The 2022 season was supposed to be another rebuilding year for the Oklahoma City Thunder. On paper coming into the season, they had an extremely young roster filled with talent, but that talent needed to build chemistry together first. With a young, inexperienced roster, they also entered the season with the most difficult schedule. On top of all that, their second overall pick from the draft in Chet Holmgren who was going to have a huge role for the team this year suffered a Lisfranc injury in August which would keep him out the entire season. With all that in mind, they currently are not the worst team in the league as many projected, sitting at an 11-13 record currently and still trending up. So, how exactly are they defying these odds?
It starts with the rise of their guard duo of Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. With Gilgeous-Alexander it is his evolving defensive skills that he has been able to put together with increased offensive production to become a two-way superstar. He always stood out on the defensive side with his 6’11 wingspan, but now he is also positioning himself better on the court to be in position more frequently to take the ball away. He is averaging 1.1 blocks, 1.8 steals, and 3.8 defensive rebounds per game because of this, and once he gets the ball is able to transition quickly up the court to get a score. While the entire defense for the Thunder isn’t great, allowing 117.7 points per game, if the defense from Gilgeous-Alexander is sustainable it will go a long way.
The biggest area of improvement for Gilgeous-Alexander has been on offense. Gilgeous-Alexander through 22 games so far has a field goal percentage of 50.6%, is making 32.8% of his three-point shots, 53.7% of his two-point shots, and 92.9% of his free throws. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.3 points per game, the third highest in the league only behind Luka Dončić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has now had seven consecutive games with over 30 points, bringing stability to the offense.
With Gilgeous-Alexander, there is Giddey, who is forming into a great second option. He has a rare feel for the game that he pairs with his size, vision, and IQ to manipulate defenses. How he has helped before on offense is with his ability as a passer, and that is continuing as he has 115 assists so far in the season. His growth right now is his own ability to score, which is helping the Thunder on offense. Giddey is currently second on the team, averaging 14.8 points per game, the biggest contributing factor for this is being able to score from range. Last season the Thunder were restricted with Giddey as a scorer because his best work came up close to the rim, making 64.9% of his shots from zero-to-three feet from the basket. Compare that to only making 43.1 from 10-to-16 feet away, and there was a dip in production. This season he has become a versatile player alongside Gilgeous-Alexander, as Giddey is still making over 60% of his close range shots, but now is also making 50% of his shots from the 10-to-16 feet range. This improvement is what will continue to maximize the potential of this Thunder offense.
Then there is rookie Jalen Williams, who is also emerging. On the season, Williams already has a 60.5% true shooting percentage, which is above the league average of 57.4%. It was quite a surprise when the Thunder took Williams 12th overall with Tari Eason and A.J. Griffin still on the board. Many believed it was a reach, but from what Williams has shown on the court, it may not have been a reach at all. The offensive scheme under Mark Daigneault incorporates off-ball movement that needs perfect execution, and Williams has that. Williams’ role so far has mostly been coming off the bench, only starting in eight games, but with how he is producing in limited minutes he is going to make it difficult to not be a starter.
Either way, he has been great in late game situations with his pick-and-roll creation ability to get constant scores. Williams is still adjusting to the three-point range, making only 30.4% of those shots. He makes up for this with his ability to cut into lanes and create for himself to get close to the basket, leading to him shooting 62.4% on his two-point shots and have 18 dunks on the season. For a rookie, Williams plays with poise even on defense when having to go up against NBA stars. His IQ heavily shows up here, timing when to disrupt passing lanes and rotate like an experienced player. His two-way ability is going to continue to shine as he gets more time on the court.
Let’s not look over the impact of the continued development Aleksej Pokusevski has had to contribute to this unexpected season, either. That starts with how Oklahoma City has changed their usage of Pokusevski on defense. Instead of playing him a majority of the time on the perimeter, he has taken over play in the center and guarding the rim effectively. This current usage has Pokusevski well on his way to a career high in blocks as he already has 31, and steals as he already has 13. His length and mobility has led to the Thunder being able to rely on Pokusevski as a drop defender. Over his first two seasons Pokusevski was not great offensively, making under 30% of his three-point shots, under 50% of his two-point shots, and had under a 50% true shooting percentage. Pokusevski has now turned that around and is shooting efficiently as he is making 37.1% of his three-point shots, 52% of his two-point shots, and has a true shooting percentage of 54.4%.
The Thunder have a young roster, in fact, the second-youngest in NBA history. Despite this, they have been able to find success in a season many weren’t expecting them to. From securing wins or keeping games close with the top teams in the NBA, the Thunder’s stars are starting to emerge and put things together. When they start to play offense and defense cohesively, along with getting Holmgren back, don’t be surprised when they emerge into a top team in the near future.