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The most exciting players on this year’s team

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Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder do not figure to win many games in the 2021-22 season.

Zach Lowe of ESPN thinks so, ranking them in his bottom tier of the NBA and the Pistons, Rockets, and Magic.

John Hollinger of the Athletic thinks so, projecting OKC to finish 13-69 and dead last in the Western Conference.

Hollinger is even more pessimistic than Las Vegas, who set OKC’s Over/Under for wins at 23.5 (that’s only SECOND worse in the league, ahead of the Magic at 22.5, thank you very much).

Do you know who else thinks, and indeed hopes, the Oklahoma City Thunder won’t win many games? The Oklahoma City Thunder. Not the players; they’re all professionals, competitors, #RealHoopers, etc.

But the front office has very purposefully put together a roster designed to lose games give opportunities to promising young players while maintaining future flexibility and building for the long term.

So you’ll find no disagreement here regarding OKC’s chances of winning many games this year.

But I think OKC promises to be interesting, and not just in a “how long can this team purposefully lose focus on long-term development before the NBA League Office gets involved.”

However, that is also an interesting question. I mean, the actual on-court product will be interesting, even if the team in blue and white is usually losing because several players on this team are among the most interesting in the league.

Here are the players I’m most interested in watching this year:

  1. Josh Giddey

It would be hard to lead with anyone other than Giddey. We know something about everyone else on the roster (er, at least we know something about everyone else who figures to get significant minutes).

But Giddey, Oklahoma City’s surprising pick at #6 in the draft, is a total question mark - he played in Australia before being drafted and lasted exactly five minutes in Summer League before getting hurt.

We did get an extended look at the international man of mystery in preseason ball, and Giddey did demonstrate a solid shooting and scoring touch. A good feel for the game as he racked up many assists, including several frankly outrageous passes (his enormous height certainly helps him find those looks).

His handle looked a little high and loose at times. It will be interesting to see how he fares initiating the offense against a fully locked-in NBA defense.

Assuming he starts, his partnership in the backcourt with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander bears watching. Is it a “your turn, my turn” approach to controlling the offense, or can the duo and Mark Daignault consistently find ways to complement each other?

Will the shooting last? Giddey hit 40% of his triples in the preseason but was not regarded as that level of a shooter when he was picked. Suppose he proves to be a knockdown shooter that will go a long way towards justifying OKC’s faith in him when they drafted him much higher than most projections at #6. If the shooting doesn’t stick, can he find other ways to score and thrive as a playmaking threat even if defenses don’t respect his outside shooting?

  1. Aleksej Pokusevski

Poku entered the league last season as one of the biggest mysteries in the league, and he spent the entirety of his rookie season did nothing to resolve that mystery. Do you think Poku is a future star?

Then you probably remember his audacious and daring passes, his unique offensive games, his propensity for big blocks. Do you think he’s a bust? Then you probably remember the many (many, many, many) missed shots and turnovers, his less than spectacular rebounding despite being 7 feet tall, and the moments he looked lost.

Poku remains a beautiful mystery. He has a ton of skill and one of the unique NBA bodies in memory - the question remains if that adds up to a winning NBA player or to a guy who creates more problems than he solves. Poku should once again get plenty of opportunity with the ball in his hands on the second unit (OKC did not start him in any of their preseason games).

Can he continue to show superstar flashes while also minimizing the mistakes when he’s passing the ball? Can he make the ball go in the net this season? (Rookies are supposed to be wrong, but Poku shot 34% from the field and 28% from deep last season, which is borderline “the NBA should seize his phone and make sure Presti didn’t tell him to miss shots on purpose” territory).

Also, at some point this season, I want to see SGA, Giddey, and Poku on the floor all at once - preferably in crunch time of a close game.

Partly I like this because these guys are the core of what OKC hopes to accomplish in the next five seasons, but also because I need to see how the bench, the crowd, the announcers, the opposing teams, and SGA and Giddey themselves react when Poku rises to take a big 3-pointer with under a minute to go. I certainly don’t think he’ll be afraid to do so!

  1. Shai Gigleous-Alexander

I debated not including SGA at all on this list. He’s easily OKC’s best player, and I’m certainly excited to watch him once again make defenders look foolish with his stop and start drives, up and under finishes, scoop layups, and slow-motion stepback three. But I think this season does not profile to be “interesting” for him per see.

