Over the last two seasons, we have seen unheralded players take a leap and earn a spot in the rotation. Abdel Nader was a fringe player who played sparingly in the 2017-18 season. However, Nader worked hard on his game and became a useful piece for Coach Billy Donovan in Chris Paul’s only season in Oklahoma City.
Nader was one of the few reliable wing options on the team and often provided steady contributions off the bench for the Thunder. He broke out in a big way and he is not the only example. Isaiah Roby came from absolutely nowhere and proved why he deserved minutes.
The Thunder’s young roster is primed with players who could all feasibly be the biggest surprise of next season. With that mind, myself and Clemente Almanza will discuss those who we feel will breakout in the 2021-22 season.
When I started thinking about this particular question, three players came to mind; Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon and Jeremiah-Robinson Earl. I believe that each one of these players could have a big season for the Thunder.
Darius Bazley impressed greatly in his first season with the Thunder. Bazley was deployed off the bench by Billy Donovan and he often played quite well. Bazley’s energy and eagerness to defend the interior meant that he was surprisingly good protecting the rim.
Darius was also more than willing to take guys off the drive and finish at the rim whenever he had a good opportunity to do so. In the Bubble, Bazley flashed a functional outside shot and provided a glimpse of the player he could be for the Thunder.
His sophomore season in the league was difficult to say the least. Bazley was thrust into the starting lineup and that change in role proved to be tough for Darius. He struggled to guard bigger players but it was his offense that was concerning.
In his first season, Bazley kept things simple. Whenever he had a good angle to drive to the rim, Bazley would act decisively and use his length to create a layup around the basket. He started to overthink in the half-court in his second season in the league.
Darius would hesitate and use a few dribble moves before he thought of attacking the defense. Bazley lost a degree of pace in his play which made it much harder for him to create separation off the dribble whenever he went to the hole.
That being said, Bazley looked much comfortable in the back half of last season and he was more productive. Darius played with a sense of simplicity and stripped his game back to what he knew worked well.
Darius Bazley has a really good chance to breakout in the upcoming season; he has been through the sophomore struggles and came out of the other side a better player. Providing that Bazley can continue to play with the same aggression and calmness, he could be a candidate for 6MOTY.
For Bazley, his goal has to be cementing his starting spot in Coach Daigneault’s lineup. Oklahoma City have a lot of young, interesting forwards on the roster who could command minutes. It is up to Bazley to prove that he deserves to start.
Maledon has become something of a forgotten man for the Thunder over the course of the offseason. Theo Maledon played the most minutes of anyone on the Thunder roster last season and did whatever Coach Mark Daigneault asked of him.
Theo started the season with the reserves and ended the season as the lead playmaker for the Thunder. Maledon was often the only player on the floor who knew how to run the offense and create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Despite his body of work, all of the offseason talk focused on Josh Giddey, Tre Mann and Ty Jerome. Summer League was the first indicator that Theo may have taken the leap. Once Giddey went down, Theo was handed the keys to the offense.
Maledon averaged 10 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds per game during his time in Las Vegas. Theo also shot 36% from downtown. His statistical production was decent particularly for a player who is expected to lead the bench unit in the upcoming season.
Theo Maledon also visibly looked like a different player. Maledon added strength to his frame over the offseason and he was much more able to absorb contact from the defense. Maledon is not strong enough yet to force his way past the defense but he is certainly capable of holding off his man.
The French Prince was really solid last season for an ever-changing Thunder team and from what we have seen so far, I would not be surprised to see Theo play even better in the 2021-22 season.
Jeremiah-Robinson Earl has already been christened as ‘Jerry Hustle’ as part of the ‘Hustle Bros’ duo with Kenrich Williams. Robinson-Earl impressed in Summer League with his passing, astute defense and inside scoring. For a second round draft pick, he looked very comfortable playing the style of basketball found in the NBA.
I believe that Robinson-Earl will be able to establish himself in Coach Daigneault’s rotation as his skill-set perfectly matches the requirements of the system that the Thunder plays. Oklahoma City play a pass-happy style of basketball in which the ball constantly moves around.
Robinson-Earl is selfless and is more than happy moving the ball to the open man. The core tenets of a modern NBA offense are very similar to how Coach Jay Wright runs offense at Villanova. Robinson-Earl should be able to make a smooth transition to NBA basketball.
I feel like the obvious answer is Aleksej Pokusevski. The biggest reasons for that being the case is the fact that Poku should receive a lot more playing time this season compared to last and statistically speaking, it can not get much worse for the 19-year-old.
Things seemed to click for Poku last season after returning from the G League Bubble, starting in his last 28 games and averaging over 28 minutes a game. For context, in 45 pre-Bubble games, Poku had just 28 starts.
Throughout his entire rookie season, Poku showed flashes of brilliance that were muddied in poor play. These flashes excited the fanbase all season long as to what type of player Poku could eventually develop into if things go right. Well, for his sophomore season, if his ceiling is to be reached, there needs to be more than just flashes, there needs to be consistency.
If given a starting spot and consistent minutes, I expect major improvements from Poku across the board. The Thunder have made it a high offseason priority in developing Poku’s skill and build, so much so that they held him out of playing in the Summer League. With a full offseason under his belt, Poku should begin the season with no leash and plenty of room for error.
Another reason for confidence in Poku’s trajectory is the roster makeup. Outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, this team does not have anybody else who can constantly create their own shot and score at will. Now while it is too early to categorize Poku as a scorer, he certainly has the tools to be the second-best scorer on this team.
All of these elements have created a formula where Poku being the Thunder’s breakout player this season is a realistic possibility.