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The 10: OKC Thunder Big Board 2.0

The season is almost over, let’s review the best prospects on the board

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

When I wrote the first edition of my Big Board, the basketball season had barely started. There were a few European leagues that had tipped off but college basketball was still weeks away from tip off. The new data has greatly changed the picture of what my top-10 prospects look like.

For context, five players who featured in my last edition have been omitted entirely. The cuts were not an easy decision; I had thought long and hard about whether Ousmane Dieng and Jaden Hardy had a strong enough case to justify a top-10 ranking.

In the end, I could not find a reason to keep them amongst the cream of the crop. The Big Board today is completely different to what was published in October. The same can be said for the Thunder’s position.

Before the start of the season, the Thunder’s aim was to simply accumulate high-level prospects in the hope that they develop into being core pieces around Shai and Josh Giddey. Consideration of position, fit and skill overlap was largely unthought about.

After watching months of Thunder basketball, it is evident that these factors need to be considered more closely. Josh Giddey has been excellent and has legitimate star potential. Oklahoma City do not need to be desperate to take high-risk, high reward prospects. Giddey’s seamless transition to NBA basketball allows Sam Presti to be more selective in who he takes.

My evaluation methodology is based around talent and the player’s fit with the Thunder’s current group of players. This will mean that capable, solid wings and intriguing center prospects all do pretty well on my list.

With all that of being said, my Big Board is listed below:

1) Chet Holmgren - 7’1, Gonzaga - Previous ranking #1

2) Jabari Smith Jr - 6’10, Auburn - New entrant

3) Jaden Ivey - 6’4, Purdue - Previous ranking #8

4) Paolo Banchero - 6’10, Duke - Previous ranking #2

5) Johnny Davis - 6’5, Wisconsin - New entrant

6) AJ Griffin - 6’6, Duke - Previous ranking #9

7) Shadeon Sharpe - 6’6, Kentucky - New entrant

8) Jalen Duren - 6’10, Memphis - Previous ranking #5

9) Bennedict Mathurin - 6’7, Arizona - New entrant

10) Ochai Agbaji - 6’5, Kansas - New entrant

Notes:

Undisputed No. 1

Chet Holmgren is the best player in this class and it does not appear to be particularly close. Holmgren has proven to be a two-way force for Gonzaga and has satisfied prior concerns about his fit in the NBA.

There were worries that Holmgren would be too skinny to guard big, strong centers such as Joel Embiid, Jonas Valanciunas and Nikola Jokic. He has answered those questions with well-timed blocks and refined weak-side help defense.

He could be elite on both ends of the floor and be the long-term solution at center for the Thunder. Holmgren is the perfect combination of talent and fit meeting the Thunder’s needs for the next five years.

Smith’s Rise

Jabari Smith was projected as a lottery pick before the start of the season but his play this season has vaulted him into the Draft’s top three spots. He has led Auburn with his polished three-level scoring and has elevated his team’s play.

Smith has the size to score inside but his sweet jump shot raises the level of his game. Smith is shooting 42.0% from downtown in college and has shown a real ability to make difficult shots. He is very comfortable driving towards the stripe and nailing a pull-up jumper that is almost unstoppable.

The other point worth noting about Smith is the quality of his shot mechanics. He has a one motion shot with very little preamble; he will rise up and simply shoot the ball. He does not preload for jumpers nor does he splay out elbows all over the place. His mechanics are compact and incredibly quick.

All of this bodes well for his future in the NBA and it is one of the reasons why I really like his fit with the current Thunder core. Smith will be absolutely lethal off catch and shoot jumpers generated by Shai’s slashing to the rim.

Smith’s size and silky shot should also mean that he can function as a relief valve for the Thunder’s offense. Good shotmakers are needed when the offences goes awry and Smith is already very solid when it comes to draining difficult shots.

Smith is a good team defender who has strong situational awareness on the less glamorous end of the floor. Smith’s defense is not flashy but he consistently makes the right rotations and deters the opposing offense. I would like to see him contest shots more frequently but that is something that can be taught.

Ivey’s Increasing Draft Stock

This pick is probably not what you will have expected. For the majority of the season, the top-3 of the Draft has included some variation of Holmgren/Banchero/Smith Jr. Jaden Ivey has been widely acknowledged as a very good draft pick but a player who is not on the same level as Chet or Jabari.

