SB Nation's Theme Day for today is breakout players. It's a very interesting question when it comes to the Thunder. Last year, OKC endured a terrible slew of injuries. Former coach Scott Brooks, whom has been around the NBA since 1987, said that he "had never seen anything like" the slew of injuries the Thunder had to start the season. Due to the Thunder's lack of players last year, pretty much everyone on the roster got a chance to expand their game. But with the Thunder heading into next season supposedly healthy, most of those players are going to see a reduced role.
Despite these limitations, I feel like Mitch McGary is the player most poised for a breakout season this year. (Be sure to check out Cray Allred's piece as well, where he makes the case for Dion Waiters.)
Part 1: How it's gone so far
Early Season Success
My first thought is that McGary was one of the rare players who didn't get much of an opportunity to play last season. The reasons for this were numerous. From October 9th-November 30th, McGary was out with a fractured left foot. Then, from November 30th-December 13th, McGary participated in various D-League games. Mitch finally got his first opportunity to play with the Thunder on December 14th. But that stint lasted only 7 minutes, and two days later Mitch would be sidelined with a shin injury.
McGary didn't heal from that injury until February 2nd. Upon recovery, McGary would spend a few more games in the D-League. Eventually, a Kendrick Perkins one game suspension would get McGary his first real action of the season. In 23 minutes against the Clippers on February 8th, McGary scored 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. You can see that performance below:
The following night, Steven Adams went down with a fractured right finger. McGary was called upon for 24 minutes, and scored 19 points against Denver. Adams would remain out though March 8th, and McGary would continue in his regular role off the bench. McGary's most notable performance from this time is a 20 point outburst against the Blazers on February 27th.
Upon Adams' March 8th return, McGary had a single DNP. At this point, the Thunder had all 5 big men healthy. But, during the next game, on March 11th, McGary was able to snag 12 minutes of action. Collison only played 7 minutes in that same game. Unfortunately, we'll never know whether McGary would have been able to beat out Collison for minutes last season. Serge Ibaka went down with a knee injury on March 13th, and would be out for the season. This guaranteed that both McGary and Collison would get minutes.
Coming back to Earth
The last leg of McGary's season was a bit rockier. There were some definite high points, as McGary registered double digit scoring on three separate nights and double digit rebounds on two separate nights. But McGary didn't crack double digit points or rebounds after March 24th. Then, McGary started dealing with serious foul trouble. On March 28th and April 1st, he registered 5 fouls while only playing around 16 minutes. On April 5th, McGary committed 5 fouls in just 10 minutes of play. McGary followed this up by contributing to a 25 point blowout at the hands of the Spurs on April 7th.
These miscues left Brooks frustrated with McGary. Mitch was reduced to garbage time duty against the Kings on April 10th. McGary would return for a few regular minutes on April 12th against the Pacers, but was effectively out of the rotation for the final two games of the season.
Part 2: Three Reasons McGary is poised to break out
At this point, you might not be that impressed with what McGary can do. All of his big games came against some of the NBA's weakest benches (Portland, Denver, Clippers). All of those highlights seem pretty basic as well.
But let me introduce you to the improved Mitch McGary. Here's Mitch a full two and a half months after the last Thunder regular season game, and and five months after his regular season debut against the Clippers.
Is that even the same player? It's really telling when a player's Summer League highlights look better than his highlights from real games. I mean, the Clippers highlight reel is so basic. Running and finishing, being in position for the rebound, and one decent jumper. Easy stuff, if you're big and athletic. But this summer league reel has so much skill. It's got difficult jumpers. Running with the ball in transition and dishing it. Finishing through contact. Making decisions with the ball on the wing. If I didn't know any better, I'd think I was watching a Blake Griffin highlight reel.
But aside from the increase in skill, there was definitely an increase in athleticism. Back on July 5th, NewsOK's Darnell Mayberry reported that Mitch McGary had lost 30 pounds since the end of the 2015 season. That's right, McGary lost 30 pounds in just under three months. That's an impressive accomplishment for a human being, much less someone who was already a professional basketball player. McGary even went so far as to say it was the best he had felt in three years, before a major back surgery.
Donovan will be on McGary's side
If there's one thing that Coach Billy Donovan loves, it's fiery players. It's pretty clear that McGary plays with his emotions on his sleeves, as you can see Mitch amping himself and teammates up during games.
Donovan also loves undersized bigs that can score and rebound. I mean, there are four bigs who have come out of the Florida program in the last decade that fit that description. David Lee, Marreese Speights, Udonis Haslem, and Al Horford are all players with similar skillsets and dispositions. Mostly, all of those Florida bigs could rebound exceptionally well for their height. Last season, Mitch McGary was 18th in the NBA in rebounds per minute, despite standing only 6'10". Donovan has to love that.
But here's something specific. In a July 8th interview, Donovan hinted that he'd continue to go mostly big:
"Listen, I think one of the things to look at is the NBA draft, right? Look at it early, they're all taking bigs! So there's value and premium on big men, but certainly there are certain situations where you can play a little bit small, and Kevin's done that in his career."
You've got to think that the fourth big will still be a relevant role next season, especially if KD will only be used at power forward in "certain situations".
Collison is in his twilight years
But really, the question of whether McGary gets minutes next year comes down to Nick Collison. Collison will turn 35 before the season begins, and that's in the definite danger zone in terms of age. For his part, Collison is showing some signs of slowing down. Last season, Collison only played in 66 games. This comes on the heels of two straight injury-free seasons. Collison also saw his shooting percentage drop to 42% last year, after spending his entire career at or above the 50% mark.
Admittedly, Collison had to take on more offensive duties last season due to injury. And Collison still seems to have that same per-minute effectiveness when playing with other Thunder players. But McGary clearly does what Collison can't on the offensive end. It's only a matter of time before McGary's effectiveness cancels out Collison's wiliness.
Do you think McGary is poised to break out next year? Drop a comment and let us know!