For the first time in a long time, the Oklahoma City Thunder entered the season focused more on player development than making the playoffs. Even so, the Thunder are a surprising 9-11 through 20 games. However, there’s reason to believe that record isn’t sustainable, as Oklahoma City ranks 29th in net rating at this point in the season.
While the veterans have all had very good moments, the young guys have played a major role in the Thunder’s early success. But just how good has each young guy been so far this season? It’s report card time!
Also, remember: we’re grading on a curve here. Grades are relative to expectations and not just straight letter grades.
Note: Statistics are through 19 games.
By the numbers: 21.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.6 rbg, 51.2 fg%, 37.5 3P%
The Rundown: SGA has been absolutely awesome this year. Entering the season, the Thunder were searching for the answers to two questions about Gilgeous-Alexander: Can he be a lead ball-handler and can he be a No. 1 guy on a title team?
He’s already proven in his first year as the lead guy that he is a point guard and can be the primary ball-handler. And the fact that it’s still up for debate whether or not he can be the top guy on a title team shows just how good he’s been. I’m definitely higher on his potential ceiling now than I was before the season.
Even with a career-high 27% usage percentage, Shai is having his most efficient season while also putting up a career-high in scoring and nearly doubling his assist numbers from last year. Perhaps the best thing about SGA is that it’s clear he’s invested in the improvement of his teammates. There’s no doubt he could score a less efficient 25 points per game, but he’s playing the right way every night, a major tribute to him and head coach Mark Daigneault.
He can get to the rim almost anytime he puts his mind to it and has created plenty of 3-pointers for himself off the dribble. His true shooting percentage of nearly 62% is ahead of Trae Young, Luka Dončić, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The most impressive part of his growth, though, has been the passing. The vision and skill he’s displayed passing the ball this year wasn’t something I was sure he had in him.
He’s in the top 10 in the league in potential assists and figures to rank there in assists per game when OKC eventually gets more shooting around him.
The only negative for Gilgeous-Alexander is sometimes he’s too set on making the right basketball play. In the long run, that’s probably not a bad thing. But on this team, there are times where he needs to be more aggressive. He’s attempted fewer than 15 shots eight times this season, and it’s usually because teams are sending three guys at him on drives.
The Verdict: A
By the numbers: 12.4 ppg, 1.2 apg, 3.3 rbg, 43 fg%, 37.6 3P%
The Rundown: What can you say about Lu Dort? Everybody on the planet knew about the defense after his effort guarding James Harden in the playoffs last year. As his offensive game expands the defense hasn’t suffered. He will even have a good chance to crack an All-Defense team this season. In a Thunder win over the Blazers last month, Damian Lillard was 2-for-7 from the field and 1-for-6 from three when guarded by Dort, per Derek Parker of The Oklahoman.
He also had about a million steals in the Thunder’s comeback win against the Bulls. The biggest revelation, though, has been on offense. Dort presumably went undrafted primarily because of a shaky jump shot, and he was just 30% from beyond the arc last season. He’s well above league average so far this season, and he’s doing that while even taking some more difficult looks than a year ago.
He’s also getting to the rim and finishing well, as his 2-point percentage 51.3% is up nearly 4% from last year.
The next step in his offensive development will be becoming a better playmaker for others. His ceiling seemingly gets higher with each game he plays.
The Verdict: A+
By the numbers: 11.2 ppg, 0.7 apg, 7.0 rbg, 40.4 fg%, 28.4 3P%
The Rundown: It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Bazley so far, which isn’t surprising for a guy of his age (20) and experience. Remember, the intern didn’t play basketball anywhere between high school and the NBA and was considered a project when OKC drafted him in 2019.
Baze has games where he looks completely out of sync and then others where you can easily talk yourself into him being a valuable part of the Thunder’s next great team. Bazley has great basketball instincts, and when he leans on that instead of overthinking, the results are usually pretty good.
Bazley is down below 30% from three on five attempts per game. But his shot looks better than that, and I’d expect that number to come up as he matures and becomes more sure of himself. One thing is clear, though: He can do a lot more than shoot. And he’s shown enough of these flashes to be relatively pleased with his season thus far.
