Start Time: 7:00 PM (CT)
Broadcaster: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
Since the last time that I wrote a preview for a Thunder game, everything has changed. It was only three months ago that Chris Paul was leading Oklahoma City in a thrilling, tense series against the Houston Rockets. The first game of preseason brought home the new reality for the Thunder; Oklahoma City are now in the midst of a rebuild.
It was strange watching the Thunder the other night; the starting lineup was completely different and the Thunder seemed to play basketball a little differently. Oklahoma City were able to beat San Antonio behind a barrage of threes. At the centre of the win was the Thunder’s young guys.
As a general rule, I do not put much stock in preseason games; teams often play at a lower intensity and therefore results can be distorted. However, there were aspects of the Thunder’s play that were impressive and I want to see this effort level against the Bulls.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
Maledon impressed against San Antonio and was the Thunder’s stand out performer. Theo notched 20 points but it was how he approached the game that was exciting. Theo played with a control and calmness that is unusual for most rookie guards. He did not really look like a rookie on the court.
Maledon showed a lot of promise as a distributor and as a scorer. Theo had an efficient scoring night and his passing had elements of real quality. Maledon made difficult reads with relative ease and rarely made a bad decision with the ball. It is clear that Tony Parker’s mentorship has paid dividends for Theo.
It is a strange thing to say but Maledon showed a level of veteran instinct with his play. I liked the fact that he never seemed to try to do too much on the court; Theo played within the flow of the game. There is a lot of promise attached with Theo but this promise has to be put into context.
Preseason is rarely an accurate indicator for the regular season. Maledon’s numbers look really good but it would be wise to reserve judgement until the first few games of the regular season.
The other point that has to be noted is that Maledon did struggle with contact at times. When Theo drove to the rim, he did not look entirely comfortable battling through contact to get looks to fall. Maledon’s physical profile will need work for him to become an effective finisher inside.
A lot has been said about Pokusevski before he was even drafted by the Thunder. Poku has been touted as a game-changing pick by various members of Thunder Twitter. Conversely, he has also been viewed as a draft bust. Pokusevski’s first game in the NBA was mixed.
Pokusevski was pretty good as a bomber from deep, Poku was able to get his shot off easily and drained jumpers from downtown comfortably. Aleksej’s confidence in his shot was key in the Thunder closing out the game against San Antonio.
There were a lot of issues attached with Poku’s game against San Antonio. His defense was not good at all. Pokusevski struggled to stay in front of his assignment on the perimeter and his thin, skinny frame meant that he was ineffective when defending the interior. This will be an issue for Poku this season as he acclimates to the NBA.
One of the big differences between the NBA and European basketball is the size of the court. Courts in Europe are much narrower and smaller than the ones that are played on by NBA teams. The difference in size means that defense does not translate easily.
In Greece, the gaps and seams in a defense can be controlled and restricted by Poku’s length. This is much more difficult on a wider, more open NBA court. Pokusevski will eventually learn to be an adequate defender in the NBA but it will be a lengthy process; I do not expect any immediate, rapid improvements. His improvement on the defensive end will only come with experience.
Poku is incredibly raw as a player but there is certainly something there to build on. His feel for the game and his confidence are a tantalising combination. That confidence will be hugely important in his development, Pokusevski has to maintain faith in his game during the difficult moments. This season will be not be easy for him but he has to keep his head up.
Diallo the Rebounder:
Hamidou Diallo is an interesting juncture in his career with the Thunder. Diallo is still a source of untapped talent despite this being his third season in the league. Hamidou has to show serious strides in his game this season for him to be a key part of the Thunder going forward.
Diallo has the opportunity to carve out an expanded role in the Thunder’s scheme this season. Hamidou is very good playing close to the basket. Diallo has shown an ability to slide into gaps near the rim and steal offensive rebounds. His ability was on full display against the Spurs; Diallo had four offensive boards.
At this moment in time, Oklahoma City do not have a presence on the glass who can hoover up rebounds easily. The departure of Steven Adams has meant that the Thunder look light on the rebounding front. Diallo’s ability to secure rebounds means that he is a useful option to have when it comes to grabbing offensive boards.
The Thunder have shooting bigs on the roster who can space the floor. Coach Mark Daigneault could run a version of Stan Van Gundy’s 4 in, 1 out offense but with two bigs spacing the floor. In effect, Diallo would play center on offense while Al Horford or Mike Muscala spaces out to the break or the corner.
Diallo is an imperfect wing player; his lack of shooting means that he is limited offensively. Coach Daigneault running fully spaced out lineups will mean that Diallo’s limitations are masked.
At the end of the 2019-20 season, Chicago made seismic decisions within their front office and coaching structure for the first time in years. Arturas Karnisovas was brought in to head up the Bulls’ basketball operations. Karnisovas’ first major decision was to appoint Billy Donovan as head coach.
Billy Donovan coached the Thunder for four years and Coach Donovan is known for his lasting impact on the franchise. Billy was important in establishing a culture of hard work and development for the Thunder.
It will be the first time since Billy Donovan left the Thunder in the offseason that he will return to Oklahoma City. I have to say that I am interested to see how Coach Donovan taps into an intriguing roster of young talent.
Chicago have a hugely exciting, dynamic backcourt in the form of Coby White and Zach LaVine. White and LaVine are a very interesting duo and could present issues for the Thunder defensively. Both guards can run the offense effectively and space the floor. It is a tandem that can light up the Thunder’s defense.
It will be interesting to see how Coach Daigneault neutralises the offensive threat presented by White-LaVine. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has spoken about his desire to improve defensively and take on difficult assignments; guarding LaVine is the perfect time to show his growth on that end of the floor.
Last season, the Thunder’s offense was driven by passing heavy lineups. The ‘three guard’ lineup was a good example of the Thunder’s incisive, aggressive offense. Oklahoma City was able to consistently create gaps in an opposing team’s defense by moving the ball quickly and having three or four ball-handlers on the floor who could take advantage of the gaps.
The teardown did initially suggest that this sort of lineup would be off the table for this season. However, closer evaluation of the roster would indicate that three guard lineups are still entirely possible. I would like to see how Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, George Hill and Theo Maledon function together. This could be something for Coach Mark to test out during the game against the Bulls.