Last season, Coach Daigneault experimented with his options in the front-court and the starting lineup changed quite regularly. We saw Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Isaiah Roby, Derrick Favors and Olivier Sarr all spend minutes at the 5. It is unusual to see so many changes but Favors fell out of favour and JRE’s injury meant that Coach Daigneault had to get creative.
Sam Presti’s decision to draft Chet Holmgren was huge for the Thunder. The addition of Holmgren meant that Oklahoma City would have a ready, available solution at center who could play in different coverages and guard different types of players. Chet’s injury has now thrown a wrench into the works.
He will be unavailable for the entirety of the 2022-23 season and will spend a whole year recovering from the Lisfranc fracture. For Holmgren, it will be a long road back to full health but for the Thunder, Chet’s injury opens up that old question again, who starts for the Thunder?
Coach Daigneault has a few options to pick from at center. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jaylin Williams and Darius Bazley could all make legitimate cases for being the starting 5. Derrick Favors did not play at all towards the back end of last season and I think that will continue on into this season.
Favors does not fit the Thunder’s current competitive window and would only take away minutes from the young players who need time to develop. If anything, I would expect the Thunder to buy Favors out before the start of training camps and use that roster spot to experiment further with the roster.
The same could be said for Mike Muscala. Muscala’s role is knocking down pick and pop jumpers off the bench and playing good interior defense. He has flourished in this role and I do not see the point in disrupting this chemistry.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has the strongest case to start. Robinson-Earl already started at center for the Thunder last season and was impressive in how he led the team on the defensive end of the floor. JRE’s vocalness and timely rotations anchored the Thunder’s defense and allowed them to play an effective style of play in which the Thunder ground down their opponents.
That being said, Robinson-Earl is not the perfect solution at center. Jeremiah is 6’8 and gives up size to centers like Embiid, Jokic and even someone like Valanciunas. JRE is strong enough to play at 5 but I am concerned about whether Robinson-Earl can play this position for all 82 games consistently.
We have seen players like PJ Tucker and Draymond Green get worn down after playing extended minutes at center on a nightly basis. There is a reason why the Warriors protect Green’s health by running Looney lineups for most of the game.
Jaylin Williams has not really been discussed as an option for the Thunder at the 5 but his skill-set seems to translate nicely to that position. Williams is two inches taller than JRE and has a frame more suited to guarding traditional, burly centers. His willingness to play physically is what sets him apart from the other options.
Jaylin Williams is more than willing to sacrifice his body and seems to play with more energy after taking a charge. Williams will get knocked down, pop back to his feet and hustle like he has gone up a gear. It is a quality that is hard to define but the likes of Joakim Noah or Kyle Lowry have it; a big play on defense boosts morale and gets the whole team locked in.
Robinson-Earl is a significantly better shooter than Williams and would provide good spacing for the Thunder’s shot creators. That being said, I think Jaylin Williams is an adept roller and has shown a feel for passing that Robinson-Earl has been unable to match.
Robinson-Earl is a decent passer who can make simple reads but does not necessarily have the creativity to exploit openings in a defense. Williams averaged 3.5 assists in summer league play and his passing was incredible. J-Will’s control of tempo allowed him to open up defenses and bring others into play.
Starting Williams would require accommodation at other positions. Coach Daigneault would have to think hard about playing Bazley, Dort and Giddey in the same lineup as Jaylin Williams. Daigneault would need to drop Bazley or Dort to the bench to balance the starters slightly better.
Darius Bazley is the last option for Coach Daigneault and is arguably the most unorthodox choice out of three players discussed so far. Bazley has played most of his minutes at the 4 and is a completely different build to JRE or J-Will. Bazley is light-footed, bouncy and long-armed. He is a versatile defensive player who can play match-ups against larger and smaller players.
It would be a step outside of Bazley’s comfort zone but playing center does seem to suit him. Darius could get into the dunker’s spot more often and have more chances to finish around the rim instead of being stranded on the perimeter. Coach Daigneault could then play a floor-spacer at the 4 like Dieng or Kenrich Williams.
He is already a good interior defender and has shown an ability to contest shots without racking up the fouls. Bazley stays with his man and uses his footwork to wall off the rim expertly. Playing Bazley at center would require changes to the Thunder’s scheme. Coach Daigneault would have to switch pick and roll coverage more regularly to maximise Darius’ versatility and mitigate the risk of Bazley being dissected in the post.
Switching when executed well is a great form of defense and stifles the opposition effectively. However, switching every coverage is a high-risk approach that can lead to teams getting burned if the rotations are not perfect.
It is a difficult decision to make for Coach Daigneault but I believe that Jaylin Williams is the best candidate for the job. His willingness to sacrifice for the team energises his teammates and raises the Thunder’s level on that end of the floor. That energy was palpable during Summer League and I would like to see how Williams’ style of play fits with established players.