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Aleksej Pokusevski is finally playing good basketball

Aleksej Pokusevski has been integral to the Thunder’s strong performances

Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

He may have taken his sweet, sweet time, but Aleksej Pokusevski is finally playing well. His first two years consisted of the occasional flashes but they were largely a rough viewing experience for fans. His recent performances indicate that the tides are turning this season.

Through 14 games, Pokusevski is averaging 9.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 49.1% from the field and 41.7% from three-point range. It is a marked improvement and we are seeing Aleksej make meaningful contributions to the Thunder every single night.

Improved shooting from downtown

The efficiency of his scoring output has been a much welcome surprise. In his first two years, he shot 28% and 28.9% from three respectively. His shooting form has improved considerably, his legs no longer swing out as far as they can go and he is no longer chucking the ball at the rim either.

Pokusevski is a rare case of someone who has benefited from slowing down his release. Previously, his shots used to feel extremely rushed and more of a hopeful toss than a legitimate attempt to put the ball in the basket.

A large part of the appeal surrounding Pokusevski coming into the 2020 draft was his potential as a 7-foot shooter. He struggled mightily from deep in his first two years but it seems like the potential is starting to be realised.

Look how smooth his release is here on the catch-and-shoot, a nice one-motion shot with a high release point and a strong base. It is a stark contrast from the straight-line trebuchets from Year 1 and 2.

If he can keep up this newfound marksmanship then his floor rises tremendously, it would be hard to imagine a 7-foot shooter being anything less than a solid role player.

Shot-blocking extraordinaire

After losing prized rookie Chet Holmgren for the season to a foot injury, a quick glimpse at the team’s roster was an uncomfortable and frightening experience for those who are a fan of quality rim protection.

But here comes Pokusevski to save the day! He has been averaging 1.9 blocks a night so far this year and has recorded three or more in four of the last five games.

His timing on blocks is superb and his freakishly long arms give him all the tools he needs to get up there and swat the orange away. He perfectly times the following chase down on John Konchar. Pokusevski jogs behind in transition, not even attempting to get in front of the Grizzly because he can reject the shot opportunity comfortably when Konchar attempts his shot.

Or here, Exhibit B: Pokusevski plays some absolutely superb drop coverage from Pokusevski. It is an area that we expected to see Holmgren thriving in this year however, I am certainly not complaining about Pokusevski’s success here!

The agility to be able to turn his body a full 180 degrees and get the block from the other side of the rim after Cam Reddish gets him facing the wrong way is wildly impressive.

Pokusevski has shored up another Thunder weakness, weak-side help defense. Christian Wood goes into the chest of the much smaller Tre Mann and has an easy look at the rim before Pokusevski helps out and volleyball spikes it into the floor.

Then, there is the impeccable straight-up defense on the second attempt from Wood that renders the shot attempt virtually impossible.

These sorts of defensive plays are not only attributed to his length and timing but an impressive basketball IQ and an understanding of when to help on a drive. You can see that Poku recognises the size disparity and he instantly makes a move into the paint, awaiting the shot.

Pokusevski has been the defensive anchor the Thunder have sorely needed and the thought of the “Thin Towers” in action next year poses the idea of a very exciting defensive team.

Finally finishing at the rim

His finishing at the rim has seen considerable improvement this season as well, converting on 78.8% of his shots from within three feet of the basket, a +8.5% increase on last season and a whopping +23.4% increase on his rookie season.

It is like beating a dead horse at this point, but the “Poku needs to gain some weight” narrative has been running rampant since he was drafted in 2020 and whilst he may still not be a boulder of a man, there has been a noticeable increase in his strength this season. He is taking far more contact at the rim and has even been the initiator in some situations.

He loves to gather the ball up high and far away from his body before finishing with a fully extended arm, utilising all his physical tools. Combine that with his soft touch off the glass and Pokusevski has morphed into a very solid inside scorer, a far cry from what he was when he first entered the league.

If someone were to show this to Thunder fans during Pokusevski’s rookie season, they would marvel at how video editing technology has improved in such a short period of time. Taking contact on the initial drive and successfully performing a step-through move into a contested finish off the other side of the glass shows how far he has come.

The next steps

Pokusevski is currently on a very promising trajectory and has made considerable improvements to weak areas of his game, but this does not mean that the work is done. Far from it, in fact.

I would love to see him get to the line far more often. He has only been to the line 105 times in his career which is almost unbelievable. Moreover, he is not exactly lights-out from the free throw line. Poku is shooting an abhorrent 53.8% from the “charity” (not so charitable for Poku) stripe this season.

Seeing some more self-creation from him would also be nice. He has the agility and smooth handle to expand his arsenal of scoring moves but for the most part, his game currently consists of spot-up threes and cutting layups.

Overall, it has been a delight to witness Pokusevski go from a meme to an unironically positive basketball player this season. After two years of holding onto hope of the occasional flash, it has been good to see him produce consistent minutes as a tall wing who can protect the rim and knock down the long ball. The future looks promising for Poku.