but also being fun, you know, and having fun with the game. I feel like the city embraces all that.”
Finally, Muscala told me that it’s been exciting in his veteran role, because it gives a sense of purpose and adds a new level of challenge to the game. Muscala said that he is “grateful for the challenge.”
“It’s not about just, I mean, of course you want to win games, you want to be competitive, but to do that you have to develop to improve. So that’s the kind of mindset that I like being a part of,” Muscala said. “To really use your voice on a team you have to, you have to live that you know, you can’t just be out there talking because players will recognize that and you really have to walk the walk before you can start talking about it.”
Muscala explained that he’s challenged himself to be more vocal and use his experiences to help other, younger members of the team.
Muscala then spent some time crediting Daigneault and the staff for their efforts to help every player grow as an individual leader. He said that they’ve done a good job making it clear that every player has their own style of leading and that they’re all important.
I asked what strides the young team has taken in the clutch and Muscala mentioned that they’ve become much more composed, which he feels has rubbed off on them, similar to what Wiggins said. He also credited Coach Daigneault again for his teaching in practice and mentioned that they often recall clutch time moments and work on every possible situation.