There is not much SGA can still prove while playing on a bad team. Last season, with Chirs Paul and Dennis Schroder, the question was if SGA could succeed as the primary (and sometimes only) ballhandler. He answered that question with a resounding “Yes,” averaging 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game.

He took more shots per game in 2020-21 than 2019-20 and hit them at a higher rate, despite the much worse supporting cast around him. His numbers were borderline all-star, but he didn’t receive much consideration due to OKC’s poor record.

That seems unlikely to change this season, with OKC probably headed for an even worse season, and that’s what I mean about SGA not having much to prove this year. With all he’s accomplished through three seasons, the next test for him is how high can a team with him as the best player go? Can he be the centerpiece of a 50 win team? Can he be the main star of a team that wins a playoff series?

We won’t get an answer to either of those questions this season because the Thunder are more likely to win fifteen games than fifty, and they’re more likely to win the draft lottery than win a playoff series.

Still, SGA is a young man with only three seasons under his belt, and we should expect improvement from him. What can he add to his game? How do he and Giddey work together? If Giddey takes some offensive load off of him, can he consistently expend more energy on defense?

  1. Darius Bazley

Last season the Thunder traded Hamidou Diallo mid-season, returning Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2027 second-round pick in return. The Thunder promptly chose not to return Mykhailiuk, who will play for Toronto this season.

OKC’s motivation was not a burning need for Mykhailiuk or the second-round pick, but rather the desire to get something for a player they did not view as part of their core. Diallo was in his third season then, which meant OKC was approaching the point where they would need to give Diallo a raise via an extension if they wanted to keep him. Further, if they kept him, they would be committing to providing minutes to him rather than other options.

Darius Bazley is entering his third season this year, and OKC will find themselves in the same situation with him soon enough. Bazley had had an up and down two seasons in the league. After a promising rookie year in a small role, he could not rise to the occasion in a more significant offensive role in his second season.

He shot just under 40% from the field both seasons. Bazley went from shooting 2.3 3 pointers per game as a rookie to 5.2 a game as a sophomore, with his percentage declining from 35% to 29% in year two. His overall shooting percentage was nearly identical because of an improvement in his 2 points finishing as a sophomore, but he was still below average in that category.

Still, there were promising moments. He occasionally added bounce midranges to his game, and if he’s confident in that shot, that might bode well for his three-pointer. He showed an improved ability to get to the rim, even if he struggled to finish his attempts when he made it there.

His body filling out with age should help there. His defense is solid, and I wonder if OKC will try him as a small-ball center at any point as they occasionally did in his rookie season.

Bazley has a lot of tools, but it’s starting to appear those tools may not add up to a complete player unless the three balls come around. It feels like a make-or-break season for him this year (in regards to his OKC career, at least if not his NBA career), but the Thunder appears to be starting him at Power Forward again if the preseason is any indication. He’ll have ample opportunity to prove he belongs in OKC’s long-term plan - can he do it?

  1. The Rest

I’m excited to watch just about everyone on OKC this year, so some quick notes on the rest of the roster:

Lu Dort falls into the SGA category, where I’m unsure how much more he can prove until OKC is trying to win. We know what his defense is. Can he add any more on offense?

Theo Maldeon had an underrated rookie season. He can shoot it from deep (his numbers fell off towards the end, but I like his stroke), and he has some playmaking chops, but he spent a lot of time off-ball last year. Will he get more playmaking responsibility on the second unit this year? Will he be in the closing lineup over Giddey during certain games?

Isaiah Roby was a delight last season. OKC seemed to prefer him at Power forward the previous season - are there minutes there with Bazley and Poku? Will he play more at the center, possibly even starting? Can he and Poku be good enough defensively to function as a frontcourt? Will Roby shoot even more threes this year?

Derrick Favors steps into the Al Horford veteran role this year. Will he last the whole season? Will he be on as aggressive a rest plan as Al, or will he consistently play?

Tre Mann was OKC’s other first-round pick. Does OKC plan to play him and Maledon together on the second unit? Where does that leave Ty Jerome?

Will the second-round picks Aaron Wiggins and Jeramiah Robinson-Earl be in the plan at the start of the season?

What about when OKC prepares to go into full tank down the stretch mode again at the end of the season?

Let the games begin!