As the Thunder enter training camp, there are no real expectations placed on the team. It is expected that the team will lose a lot of games and end up with a high draft pick. Moreover, there is no pressure on Sam Presti to start building a winner immediately.
Presti enjoys the sort of autonomy that most lead executives crave; Clay Bennett and the rest of the Thunder ownership trust Presti to do his job and do it well. That being said, there should be some goals in place as the Thunder progress through the rebuilding process.
We have seen rebuilding processes in the past be completely derailed by a lack of clarity. Orlando spent years in the wilderness after Dwight Howard was traded. The Magic never seemed to know whether they were committing to building around Aaron Gordon or building for the future.
The Thunder do not want to get stuck in the league’s cellar and goal-setting is the best way to ensure that the team remains on track. In this article, I will go through targets that I will be tracking across the course of the season.
Build on the bench magic:
The Thunder’s bench unit was unexpectedly strong last season and was a real highlight of Thunder games even when the season became a formality. It was a joy to see a unit playing with such verve and creativity with so many little-known contributors.
The bench’s success was largely defined by Kenrich Williams. Williams played with a heart and intensity that was visible for all to see; Kenny Hustle scrapped on every possession as if those minutes could be his last in the NBA.
A few seasons ago, that would not have been an exaggeration. Williams was a fringe rotation player for the Pelicans and seemed to have stalled in his growth. Kenny found a home on the Thunder as an energetic do-it-all forward.
The bench unit of Williams, Jerome, Roby and Maledon was surprisingly successful and it will be important for the Thunder to build on that chemistry while integrating new players. It will be difficult for the Thunder to win games if the bench is not playing well; the Thunder simply do not have the stars to overcome an off night from the reserves.
Get Poku minutes as a ball-handler:
Aleksej Pokusevski still remains the greatest unknown on the Thunder roster. It is very difficult to predict what sort of player he may be. Pokusevski’s technical level is very high but he lacks a degree of refinement right now. He will produce a highlight moment and then his next play will be a head-scratcher.
Pokusevski has to learn how to be consistently good with very little deviation in the standard of his play. The only real way to achieve that is to get him time handling the ball and dictating the offense.
He has shown enough promise to warrant these touches. Recently, friend of the website Thunder Film Room shared a clip on Twitter which shows Pokusevski’s proficiency as a pick and roll ball-handler.
Probably my favorite Poku play from last season.— Thunder Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) October 3, 2021
He ran this PnR like a 7 foot PG..
So much fluidity, stayed patient, kept the defender behind him & played it at his own pace. It was perfect.pic.twitter.com/rmgmTOO0nY
Pokusevski does everything right on his play; he uses the screen to carve out separation from the defense. He then slows his dribble down and scans the floor, identifying the best offensive option available to him. He uses his size to put Curry in jail and remove any defense at the point of attack.
Pokusevski needs time to develop consistency in this aspect of his play and the upcoming season is as good chance as any.
Be ruthless at Center:
The Thunder enter the season with five different players who can play minutes at center. Derrick Favors, Isaiah Roby, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Mike Muscala and Mamadi Diakite. All four players have different skill-sets and fit into the Thunder’s outlook differently.
Favors is arguably the most skilled center on the roster as things stand right now. Derrick Favors is an excellent interior defender and an orchestrator on the defensive end of the floor. He is constantly communicating and that chatter is vital on the less glamorous end of the floor. Favors’ talking means that everybody else on his team can see the whole floor.
However, I do not expect him to be here for long. Favors is a veteran in the prime of his career who will want to be playing meaningful basketball. While the Thunder will not just trade him for nothing, Sam Presti is known to be accommodating to veterans trying to find better situation in this stage of their career.
Mike Muscala was quietly a really solid option off the bench for the Thunder last season when he played. Muscala drained shots from downtown at a strong clip, 37%, on 5.3 3PA per game. He did his job on the court and was a steadying presence for all of the young players around him. I want to see Muscala playing that sort of role again, he was incredibly effective in the veteran’s role.
Mamadi is the first Guinean to wear Thunder Blue and will likely play games where he is a good situational fit. Diakite plays smartly and can knock down outside shots consistently. However, he is not particularly strong and lacks size for his position. I could see him having value in match-ups where the Thunder need to space the floor but I do fear that he would be eaten alive by somebody like Dwight Howard.
For me, that leaves two names to battle it out for the starting center spot in the Thunder’s long-term plans. Isaiah Roby is more of a known quantity for Thunder fans, he started games at center fairly frequently last season. Roby usually started whenever Horford sat out games.
Isaiah is tough and he is willing to bang bodies down low but he is undersized for the center position. I worry that whatever value Roby brings through his versatility will be given away on the defensive end of the floor. Roby deserves a chance to secure the spot but Coach Daigneault should also provide Jeremiah Robinson-Earl with a chance to stake a claim to a starting position.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is still just a rookie but his play in Summer League is difficult to ignore. We saw Robinson-Earl guard a wing like Cade Cunningham effectively before seamlessly switching onto a big and getting a stop. JRE is small for the position but he has a brilliant brain for defense.
I challenge anyone to watch a Thunder game and just focus on JRE whenever the Thunder are on the defense. He is constantly scanning the floor and looking for danger. Jeremiah seems to assess every single possibility and then he moves himself into a position where he can affect the shot. Jeremiah is not the most athletic nor the biggest player around but he has clearly got feel on the defensive end of the floor.
I want to see Coach Mark be ruthless and give different players opportunities to succeed at the starting center spot. One of Billy Donovan’s biggest failings was allowing players like Terrance Ferguson to get comfortable. You challenge players to be better by giving them something to lose.