As the ever-changing effects of COVID-19 continue to take a toll across the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder remains steadfast in their approach towards the 2021 season.
For Oklahoma City, development dwells at the forefront of just about everything. With that process comes different sets of challenges, no more so than during a global pandemic and especially over the last two-plus weeks.
OKC has seen its rotation trimmed to eight players recently and like many teams has been forced to adjust on the fly.
Since a blowout home loss to Houston on Feb. 1, George Hill underwent thumb surgery, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Isaiah Roby have all missed time nursing ailments, Theo Maledon entered the league’s health and safety protocol, Mike Muscala entered concussion protocol and the team sent four players to the G-League.
Such a rash of injuries, protocol requirements, and roster movements might derail a team, even if the goal isn’t necessarily to win a championship.
One big difference for Mark Daignault and his staff, however, is that the Thunder’s unfortunate circumstances have offered welcome research into some of their young, evolving players.
For instance, Maledon’s role expanded after Hill’s thumb procedure following back-to-back losses to the Clippers.
Daignault obviously didn’t want to see the team’s veteran point guard go down, but a chance presented itself to better gauge Maledon’s play, especially alongside budding star Gilgeous-Alexander on the first unit.
“It’s an opportunity to look at our team through a different lens,” said the first-year head coach prior to Maledon’s initial start following Hill’s injury - a 125-122 win at Portland. “It’s a good touchpoint for Theo to see what he looks like in a lot of different situations like increased minutes and being out there more with Shai. It also allows us to evaluate the second unit without him.”
It was Hamidou Diallo’s turn to step into a more prominent role once Maledon entered health and safety protocol last week.
The third-year guard was inserted into the starting lineup and has since dished out two double-doubles over three games while playing an average of 36 minutes. Daignault is finding little nuggets in his maturation as well.
“The fact that we could put the ball in his hands that much over the course of a game isn’t something I’m sure he would have handled as well in past seasons, so it’s certainly growth,” Daignault said Friday after Diallo scored 16 points with 10 assists over 37 minutes in a loss to the Timberwolves.
Darius Bazley’s role hasn’t changed much since the rotation shake-ups, however, he has seen an uptick in usage, scoring, shot attempts, and rebounds.
He has also started all 23 games, providing stability even while the team plays with a shortened rotation. However, it’s the rookie forward’s growth during turbulent times that have caught his coach’s attention.
“I think it speaks to his versatility that he can be used in such contrasting ways,” Daignault said prior to Oklahoma City’s overtime loss to the Lakers Monday, in which Bazley dropped a double-double with 21 points and 16 rebounds, his finest outing to date. “When we step back at the end of the season and look at all the things he got to experience, it’s going to help his development and growth and mental agility. It also gives us a better understanding of his range and what he’s capable of as a player.”
Other players have stepped up as well, filling roles left behind on the second unit.
Kenrich Williams has played over 30 minutes the last three games, providing much-needed energy.
Forward Justin Jackson has played over 27 minutes in three of the last four, even scoring 14 points Friday at Staples Center. Darius Miller has also contributed in recent playing time.
Not to mention Gilgeous-Alexander, who continues to play at an All-Star level, averaging over 22 points, six assists, and five rebounds per game.
Like Bazley, the third-year guard from Kentucky has been a staple throughout the team’s current adversity.
OKC is not exclusive to the NBA’s present environment.
Teams are dealing with the same types of situations night in and night out. But for Daignault and the Thunder, the approach remains intact. Progress is still the goal.
“We’ve gone through a lot of changing circumstances,” Daignault said. “Our guys have done a great job of taking it in stride and not making excuses. And developmentally it’s great when we can put them in different situations. “Overall, we’re just trying to make sure that we’re taking it in, we’re adapting and we’re embracing the circumstances the best we can.”