NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

Reflecting on the three-year comeup of the Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant’s departure from OKC ended an era for the Thunder, but it also began one where young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took center stage.

In the summer of 2019, Sam Presti decided to tear everything down. In the three seasons since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for the Bay, the Thunder had remained competitive behind the omnivorous efforts of Russell Westbrook, but his play, along with the addition of Paul George, was never enough to get the team out of the first round.

After two disappointing seasons together, Presti traded both of them for a staggering number of draft picks, and he has not stopped accumulating picks since. If they do not ship any of them out, the Thunder will have over 10 first-round picks in the next 5 drafts. They have already accumulated a number of fascinating young players, and while the Thunder’s tanking years may not be over quite yet, one can see a promising team coming together if they squint and look closely enough.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander headlines a promising roster for the Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not quite a star yet, though he is the most fully-formed and accomplished of the Thunder’s young players. While it’s possible that one of his teammates may surpass him someday, that day is neither imminent nor certain. For now, he is the one player the Thunder can bet on, the only one who has already shown he has what it takes to be a star. With Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey, it’s still theoretical; with Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s actual. We’ve seen it.

Shai’s three-point shooting is still shaky, but his willingness to attack, coupled with his ability to get to the rim, nullifies that shortcoming most of the time, especially with those abilities enabling him to take over 7 free throws per game. Also, Shai has grown a lot as a passer, with his assist percentage nearly doubling what it was his first two seasons. He is not a natural point guard, but in light of how often he has the ball in his hands, being able to create plays for others is a crucial part of his — and the Thunder’s — evolution.

Of course, Shai does not need to be a great passer in light of who the Thunder drafted last year: the Australian small forward Josh Giddey. There was much to like in his rookie season with Giddey displaying a preternatural passing ability that opened up offensive opportunities for his teammates nightly. He could thread any needle and was often finding people in stride on the fast break or across the court on the perimeter, often leading to easy buckets. Considering how great he looked in Summer League, when he made the most of his year of NBA experience while making incoming rookies and other league hopefuls look silly, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about what Giddey could be for the Thunder moving forward. He’s already proven himself to be a creative playmaker and his own ability to create, and finish, looks for himself should improve in years to come.

Alongside Giddey in Summer League this year was the number 2 selection in the 2022 Draft, Chet Holmgren. Holmgren often looked great in Summer League, blocking shots and nailing jumpers from the perimeter. Though at this point, Holmgren is more intriguing than anything else. Even compared to other rookies, it is hard to really know what he will, or even could, become. Watching him, it sometimes feels like, in a few years, he could be either an All-NBA player or a rarely-used bench player without much space in between. This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration, but few players in recent years have appeared to have the potential for such a high ceiling along with the risk of a low floor.

This summer, the Thunder also signed Luguentz Dort to a long-term extension, locking him in for five more years. Dort has proven himself to be a capable starting two-guard in recent years, albeit one that has shown more ability on the defensive end than the offensive one. However, his offensive game has grown a lot since he first entered the league, with both his usage and efficiency rising every season thus far. Though his usage is likely to decline with the addition of Holmgren and the Thunder’s other draft picks, their presence, as well as Giddey’s pinpoint passes, mean that life may only get easier for Dort in the future.

In addition to Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren, Dort, and Giddey, the Thunder also added Jaylin Williams, Jalen Williams, and Ousmane Dieng in the draft last month. Those seven players, in addition to whoever the Thunder add with the bevy of draft picks they have to use the next few seasons, could be a very solid core. But it is impossible to know or project what they could end up being just yet. Perhaps one of these players can become a franchise cornerstone, but for now, it’s far too soon to tell.

The Thunder cannot tank forever. For the last two years, Oklahoma City has been trying to figure out what they have, taking a variety of different pieces and seeing what works and what could be a part of their future. Eventually, they will have to form all the random, accumulated draft picks into a coherent team rather than just a mesmerizing bundle of potential. Something real and actual needs to arise. It may still be a while before they are good, but in the interim, they promise to be worth watching regardless.

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