When the Thunder finally decided to embark on the rebuilding process, Sam Presti acknowledged that it would be a lengthy process. The Thunder’s front office does not want to rush the rebuild and will prioritise asset acquisition. Oklahoma City were bad in 2020-21 and this will likely be the same in 2022.
There are plenty of interesting, high-level prospects at the top of this Draft. Jalen Duren and Chet Holmgren are believed to be two of the strongest players in this class but I believe that there are interesting options abroad who fit with the Thunder’s approach to basketball.
Over the last few years, we have seen the Thunder focus on adding smart, savvy players who hailed from outside of the USA. Our good friends at Daily Thunder penned an article a year ago that first outlined the blend of cultures that was present on the Thunder.
The ‘United Nations’ approach has only continued. Aleksej Pokusevski (Serbia), Theo Maledon (France), Gabriel Deck (Argentina) and Josh Giddey (Australia) have all been added to the roster in the last year or so.
Presti’s approach is driven by necessity and prior experience. During his time with the San Antonio Spurs, Sam Presti learned that foreign leagues could provide diamonds in the rough. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were skilful, unknown guards who eventually helped to form one of the greatest dynasties in basketball.
The necessity aspect of Presti’s decisions relates to the size of the Thunder’s market. Small market teams are inherently disadvantaged in the modern NBA. Glamour markets such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles hoover up talent.
The adjustments to the draft lottery has also reduced one of the few advantages that small markets held. Before 2019, small markets could tank safe in the knowledge that the losing would result in a blue chip young player on a cost-controlled contract.
The flattening of the draft odds has made it much more difficult to obtain a Top-5 draft pick even if the team chooses to tank. Oklahoma City tanked the second half of last season and ended up with No. 6. The draft lottery is a brutal business that is purely decided by luck, there is no way to develop a competitive advantage.
With both of these constraints in mind, the Thunder’s methods of talent acquisition are constricted. The best free agent that Oklahoma City ever signed was Patrick Patterson; it is very difficult to attract quality role players to Oklahoma.
International players are undervalued due to very public flame-outs of draft picks such as Andrea Bargnani and Dragan Bender. Presti has attacked this inefficiency. He took Pokusevski and Maledon in 2020, two players who would have went higher if they played in the USA.
Nikola Jovic and Yannick Nzosa are two international prospects who fit the mould. Both players are smart players who can complement Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Aleksej Pokusevski and Luguentz Dort.
Height - 6’10
Weight - 209 lb
Nikola Jovic is the next big thing out of the talent factory that is Mega Basket. The Belgrade club has a noted history of producing high-level basketball players. Nikola Jokic played for Mega Basket before being drafted into the NBA. Ivica Zubac and Vlatko Cancar were both developed by Mega.
Jovic is widely regarded as one of the finest young talents in Europe at the moment and it is not difficult to understand why. Nikola had really strong performances at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Riga earlier this year and was arguably Serbia’s best player.
He is not simply a lengthy, raw athlete who physically overwhelms his opponent. Jovic has real touch in a half-court setting. He controls the pace of the offense and generates smooth looks around the rim through his control.
For Mega Basket, Nikola Jovic plays guard and often initiates the offense. In the NBA, I believe that he will be a playmaking forward whose value is predominantly driven by his well-rounded, selfless play.
When I sat down to evaluate Jovic, there were only two weaknesses in his game that I spotted. The first weakness relates to his shooting; Jovic’s shot is slow right now. Nikola can knock down the long ball but it does take a lot of time for him to actually release the jumper. He will need a faster jumper to be an effective floor-spacer in the NBA.
Jovic can also be too aggressive as a help defender at times. Jovic has great body control and acceleration for such a young player. This is usually a positive but it can be a detriment on defense. Jovic can be too comfortable relying on his physical attributes to bail him out whenever he makes a poor decision on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Jovic’s technical level is very strong, he is capable of creating shots for himself off the drive and for others as well. Jovic is a patient passer in the half-court and will comfortably find the open man. Serbia ran a lot of offense involving cutters at the World Cup and Jovic was consistent in finding the moving player in positions where they could score the ball.
I am also impressed by his feel for the game particularly when it comes to the little details. Jovic’s eyes are constantly scanning the court and he has great spatial awareness. His sense of timing and selflessness help in that regard. I watched the whole of the Serbia-Argentina game and it is clear to me that Jovic really understands the game.
Sam Presti has seemingly fallen in love with lengthy forwards with unlimited potential. Aleksej Pokusevski and Josh Giddey both fall into that category. Jovic would just be another wing who could feasibly play the positionless basketball that the Thunder want.
Height - 6’10
Weight - 215 lbs
Yannick Nzosa is the other name who currently tops the list of international prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft. Nzosa’s career is an interesting story. Yannick started playing the game in 2015 in his native Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nzosa then moved to Rome in 2017 to join Stella Azzurra Roma, a club in Serie B. Stella Azzurra currently play in the third division of Italian basketball but it was viewed to be a good step for Nzosa at the time. Italian basketball is competitive and challenging for young players.
Nzosa eventually ended up moving on to play in the top division of Spanish basketball, the Liga ACB, with Unicaja Malaga. Malaga is a pretty coastal city in Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. The city known for a church cathedral with just one spire, grilled sardines and sweet wine is also home to one of the strongest teams in Liga ACB.
Unicaja Malaga frequently make it into the playoffs in Euro Cup and perform strongly in domestic competition. It is a good team that is difficult for young players to break into. Yannick Nzosa earned rotation minutes for Unicaja Malaga at the age of 16.
Nzosa is an odd blend of polished and raw. Yannick is already an adept rim protector with a good sense of timing when it comes to blocking shots. However, he can be too eager to step out onto the perimeter to guard smaller players.
Nzosa’s calling card is his defense; his combination of length, speed and positioning means that he is capable of defending the interior and in space. He plays a disciplined style of basketball whenever the opposing team enters the painted area; Nzosa shadows the attacking player until he spots an opportunity to swat the ball away from the basket.
Moreover, Nzosa is agile enough to stay with smalls whenever they drive to the rim. Yannick is able to switch his hips quickly and stay on the opposing player’s back, pressuring the opposing player. He also makes himself big on the perimeter and walls off the painted area, forcing the other team to recycle the possession of the ball.
Nzosa’s greatest strength on the defensive end of the floor is how he manages pick and roll coverage. Good pick and roll defense usually relies on two players working in tandem to restrict space and drain seconds off the clock. Nzosa’s length and agility allows him to effectively guard two players at the same time.
He can contain pick and roll actions in the same manner that Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela. The benefit of this skill is that his defense buys precious time for the rest of his teammates to recover into good positioning.
As athletes go, Nzosa is one of the weirdest that I have seen in quite a while. Nzosa moves like an athletic wing; Yannick is able to accelerate quickly and change directions seamlessly. His speed is unbelievable for his position and often allows him to finish off efficient looks at the rim.
The rawness relates to his offensive game. Nzosa can finish delicately around the rim but only with his left hand, he will need to learn how to deploy his delicate touch using his right hand.
In addition to this, Nzosa’s jumper is still a work in progress. He has looked more comfortable taking shots from mid-range in the last few months but it is not a reliable look for him yet.
Bear in mind that Nzosa is still just 17 years old and is only entering his second professional season in Spain. It is entirely possible that Nzosa is much better at the end of the season than he is right now.
Oklahoma City need a center to round out their core and Yannick Nzosa might be the guy to fill the spot.