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NBA Daily: A Bright Future is Building in Oklahoma City

Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder click and which players can emerge as future stars of the league.

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34 draft picks from 2021-27.

A staggering treasure chest of assets, something that means nothing if the team that owns those assets can’t draft well.

Thankfully for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise has already shown that it can build a competitive and fun roster no matter the circumstances.

There’s no sugarcoating it, the Thunder is truly awful this season. The team boasts a truly atrocious 104.7 offensive rating, good for 30th in the league while pushing out a less-than-stellar 112.8 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the league. The team is dead last in SRS, a stat that factors point differential and strength of schedule while owning a league-worst -8.1 net rating.

But this team is so much fun to watch. So much so that it’s easy to neglect its horrible rankings and record.

The Young Stars

The team already boasts one of the game’s best young stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is enjoying career-best numbers of 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. “SGA” is out indefinitely, but the team can rest assured in the development it’s seeing from its other young pieces.

Look no further than the team’s 2020 draft class composed of Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, two players already making an impact. Entering the season, neither player looked to be significant contributors coming from overseas play and needing time to develop. In fact, “Poku” is the youngest player in the NBA, while Maledon is the sixth-youngest.

Maledon has 30 starts under his belt already at the age of 19, averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Maledon’s shooting splits don’t jump off the page but his instincts do. The point guard isn’t the type of player to give up on a play and it’s easy to see the offensive instincts carry over from his time with ASVEL in France.

Meanwhile, Pokusevski is on fire as of late. Since March 11, “Poku” is a full-time starter, averaging 31.4 minutes, 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The Serbian power forward only turned 19 in December and it’s already clear to see his potential is nearly limitless.

Fan-favorite “Poku” has shooting potential, connecting at a 35.9 percent rate from deep on over six attempts per game. He can make plays, rebound, gather blocks and score at all three levels. He isn’t a marksman, he’s far from it at this stage of his career, but there’s no denying the finesse he puts on every shot. Pick-and-rolls featuring Pokusevski and Maledon is something Thunder fans have to look forward to.

The Thunder’s young talent doesn’t end there, the team is already proving it can find gems on a whim.

Two-Way Contract Development

Moses Brown played out last season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers on a two-way contract and was mostly an afterthought. Brown spent most of his rookie season in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Thunder in training camp, an opportunity he used to pick up another two-way contract opportunity and then a multi-year deal after stellar play.

In a game against the Boston Celtics on March 27, it was clear to see Brown had established himself as a staple of the Thunder’s young corps. In that game, Brown picked up 21 points and 23 rebounds, both of which are career highs. Shortly after, the Thunder converted Brown to a standard deal.

Since March 14, Brown has 12 starts under his belt in 14 games, averaging 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oklahoma City has 10 players on its roster that have three or fewer years of experience, not including Pokusevski, Brown, Maledon or Gilgeous-Alexander.

Shortly after converting Brown, the team moved to sign Jaylen Hoard, who was on a two-way contract opposite of Brown in Portland last year. Like Brown, Hoard spent training camp in 2020 with the Thunder but was ultimately cut, unlike Brown. However, if early signs are any indication, Hoard already looks like another keeper.

In just three games, Hoard is averaging 11.7 points per game while limiting his fouls and playing with his head down.

The other two-way contract slot is held by Josh Hall out of Moravian Prep, a young player that is very raw but has limitless upside. Don’t hold his numbers against him, he has the athleticism to make fans regret that. Watching Hall is always a thrill because there’s always a risk of an explosive play to come. It’s clear to see that the end-of-roster development is just as skilled as the rest of the roster.

The others

Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley became household names for NBA fans in the Orlando bubble last season and have continued their strong play into this season. Dort’s been a full-time starter this season while averaging 12.6 points per game. His shooting is pitiful but he’s a hard worker and he’s made strides as both a playmaker and a scorer. Bazley is also a full-time starter with poor shooting numbers but he’s close to being a nightly double-double. While these two haven’t jumped off the page this year, they’ve both already proven that they can contribute to winning basketball, as seen last season.

Isaiah Roby is another interesting case, he’s a big player that can play the three through the five on a dime. Roby was traded to the Thunder from the Dallas Mavericks for pennies on the dollar — and he’s making Oklahoma City thankful for their doing so. Roby’s averaging 8.9 points on very efficient shooting.

As if the OKC frontcourt wasn’t loaded enough, the team went out and acquired Tony Bradley from the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade that shipped George Hill away. The move looked great at the time and looks even better now, as he’s making the case to be considered a long-term piece. 

Bradley is still just 23-years-old and looked like a suitable replacement for Joel Embiid on the 76ers when the MVP candidate went down. The center’s best game came in a win over the Golden State Warriors in which he recorded 18 points and 11 boards.

If that wasn’t enough the team also has Svi Mykhailiuk, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, who have all proven their worth in one way or another. Mykhailiuk and Jerome have the potential to be some of the best shooters in the league while “Kenny Hustle” is exactly that, the ultimate glue guy.

Overseas development

One of the most underrated traits a developing team can have is the ability to negotiate with overseas players and leagues and pick up professional stars. The Thunder is quickly showing its fans that it is more than capable of doing so.

Firstly, the team drafted Vit Krejci in the second round of the 2020 draft. Krejci didn’t come over this season but has the potential to be a good role player for the Thunder if he’s ever brought over. He also got experience playing in the NBA G League earlier this year.

Then, the team recently signed Gabriel Deck, who isn’t super young but is a winning player. Literal hours before the move went down, Deck scored 19 points to lift Real Madrid to the Euroleague playoffs.

The team is also reportedly bringing over Vasilije Micic next season, a star in Euroleague averaging 16.4 points and 5 assists per game in those games. Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to notch assists overseas. Micic isn’t young either, but he’ll bring a lot of professional experience both on the court and in the locker room to aid a young Thunder team.

While Oklahoma City is constantly touted for its future draft picks, its current roster isn’t something to look over either. Combine that with the fact that, despite his massive deal, the team might be able to actually get something of value for Al Horford and has a roster spot to use once Justin Robinson’s current 10-day deal runs up.

In the NBA not many things are certain, but the Thunder’s bright future and strategic front office surely are.

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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