The Verdict: B-
By the numbers: 3.5 ppg, 3.5 rbg, 1.1 blk, 24.7 fg%, 17.9 3P%
The Rundown: Given the fact that he would have been a multi-year project no matter what year he was drafted, I don’t think you can give Poku anything other than a satisfactory grade.
We knew it was going to take him some time, but these rookies are at a bigger disadvantage than any class before them with the lack of an offseason due to COVID-19. Given the league he played in before he came to the NBA and his status as the NBA’s youngest player, Poku is probably the most impacted.
The warts in Pokusevski’s game are clear. He struggles to guard anybody as the primary defender, he can’t get by anybody off the dribble (he still hasn’t shot a free throw in 296 minutes!!!) and he clearly is still adjusting to the speed of the game.
But he shows flashes that remind you why OKC is so invested in his development. Even though he’s a 7-footer, he’s clearly a wing, even when he (hopefully) adds to his 190-pound frame. When you see a guy with his passing instincts and size look that smooth handling the ball off pick and roll like he sometimes does, you can’t help but daydream about what kind of player he could be in 5 years. And no matter what his percentages say (and they’re bad right now), I think he’s going to be a shooter.
And perhaps his best attribute so far has been as a secondary defender. He’s averaging over a block per game and has four multi-block games already.
The growing pains are evident, but so is the potential.
The Verdict: C
By the numbers: 7.5 ppg, 2.6 apg, 2.6 rbg, 41.3 fg%, 37.0 3P%
The Rundown: I’m going to be approximately the 900th person to say this: Maledon may only be 19, but he plays like a 10-year veteran. He’s already looking like an absolute steal as a second-round pick for OKC and has the goods to stick around for a long time.
He’s exactly what you want out of a backup point guard: He has good size at 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 inch wingspan to go along with an offensive skill set that allows him to play on or off the ball. He’s a good decision-maker with the ball in his hands and can knock down open shots. He did that to the tune of six made three-pointers against the Nets last week, which tied Terrance Ferguson’s Thunder rookie record for threes in a game.
The kid has guts, too. In his second career start, he drove right into DeAndre Ayton to make the biggest bucket in the game in a win over the Suns.
Athleticism is what holds him back on both ends, though, and it’s hurt him more on defense as a rookie. Although individual defensive rating can be tricky to use, I think his 115 defensive rating matches the eye test on that end where he’s challenged due to lack of instincts and athleticism.
The Verdict: B+
By the numbers: 11.7 ppg, 1.9 apg, 4.5 rbg, 53.8 fg%, 31.8 3P%
The Rundown: Diallo has been slightly better than I thought he’d be this year. He injects his athleticism into the game at nearly every opportunity. When the bench gets rolling, it’s usually because Hami is making plays getting downhill.
Still, Hami’s limitations are very real. He’s shooting just 31.8 percent from three but only takes one per game. In other words, he doesn’t take them, and defenses guard him that way. And his free throw percentage (63.5%) doesn’t exactly give you confidence in the long-term outlook of his shot.
Even so, this grade could be higher if his decision making was better. Diallo takes way too many long twos early in the shot clock and forces the issue driving. His athleticism is truly insane and his ball-handling is pretty good, but improved decision making would go a long way for his grade and NBA career.
The Verdict: C+
By the numbers: 8.1 ppg, 1.2 apg, 4.7 rbg, 52.6 fg%, 33.3 3P%
The Rundown: By virtue of expectations alone, Roby has to get an above-average grade. The Thunder traded Justin Patton for Roby last season, but the OKC fans never got much of a look at the forward until this year. This season, Roby filled in admirably in the starting lineup when Horford was out and has given some nice rotation minutes despite being undersized as a starting center.
Like just about everybody else on the team, Roby plays with great effort. He also shows some interesting flashes as a face-up guy and a shooter. He’s had one double-double and seven double-digit scoring games this season.
He’s made a good pick and roll partner with SGA, too, as he has good hands and is a smooth finisher around the rim. Combine that with his ball-handling ability and a decent shot and you have an interesting and versatile prospect. The offense takes a dip when Mike Muscala or Al Horford are out there instead of him, and it’s going to take time for Roby to truly impact winning. But the early returns have been much better than expected.