Over the last two months, Ivey has improved his performances and so he moves past Banchero in my Big Board. For the first time in his career, Ivey is playing controlled, smart basketball for all 48 minutes. He is deploying his athleticism more wisely and exploiting what the defense gives him.

Jaden Ivey is an excellent athlete at the point guard position who can play above the rim comfortably but his strongest physical attribute is his pace. Ivey accelerates like a Formula 1 car at times particularly in transition and semi-transition. He powers up the court and gets good looks at the rim by catching the defense when they are not fully set up.

His acceleration and deceleration is honestly pretty freaky. Ivey can be roaring along in top gear and then suddenly stopping on a dime. His ability to stop without requiring much distance creates a lot of space for him to pull-up and knock down floaters or runners from 13 feet.

Ivey is not afraid of taking the ball to the hole either. Ivey likes to take contact and draw fouls on taller defenders. He is averaging 5.7 free throw attempts per game this season. While Ivey is only shooting 75% on shots from the stripe, he is still cashing in on some of the easiest looks in basketball.

Jaden stands out on the defensive end of the floor particularly at the point of attack. Ivey’s quick hands and dogged determination to stay in the opponent’s jersey at all times means that he creates a lot of mistakes for the opposition. Ivey brings relentless pressure and that pressure can lead to unforced turnovers, errant passes and transition scores.

Banchero and his fit in the NBA

Banchero has slid a few spots in my rankings as I am finding it difficult to work out what he does apart from score the ball. We know that Banchero can score from all three levels and is very comfortable in the mid-post. But what does he bring to the table on an off scoring night?

His rebounding is his other notable strength but I do wonder if that is fool’s gold. Banchero is physically stronger and more athletic than his competition in college basketball. He can overpower opponents and snag boards on physicality alone. He will not be able to do so in the NBA and will come up against stiffer competition.

Rebounding in the NBA, particularly for contested rebounds, is more about positioning than physique. From the film that I have seen, I cannot say conclusively that Banchero has the ability to predict the flight of the ball and put himself in position to grab the board.

Banchero is decent guarding in space but he offers very little in the way of rim deterrence off the ball. Paolo likes to play denial defense on his man which is not always beneficial for his team. Banchero has the length to be a solid help defender and he does not maximise this strength enough.

I also have my concerns about his fit with the Thunder’s core. Getting the best out of Banchero will involve dumping the ball into him at the elbow and having players move around off the ball. That style of play does not exactly flow with the Thunder’s pass-happy offense.

The Badger

Johnny Davis is the second sophomore to make this list and like Jaden Ivey ahead of him, Davis has used his time in college to craft and refine his game. In his first season at Wisconsin, Davis was a role player whose defense and occasional ability to knock down tough shots drove his value.

He was solid if unspectacular during his freshman season as he fitted into Coach Gard’s offense. He has improved exponentially and has led Wisconsin way past what was expected. At the end of last season, Wisconsin lost a few talented, senior players and therefore the following year was expected to be a rebuilding year.

Davis’ play has ensured a seamless transition for the program; Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated in the second round. When you watch the film, it is quite easy to see what Davis brings to the table.

Davis is able to manufacture good looks in the half-court by being savvy in the pick and roll. He likes to use the screen to get separation and attack the basket but this is not his only weapon. Davis will often reject a screen and catch the defense out of position.

When the screen comes over, it is common for the defensive player to slide their feet in anticipation of the obstacle placed in their path. They vacate space which Davis then drives into. He gains separation by waiting for the defense to move first and then initiating his dribble.

Davis is also an excellent scorer in the mid-range area. Johnny has a quick release and creates space reliably in the non-painted area through his deft footwork. He is not restricted to rising up and launching a jumper. Davis is very comfortable draining fadeaways and side-step jumpers in this shooting zone.

The only puzzling thing about Johnny Davis is that his shooting proficiency has not yet translated beyond the 3-point line. Davis is only shooting 33% from downtown this season and has been a reluctant shooter. He will turn down looks at the arc and step inside the line for two-point jumpers.

