The Oklahoma City Thunder right now are a far cry from what they were last year.
Chris Paul, the point guard who led OKC to a playoff berth, is leading the Phoenix Suns to great heights. Dennis Schröder, who served as the sixth man for OKC, has found a starting role on the Los Angeles Lakers. Steven Adams, who was OKC’s starting center since 2013, is finding new life with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Those three players helped the Thunder reach a playoff berth in 2020. But in the off-season, they were traded away as general manager Sam Presti looked to start a rebuild. With the exodus of players such as Paul, Schroder, and Adams, fans and experts alike expected the Thunder to be perhaps the worst team in the NBA.
So far this season, however, the Thunder appear to be far from the worst. While they’re still a lottery team, OKC has a record of 14-20, sitting at 12th in the West. Most of the success could be attributed to the Thunder’s new head coach, Mark Daigneault, but there’s no overlooking the blossoming talent that OKC has. The Thunder has remained a mostly competitive team, thanks to these four young players:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tends to go overlooked very often among many casual NBA fans. This was the case even when playing when he was playing in the same backcourt as Chris Paul.
But with Paul no longer in OKC, Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as the Thunder’s best player and first option. The third-year guard has made tremendous growth in his game, averaging 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 51 percent from the field, and 41 percent from behind the arc. Additionally, he’s on pace to become the fourth third-year player to average 22 points on 50 percent shooting or better, in the last twenty years.
It’s clear that Gilgeous-Alexander has learned a lot from Paul in his lone season with the veteran point guard, such as how to play well in clutch time. He’s tied with Kevin Durant and Jamal Murray for eight in the league in average points scored in clutch time. When it comes to clutch free throws, he is first and fourth in free throw attempts and free throws made, respectively.
Perhaps another most crucial part of Gilgeous-Alexander’s game is his ability to drive, as the guard has a league-leading 24.9 drives per game. He plays the game with a very aggressive style, able to create and finish for himself inside the arc, and that leads to more drive opportunities.
Looking at his numbers, one might think that Gilgeous-Alexander is an All-Star. But despite playing at an All-Star level, he received fewer All-Star votes than Alex Caruso and the injured Klay Thompson!
Luguentz Dort was only an undrafted rookie when he was tasked with guarding James Harden in the playoffs. His defensive performance was notable, given that Harden was the highest-scoring player that year coming into the postseason. Dort held his own, able to lock down Harden without fouling the former MVP – something that most defenders struggle with. He even forced Harden to post up a few times, which was a rarity for the Beard.
Although the Thunder ultimately lost to the Houston Rockets in seven games, Dort made a name for himself as his defensive effort against Harden earned him high praise. Since then, his game has progressed nicely.
Now with a bigger starting role for the Thunder this year, Dort is averaging 12.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 0.9 steals per game. He has scored over twenty points four times this season, with a regular season career-high 26 points against the Utah Jazz. His defense certainly hasn’t missed a beat, as he’s tied with Pascal Siakam for fourth in the league in perimeter shots blocked (6.2) – with a defensive field goal percentage of 36 percent to boot.
And the best part? OKC has Dort on an average salary of $1.3 million. Talk about a bargain.
He might be the youngest player in OKC’s young nucleus, but Darius Bazley is still pretty good.
In his first season as a starter, Bazley is averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. While his shooting isn’t the best (a woeful 29.5 percent from three), he offers great versatility at both forward positions, as well as center. Additionally, Bazley has also shown all the signs of being a potential double-double machine, recording seven double-doubles so far.
When compared to other players in the 2019 draft class, Bazley holds up pretty well. Among his peers, Bazley has the most total rebounds, beating out first-time All-Star Zion Williamson. He is seventh in both total points scored and total blocks. And while his three-point shooting hasn’t been the best this year, he’s still good for sixth among his draft class in three-pointers made, just one spot ahead of the Miami Heat‘s Tyler Herro.
As long as Bazley continues to round out his game, he could prove to be a bigger essential piece for the Thunder down the road.
Arguably the biggest highlight of Hamidou Diallo’s career was winning the 2019 NBA Dunk Contest. One of his dunks featured him dunking over Shaquille O’Neal. Of course, when you dunk over Shaq, you’re almost guaranteed a win.
This season, Diallo is doing his best Zach LaVine impersonation and proving to everyone that he’s more than a guy who only wins dunk contests. He is averaging 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and has also recorded four double-doubles. When he started at the point versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, Diallo recorded ten assists, a career-high.
It’s no secret that Diallo has improved tremendously ever since his rookie season in the league. Here’s how his numbers in the past were compared to now:
Rookie season (2018-19): 3.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.4 SPG, .455 FG%, .167 3P%
Sophomore year (2019-20): 6.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, .446 FG%, .281 3P%
This season (2020-21): 11.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, .481 FG%, .293 3P%
Diallo may not win the Most Improved Player award, but the strides he has made since his first year in the NBA have been quite remarkable.
OKC On The Rise
Many of those in the basketball community had written off the Thunder, prior to the start of the season. But the Thunder’s young core has shown basketball fans that there’s some excitement brewing in OKC. They might be stuck in the rebuilding phase, but with how well their young core is developing, the Thunder could find themselves back in the upper echelon of the West in the near future.