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Aleksej Pokusevski’s improved interior defense is benefitting the OKC Thunder

Pokusevski is playing some of the best basketball of his career

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder’s blowout win on Friday night against the Toronto Raptors was a ton of fun to watch. We saw Oklahoma City move the ball quickly and finally the team’s stuttering offense kicked into life.

The Thunder’s defense was also hugely impressive when you consider that Oklahoma City played without a traditional center. Mike Muscala did not see a minute of action with Coach Daigneault going to Aleksej Pokusevski and Eugene Omoruyi at the 5.

The Thunder were under-sized at the pivot compared to the Raptors. Nick Nurse rolled out Christian Koloko and Thad Young, two physical bruisers at the 5. The disparity in height and weight meant that the match-up favoured Toronto at center. The Raptors seemingly had the sort of players who could bully the Thunder into submission.

However, the opposite occurred. Oklahoma City restricted Toronto to just 34 points in the paint. The Thunder were able to lock down the middle and win the game despite allowing Toronto to shoot 36.7% from 3-point land as a team.

Aleksej Pokusevski and his four blocks were instrumental in the Thunder’s victory. Pokusevski’s activity set a tone for the game and discouraged drives to the rim. It is a huge improvement from the young Serbian in his third season in the NBA.

For his first two years in the NBA, Pokusevski was seen as being a goofy, theoretical idea of what basketball player may be. He displayed flashes of talent but his overall play was let down by puzzling decisions and inexplicable errors.

In an odd way, Pokusevski was a disappointing prospect because of the high-profile meme worthy lapses. The mistakes became the story not Poku’s improved defense across all five positions.

His decision-making has been very good over the last ten games and we are seeing a better player for the Thunder. Aleksej still has lapses particularly when it comes to overly opportunistic passes but on the whole, he is playing with more control. The best thing that we can say about Pokusevski is that he looks like a real NBA player.

His role on the Thunder has changed somewhat compared to what he did last season. In 2021-22, Coach Daigneault positioned Aleksej out on the perimeter and his length was used to accumulate deflections.

Pokusevski did fairly well in that role; he was comfortable staying with smaller players and was adept at using his size to bother opposing players into mistakes. He was one of the few Thunder players who could switch on every assignment which made him useful to Coach Daigneault.

However, there were still consistency issues in his game when Pokusevski played out on the perimeter. He had a tendency to commit shooting fouls and allow the opponent time to reset mentally.

Daigneault has now moved Pokusevski inside to play as a rim protector. The change in role has simplified Aleksej’s tasks on defense. He only needs to focus on staying vertical and making timely rotations as a weak-side defender.

Daigneault sets the Thunder’s backline up with the two front-court players playing very close to each other. Daigneault can afford to play with effectively two rim protectors as Poku’s ability to cover ground quickly means that he can recover out to corners shooters effortlessly.

Playing on the weak-side hides Pokusevski from the opposing team’s ball-handler, they struggle to see him among the thicket of bodies in the painted area and this is where a lot of his blocks come from. The other team will try to finish around rim and suddenly Pokusevski will swoop in from nowhere and swat the shot attempt.

His position on the court helps hugely, the distance for the help rotation is short and Aleksej does not need to strain himself to contest the shot. Daigneault’s coaching and playing his back-line narrow compensates for the Thunder’s lack of traditional rim protection.

Pokusevski has always had good instincts for this rotation; his pre-draft film is indicative of his feel for this skill but Aleksej is timing his contest really well and getting clean blocks. Poku is still contesting everything in sight but his success rate has improved a fair bit. As per Cleaning the Glass, his block rate is in the 92nd percentile of all NBA players this season. Last season, Poku’s block rate was in the 47th percentile.

In his first ten games of this season, Pokusevski’s interior defense has been excellent and he is earning the right to stay on the floor for clutch minutes. He still needs iron out those goofball mistakes in his game; he missed two bunnies at the rim in the Raptors game that should have been converted but his improvement is encouraging.

At the age of 21 years old, Pokusevski is a real NBA player and he could be a good two-way player. It is also worth noting that his 3-point percentage has crept up to 34.3% and his shot looks significantly. Realising his value on the offensive end of the floor will be not as difficult as first thought if Poku can knock down outside jumpers.