His selection is very disciplined and he knows how to maximise his own strengths. However, I would like to see him be a little less selective and let fly on pull-up threes more often. He will be guarded differently if he can prove to be a legitimate marksman from downtown.

Defenses will come about above the 3-point line to guard him and that will only create more space for his teammates to score. Space creation is a vital skill in the NBA and Davis could develop his space creation to an elite level if he starts taking a greater volume of 3-point attempts.

The other thing worth noting about Johnny Davis is that he is oddly competent in the post. He likes to use his thick frame to muscle defenders out of the way and score inside on easy buckets. His strength means that Davis is difficult to stop when he gets down low.

Wisconsin use his post scoring to good effect; they often run a play off-ball where Davis cuts from weak-side to strong-side while a wing sets a screen and then pops out to the deep corner. The cut and screen scrambles the defensive match-ups and creates an advantage for Davis in his preferred scoring zone.

The X-Factor

AJ Griffin entered the season as a complete unknown, an enigma. We all knew Griffin’s history and his measurements. Griffin is a big, athletic wing who spent an entire season of basketball working with his father, Adrian Griffin, on his game. In theory, Griffin is the perfect combination between physique and polish.

For the first part of the season, we did not see much from Griffin. He was recovering from a long-term injury and Coach K had not found the right spot for Griffin in his rotation. Over the last half of the season, Griffin earned his way into regular minutes by contributing with and without the ball.

The presence of Paolo Banchero has meant that AJ has needed to find ways to be valuable without the ball. Griffin has achieved this goal by being an excellent cutter and a strong shooter on catch and shoot jumpers.

You can see the refinement in Griffin’s game when he cuts to the rim. As soon as the defense over-commits, Griffin is already flashing to the rim and making himself available for the pass. There is no wasted movement with Griffin; his play is economical and decisive.

In an odd way, there is a Butler-like quality to his game whenever he cuts to the rim. Jimmy Butler has made himself into being an efficient scorer by catching the ball, attacking the basket and earning free throws through contact.

Griffin is not afraid of contact and his willingness to get physical will mean a bucket load of foul shots at the professional level. The easiest shot in basketball is the free throw and Griffin already seems to understands this concept.

Griffin is also shooting 44.7% from downtown with the large majority of his looks coming off the catch. Griffin has not mastered the pull-up jumper yet but he is already effective with his work off the ball. He is shooting 76% from the stripe which does indicate that he will be a serviceable shooter in the NBA.

His only real weakness is his tunnel vision off the ball on defense. Griffin can be too focused on stopping his assignment and does not always consider where he can be most valuable. Griffin has the speed and explosiveness to be an excellent help defender and he does not do this enough.

I want to see Griffin attack 1v2 situations more confidently and trust his own ability to get a stop.

Wildcard Wildcat

Shadeon Sharpe has not played a minute of college basketball this season and yet he is expected to be a lottery pick; his body of work on the amateur circuit is simply that strong. He was the consensus No. 1 player in the country for all high school ranked players. Sharpe looks every bit of an NBA player already and he is widely expected to declare for the Draft this year.

It is unusual decision but it is not unprecedented; James Wiseman played three games for the Memphis Tigers before moving on with his career. The concerns regarding loyalty and desire to improve are largely unfounded.

College basketball does very little to benefit players who are almost guaranteed to be drafted. The players are not paid by their schools and have only recently been allowed to sign endorsement deals relating to their own image rights. Moreover, one bad injury could tank a player’s draft stock and impact the start of their professional career.

Sharpe choosing not to suit up for Kentucky does not worry me. I am also relatively unconcerned about his work ethic and desire to improve. The reports coming out of Kentucky indicate that Sharpe is competitive and works hard on his game.

Sharpe is still somewhat of a mystery box given the lack of film on his game but it is clear that he is athletic, skilled and already polished as a scorer. Sharpe is proficient at knocking down difficult shots and his step-back jumper allows him to create a shot on every possession down the floor.

He is not a pure shooter but his shot form is tidy and I think it is a matter of refinement. Sharpe does not always get enough elevation on his jumper which can mean his shots bounce off the front of the rim. With time and physical development, that concern will dissipate.

In theory, Shadeon is the sort of player that teams crave; a big, athletic wing who can shoot and create off the bounce. I like him a lot as a player but it is tough to put him in the top-5 for me. I would have really liked to see some film of him playing against more equal competition.

