Aleksej Pokusevski has had a quiet summer and the memeworthy Serbian has almost disappeared into the background. Pokusevski played sparingly in Summer League and has not featured at all for Serbia in EuroBasket. He was prevented from attending the competition by the Thunder so that Aleksej could develop his game in the offseason.
All of this has contributed to Pokusevski being the Thunder’s international man of mystery. In an odd way, it is quite fitting for a player who is simply unlike anybody else in the NBA. Pokusevski has put on some weight but he still looks quite thin.
His body shape has led to amusement and mockery from various corners around the league. The same can be said for his ability on the court. Aleksej has had a few high-profile errors which led to him being featured on segments such as Shaqtin a Fool.
Lost in all of the memes is the reality of the situation. Aleksej is a raw player even after two seasons for the Thunder. His only experience of professional basketball before being drafted was in the Greek second division. It was a massive leap and it takes a player time to adapt to that sort of change.
As we have seen with EuroBasket, the way that the game abroad is played is different to what we are used to in the NBA. Basketball is more physical and the lack of space makes it more difficult to score. I think the change in space is what has hampered Pokusevski over the last two years.
He went from playing on narrow courts, in a strict, regimented coaching structure where there was not really scope for him to play expansively. On the Thunder, he plays for a coach who encourages every player to pass the ball and has put no real limits on his development.
Coach Daigneault’s encouragement combined with Pokusevski’s earnest approach to the game has led to many puzzling moments. Pokusevski loses the ball easily and can be too quick to try a move that needs more work. It has been a difficult two years and there are things that Pokusevski still needs to overcome.
Aleksej needs to become a more balanced playmaker. At the moment, his passing is high-risk, high-reward all the time. There is no variation in his approach which makes him predictable and prone to error. He needs to learn how to dial the aggression back and focus on the basics more often.
Pokusevski will also need to put work into his shooting motion. Pokusevski’s shooting arc can be quite flat and his shots are prone to bouncing off the back rim. Occasionally, he will get hot and find some form but there is not much in the way of consistency.
It is also worth noting that his shot is driven by thrust generated from his legs; when Aleksej fades late in the game, his shot becomes significantly less efficient. Chip Engelland, the noted shooting guru, should help address some of these concerns but it will be a multi-year process.
Despite this, Pokusevski has been a solid contributor for the Thunder on the defensive end of the floor. In his rookie season, he was good as a help defender rotating onto shooters and preventing open looks from downtown. Aleksej used his length to smother his assignment and take away easy shooting windows.
Last season, Pokusevski moved inside and played in the front-court for the majority of his minutes. There was a concern that his lack of size would lead to Pokusevski being overwhelmed but this rarely occurred.
I will admit that there were a few high-profile, awful looking moments but by large Pokusevski did well on defensively. Oklahoma City only allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions as per Cleaning the Glass when Aleksej played at the 4. That sort of pace would have put the Thunder towards the top of the league when it comes to defensive rating.
Pokusevski made up for his lack of strength by sneaking in for offensive rebounds and stealing the ball away from the opposition. His activity stopped possessions and created scoring opportunities for the Thunder.
Pokusevski showed flashes of excellent playmaking particularly in the pick and roll. He would put a defender on his back and then serenely find a teammate sitting in the corner for an open jumper. His patience and court vision was very impressive for such a young player.
Pokusevski is a better player than what many give him credit for but he still needs to find improvement and turn talent into productivity. Aleksej needs to be more consistent with his contribution to the team to justify being here in the long-term.
Achieving consistency can be difficult but it is not a particularly hard step for Pokusevski. He will find improvement in his game if he plays less impulsively. Cutting down his turnovers and limiting the number of hoisted shots would be a great start.