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19-year-old Theo Maledon excelling in Thunder starting lineup

The young Frenchman has shown ability to space the floor, handle the ball and adapt to different rotations this season. His coach and teammates have praised his play since taking over for the injured George Hill

NBA: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

At just 19 years old, Theo Maledon is molding into one of many bright spots for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 2020 second-round pick was acquired along with Al Horford in a draft-night trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. And now, the young Frenchman is playing alongside the veteran center in OKC’s starting lineup.

Not only that, he’s playing well.

Since becoming a starter in place of veteran George Hill, who had thumb surgery at the end of January, Maledon has quietly developed a different dynamic to his game.

Thunder head coach Mark Daignault pointed out Maledon’s versatility and ability to adapt with any four-man group following a win over Cleveland this week, a valuable quality considering Oklahoma City has started 12 different lineups through 30 games, including six with its rookie point guard.

“He’s a really good floor spacer, a really good shooter, obviously, and a really good secondary playmaker, as well as primary,” said Daignault.

“From a versatility standpoint that’s a really good quality to have. Somebody who can adapt to the lineup he’s out therewith. You’re not really at the mercy of his style of play like you are with others. He’s somebody that can fit in with whoever.”

Maledon is averaging over 15 points, five assists and five rebounds per 48 minutes, displaying the well-rounded version of his game in any role, whether it’s off the bench as the backup point guard or playing off the ball with an All-Star caliber player like Gilgeous-Alexander.

In 11 games as a starter, Maledon has scored in double figures six times and has gone 25-for-52 (48%) from the three-point range. That speaks to Daignault’s praise and his description of the 19-year-old’s capacity for playing under different circumstances.

“Really the whole year it’s been a nice trajectory for him,” said Daignault. “Early on I thought he was having a lot of success playing the backup point guard role and running the second unit. And really he kind of found a groove there.

“After George went out, inserting him in the starting lineup has given him a different dynamic. Playing with Shai especially. He’s getting more feisty defensively and although he’s obviously physically underdeveloped at 19, he’s learning to get physically into the game and get his motor into the game.”

Maledon says he’s confident either as the primary ball-handler or as more of a secondary option to Gilgeous-Alexander. He played both roles for ASVEL Basket in France last season.

“I’ve been comfortable,” he said. “Playing the one or two never has been a problem. It’s something that I saw back in Europe and that I’m seeing again, so it’s been great.”

“I’ve been watching the film and seeing how I can be useful.

Obviously, Shai is the main threat so the attention is more on him which opens up more things for the other players to catch and drive, catch and shoot and make the right decision out of it. I’m just trying to be efficient in those situations and make the right play.”

Maledon is shooting over 46% from the field as a starter compared to 37% off the bench. His three-point shooting has also been better, going from 29% as a backup to 48% while in the starting lineup. He is also shooting over 90% from the free-throw line since making the transition. His usage is up to 30 minutes per game.

“Theo does so many good things that it’s easy to put him in so many lineups,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “He can obviously play the point, which is his natural position. He has great vision. He gets in the paint and really plays for his teammates.

“And then I think we’re seeing his shooting develop as the season goes on. That will keep him in the game for a long time. And I think his work ethic and his smarts for the game is what sets him apart.”

Maledon’s three-point shooting percentage currently ranks top-10 amongst all rookies. He also ranks fourth in assists and eighth in minutes played. Not bad, keeping in mind he's the fifth-youngest player in the NBA.

“If you give him an advantage, he’s going to make the right play nine out of 10 times,” Daignault told Joe Mussatto of the Oklahoman. “Theo is a really mature player in that way and he came in the door with that. Now it’s about how does he gain more of those advantages? Because as he matures as a player and gets physically stronger and figures out how to get some cracks, the idea would be to have him in more of those situations.”

Maledon’s teammates are quickly growing accustomed to his style. Thunder forward Luguentz Dort said he admires his running mate’s growth and pointed to how he already carries himself as a professional on and off the court.

Gilgeous-Alexander said he has been comfortable playing alongside Maledon all season.

Their chemistry showed Monday night during a two-man game that led to a buzzer-beating three. SGA set Maledon up with an assist on the wide-open bucket.

“A guy like that is always good to play with.”