The Oklahoma City Thunder had a rollercoaster of a season opener vs the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. After the first half I was convinced it was already over and was ready to go to bed and watch the highlights tomorrow. Then, something amazing happened in the second half, which seems like a common theme coming off of last season, where the team completed 7 15+ point comebacks. Through some intense and gritty defense as well as some great luck, the Thunder were able to claw back into the game and take it down to the wire. Let’s look at how each player did.
Aleksej Pokusevski (B+ … until it wasn’t)
Look, I’m just going to start with Poku and get this one out of the way as he was a furious topic of discussion all over Twitter on Wednesday night. Tank lovers applauded him, Poku stans defended him, and most Thunder fans seemed ready to kick him off the team entirely. The truth is, for the first three quarters, Aleksej Pokusevski looked like an actual player against real NBA competition, something that I’m not sure I could ever confidently say before today.
Let’s start with the good. Poku’s jump shot looks leaps and bounds better than it did even last season. He is shooting it confidently (not that Poku has ever lacked confidence) with a solid looking shot form that has good arc. Additionally, his defense was very good tonight as well as he battled inside with KAT and Gobert. His length help keep Karl-Anthony Towns to a measly 2-10 shooting night. Also, for most of the game I would say that Poku was making the right reads and not forcing things like we’ve seen him do in years past. His shooting numbers were great up until the fourth quarter.
And then something happened… I’m not sure what exactly changed, but for a stretch in the fourth quarter Poku made a bad play on almost every possesion. I don’t think I can put into words what happened in this stretch so I will just leave you with this
The defense was game planning against Poku by forcing the Thunder to use him in rolling actions, leaving Poku trying to finish against Gobert. I do expect Poku to get better at finishing through contact as he gets stronger, but he probably would have been better passing these off. Additionally, his pull up three was super ill-advised considering just how hot Shai-Gilgeous Alexander was. I think we’re all just better off chalking this up as a learning experience and banking that Poku will make better decisions in crunch time as he gets more experience and reps under his belt this season. Overall, he still impressed me for most of his time as a starter in this opener.
Shai-Gilgeous Alexander (A)
I wrote about this before, but I fully expected Shai to come in and backpack this team this season; he did not disappoint. He started off a little rusty in the first which is understandable given he missed training camp and preseason due to injury but he quickly shook that rust off and kicked it into gear as the game went on. He got to the rim at ease, even with multiple defenders on him. When he got there, he was finishing at a high rate and made some high level finishes. Additionally, we saw something that I have not seen from Shai yet: off-ball cutting! I have been preaching for this forever especially with Giddey and we finally saw it. This is the key to unlocking the true potential of this offense and I can’t wait to see it develop over the season.
I do think he could have been more aggressive in the fourth and not deferred as much (especially to Poku) but he was making the right reads. When he has better talent around him, these smart and quick decisions at the end of games will surely pay off.
Josh Giddey (B)
First of all, Josh Giddey’s shot looks so much better. I am hesitant to attribute all of this to the Thunder’s new shooting coach Chip Engelland in such a short time, but it seems like too good of a coincidence especially after seeing his shot in the summer footage with his trainer Jordan Lawley. He notched a double double and heaved 7 threes. Even though he only sunk 2 of them, that confidence will go a long way for the Thunder especially after knowing that he will shoot them at a higher clip this season.
Darius Bazley (B)
Baze looked in control in his lesser role in the season opener. He only put up 5 shots and sunk 2 of them including a three. Defensively, he was solid in his minutes. Unfortunately, he missed several easy opportunities due to bad touch including a couple of dropped potential offensive boards/putbacks. I expect him to be in this reduced role for most of the season, so it is important that he capitalizes on these easy opportunities when he gets them.
Lu Dort (C-)
Lu Dort was out of control on offense for the majority of his time on the floor. He shot a pretty terrible 1-6 from 3PT and 25% from the floor overall. He helped himself to some drives that were ill-advised and threw up some hard shots, including a stepback 3, which hurt the flow of the offense. By the end of the game, it looked like he lost all confidence in his shot as he was passing up wide open threes for tough drives or to move the ball. Even though he looked good in preseason, I can’t help but wonder if his recovery his torn labrum last season is affecting his play.
Defensively, he was the Dort we all know and love as he made Anthony Edwards struggle to score.
Ousmane Dieng (F)
I know, I know, harsh. Unfortunately Ousmane Dieng looked uncomfortable in his season opener. He had no confidence on offense and missed many rotations on defense leading to open 3s. I think Mark recognized this which led to him only playing 9 minutes. Hopefully this was just first game jitters, but if this continues I think the G-League is a good route for him to regain confidence and learn to play with his size as an advantage.
Jalen Williams (A… but cut short)
Jalen Williams did not look like a rookie in his NBA debut which is probably the greatest compliment you can give to an NBA lottery pick. He came in and hit this sweet fadeaway mid range to start it off.
JDub also hit a three in his short-lived debut. Unfortunately, he was elbowed in the eye 6 minutes into his debut and suffered an orbital fracture, so we will not be seeing him again for at least a week.
Tre Mann (C)
Tre Mann gave a nice offensive punch off the bench vs Minnesota. He finished with 12 points on 4-11 shooting and shot 33% from 3. Unfortunately, he was also targeted heavily on defense by the Timberwolves. He will have to improve on that end to stay on the floor in crunch time where the Thunder desperately need his offensive production.
Jeremiah Robinson Earl looked comfortable. He was one of the most well adjusted and prepared Thunder players on the floor in the season opener. Unfortunately, he couldn’t put up with KAT and Gobert down low, leading to him picking up 5 personal fouls quickly and only playing 12 minutes. He is a smart defender with great positioning, but his limited size can only take him so far. Additionally, he is not skilled enough offensively to fully exploit these matchups with traditional, slower bigs. He did shoot it well though, hitting 2-3 from 3PT in the game. This spacing is huge for Shai and Giddey regardless of if he can put the ball on the floor to exploit these matchups and break down these centers/their defenses.
Eugene Omoruyi (A… pleasant surprise!)
I’m not really sure if there were any expectations for Eugene, but if there were he certainly exceeded them. He came in and brought instant grit and hustle to the team, helping spark the third quarter comeback almost singlehandedly. His toughness and size gave serious problems to KAT down low. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get his 3PT shot to fall as he missed both of the threes that he attempted, both great looks. I do expect him to be converted to a full time contract at some point in the season and am excited to see what he can provide to this team.
Kenrich Williams (C+)
Kenrich did his thing, grabbing 2 offensive rebounds and drawing an offensive foul. He got the start tonight and was getting overpowered in the first half by the Wolves size but was able to adjust and make a great impact in the second half. He struggled to contribute offensively as he couldn’t shoot consistently. I’m not exactly sure what his role in the offense is, especially as the Thunder add a bunch of skilled players.
Mike Muscala (C-)
Muscala added some good spacing that allowed Shai to really get going, even if he couldn’t knock down any threes in the game. I expect him to improve offensively as the season goes on considering he missed preseason and training camp for personal reasons. I did wish that he screened/rolled harder at times, as the defense did not respect him coming off the pick and roll towards the basket.