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5 thoughts from the Thunder’s first 20 games

The first quarter of the season is done, time to analyse the data

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Thunder’s rather embarrassing 118-105 loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday marked the 20th game of the 2022-23 season for the team, a season that has so far produced a flurry of scintillating moments.

But the season has not lacked when it comes to gloomy, despondent moments. The Thunder have been very up and down.

Oklahoma City find themselves sitting at 8-12, good for #12 in the Western Conference and 24th overall in the NBA.

There have been some huge wins, like when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander capped off a 42-point night with a game-winner on the Wizards, when the Thunder put up 145 points on the Knicks at the Garden, or when Isaiah Joe led a 16-point comeback against the Mavericks. Then, there have been some heart-breaking close losses against the Nuggets in overtime and the Bucks in double-overtime.

Despite being the youngest team in NBA history, the Thunder are a team led by an All-Star caliber player that battles through adversity, erases large deficits and produces highly entertaining close games.

Through the first 20 games of the season, I think it is fair to say that Thunder fans have enjoyed the journey so far and that it has been packed with promising signs for the future. Here are some notes from the first quarter of the season.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has arrived, for real.

Shai is finally on that level now. It is not unfair to say that his 2021-22 season was disappointing after the lofty expectations his 2020-21 season set. After the All-Star break last season, the tides turned for him and he once again played like the superstar we thought he was.

His excellent play has certainly carried over to this season and Gilgeous-Alexander is now averaging a scarcely believable 31.1 points a night on a fantastic 61.8% true-shooting.

New York Knicks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

His snatch-back ankle breakers, crafty layups and snake-like slithering drives have been the driving force behind the Thunder’s start to the year. OKC have exceeded expectations and Gilgeous-Alexander has contributed greatly to the Thunder’s overachievement.

It is looking safe to say that the 24-year-old star will make his All-Star debut in Salt Lake City this year. If he can keep up this level of play and the Thunder can maintain a not-awful record, All-NBA might be a goal that is in reach. He has seriously been that good.

The Thunder’s rebuild still has some important question marks attached to it that must be answered at some point, but as long as SGA is on this team, the future is promising.

Aleksej Pokusevski is actually making positive contributions

Can you believe that? After having a serious argument for the dishonour of “Worst Player in the NBA” during his first two years, watching Pokusevski play basketball this season has been a relieving experience.

His rim protection has been desperately needed with the loss of Chet Holmgren and his efficient 10 points a night has turned him into a player who is contributing to winning games.

His ability to play within an offense and find himself good, quality shots has been a much-welcome revelation. He no longer looks like a lost duckling in search of their mother, but rather a reliable scoring option who can find his own shot within the flow of the offense and protect the rim on the other end.

For more on Pokusevski’s great beginning to the year, check out my piece from last week!

Jalen Williams has been awesome

After losing Holmgren, many worried the Thunder would have no exciting rookies to fawn over this year, but thanks to Williams this has not been the case. He suffered an orbital fracture in his first career game and missed the next four, but since his return, he’s showcased what had Sam Presti and the Thunder so intrigued by the 6’6” wing out of Santa Clara.

In his last seven games, he is averaging 13 points and 3 assists on 47% from the field and 35% from three.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

J-Dub has been showing flashes of the prototypical, elite, roleplaying wing that every contending team needs to be successful in the NBA. He is a fantastic cutter who does not need the ball in his hands to be successful, but despite that, Williams is very capable of creating his own shot if the situation calls for it.

Despite not being touted as an avid dunker in college, he certainly has not been shy to throw down the occasional jam so far in his NBA career, getting the fans of Paycom Center on their feet.

His shot has been inconsistent, not quite falling at the superb rates that it was in college, but he projects as a very good shooter long-term.

Williams is already contributing positively at such a young stage in his career. As he gets more opportunities to shine, his growth will accelerate. This guy might be something special for the Thunder.

Luguentz Dort leaves much to be desired after signing an extension

The Thunder made their faith in Dort official when they extended him to a 5-year/82.5M contract and so far, it has not been going great. Yes, it is only 20 games but he has not been playing well this season particularly on the offensive end of the floor.

Quite frankly, he has lost the Thunder some games down the stretch with his erratic shot selection and poor decision making with the ball in his hands. Sometimes you find yourself questioning his basketball IQ, which is not great for a fourth-year player who has just signed on for another five years.

He has got to start hitting the long ball at a more respectable rate and taking shots that come within the flow of the offense. Attacking the rim less recklessly and playing with more consideration would be nice as well.

The defense is still there, so it is not all bad for Lu. However at a certain point, the defense he brings cannot completely hold up his value as a player. We need to start seeing more reliability and efficiency on offense.

The defense is not clicking

The Thunder were a surprisingly competent defensive team last year but it has not quite been the same this year. They are currently ranked 21st with a defensive rating of 112.8. OKC have given up 135 points to the Knicks, 132 to the Raptors, 136 to the Bucks and 131 to the Nuggets. Certainly not ideal.

Milwaukee Bucks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

A large part of this can be attributed to the interior defense or lack thereof. The first thing opposing big men did when the schedule was released was circle their games against the Thunder, knowing it would be an easy meal for them. They give up 53.3 points in the paint per game, the 4th worst mark in the league.

Pokusevski’s knack for blocking shots and Shai’s newfound defensive intensity and presence have been impressive, but it is still not enough to keep the points on the other side of the scoreboard to a minimum.

Despite this, it is very easy to see the defense improving next year with the return of a certain generational shot-blocking prospect who stands at 7’1” tall and possesses a wingspan of 7’6”.

I am a big fan of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and the way he contributes to this team, but the sooner Holmgren can get back, the sooner I can stop watching JRE at center. It has not the most enjoyable experience.

It has been an entertaining season for the Thunder with some big-time performances and some much-needed improvement from young players. Whether the team remains somewhat competitive for the rest of the year or decides to throw it all in for a shot at Victor Wembanyama remains to be seen, but whatever happens, Thunder fans will be there for the rest of the journey.