His high school footage is impressive but we have seen dominant high school players not amount to anything in the NBA. Sharpe is one to watch for me and I will be really curious to see how he performs in NBA workouts. That will be litmus test in proving if Shadeon is the real deal.

The Finisher

Jalen Duren will likely enter the Draft as the best rim protector in the class. Duren is a physically imposing, athletic center who already has an excellent understanding of space around the rim. Duren’s length means that when he goes vertical, the rim is walled off and it is difficult for the opposing team to score.

Rim protection and athleticism is not enough for a player to go in the top-10 anymore. The sheer abundance and quality of rim-running bigs means that this position is over-saturated. It is difficult to justify why someone like Duren would be worth the opportunity cost of a first round pick when Nerlens Noel could be picked up in free agency at a cheap price.

The surface level of Duren’s game fits that archetype to a tee and it is one of the reasons why he has slid down draft boards for the last five months. That being said, I think that Duren is somewhat undervalued when you consider his ability to guard in space and manage mismatches.

Duren has the quickness and determination to stay attached to smaller players as they drive to the rim. In the last few years, mobility has become a desired trait among NBA centers particularly when it comes to playoff basketball.

Traditional centers are relentlessly hunted in the postseason setting and are played off the floor unless they can prove that mismatches are infrequent. Providing that Duren can bring high-level rim protection and competence in mismatches, he will be a useful player to have.

The other point worth noting about Duren is his finishing ability would provide the Thunder with more options on the offensive end of the floor. Duren would stretch the floor vertically and provide Giddey with an easy outlet on most possessions. Jalen’s leaping ability will allow him to clear the defense and finish above the rim without much trouble.

His fit with the Thunder makes sense and he would be a long-term solution at center. It is a logical decision if the likes of Jaden Ivey and Jabari Smith Jr are off the table.

Montreal’s Mathurin

Bennedict Mathurin is the second Canadian on the list and he shares ties with the current Thunder roster. Lu Dort and Bennedict Mathurin both hail from Montreal and played at the same AAU program. The similarities do not stop there, both players went on to play Pac-12 basketball in Arizona.

Mathurin would instantly fill a hole in the Thunder’s rotation. OKC currently not have a big 3&D wing who has juice off the bounce. Luguentz Dort satisfies some of those responsibilities but Dort is best used on other guards rather than in match-ups when he has a size disadvantage.

Mathurin is 6’6, athletic and is comfortable with the ball in his hands. Mathurin is a capable deep shooter, 38.3% for his two seasons in college basketball but it is the type of shots he makes that is rather encouraging. He will drain shots off the move without hesitation and can be relied upon to knock down contested looks.

Defensively, Mathurin is a monster off the ball. His length and speed allows him to smother his assignment and restrict the opposing team’s offense. He denies passing opportunities and likes to disrupt rhythm. Mathurin is more than willing to intercept passes and get his team running in transition.

I can see Mathurin playing a role similar to what Mikal Bridges does for the Phoenix Suns. Bridges is the quintessential 3&D wing but his creation off the dribble forces the defense to play him honestly. For the Thunder, that would be an excellent outcome. High level role players do not come around every day.

The Finalist

Agbaji is not the most exciting player in this class but his fit with the Thunder is very good and he would be a good complement to OKC’s current core. Agbaji is a 3&D wing but that description somewhat undersells his ability as a driver and scorer.

Ochai is tireless in his desire to run off screens and cut to the basket. His motion often leads to quick, sharp pull-up threes or knifing drives to the basket. Agbaji processes the game scenario effectively and his decision making is decisive. He will catch the ball flying off the screen, take two dribbles and finish at the rim. There is no wasted movement in his play, it is efficient and economical.

Given his age, I do not expect him to progress much further as a basketball player but I could see his skill-set being valuable on the Thunder. Agbaji’s offensive threat as an off-ball scorer draws defensive attention and spaces the floor effectively for his teammates. Josh Giddey will greatly benefit from having more room to work.

Low-usage 3&D wings who can handle the ball and put pressure on the opposing defense are always valuable to a team. While Ochai Agbaji is not the sexiest option in the 2022 Draft, he would be a very good supplementary piece around the Thunder’s core.