Basketball

Thunder Exceeding Expectations

Thunder
Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder have far surpassed expectations this year. OKC sits at 22-24 this season and has a legitimate shot at making a play-in game when most experts predicted another finish near the bottom of the Western Conference. Why has the Thunder surprised so much this season? What does it mean for their future?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Perhaps the largest, and certainly most obvious, the reason for their improvement is the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The fifth-year guard has taken an enormous leap in production and is a legitimate All-NBA player this season. He is averaging a career-high 30.6 points and 1.7 steals per game, as well as 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. The Thunder guard also has a near personal best .622 true shooting percentage (TS%). However, Shai is not the only player that has improved from last season. Last year’s sixth overall pick, Josh Giddey, has raised not only his volume of scoring but also the efficiency at which he does so. Luguentz Dort has remained a defensive stalwart while posting career-best shooting percentages. Long-term project Aleksej Pokusevski looked much improved before his injury as well.

Thunder All-Rookie Team Candidate

Returning players are not the only reason for Oklahoma City’s success. 12th-overall pick Jalen Williams, commonly called J-Dub, has been one of the best rookies in the NBA this season. Williams has been fantastic on the offensive end, shooting over 50% from the field while averaging the sixth-highest points per game among rookies. His offensive impact doesn’t just extend to putting the ball in the basket. The 21-year-old is also averaging 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. Recently, Williams has begun to impose himself on the defensive end of the court as well, becoming a true two-way threat. Williams could easily become an All-Star in the next two to three seasons.

Chet Holmgren

Most impressively, the Thunder have accrued this success without their second-overall pick Chet Holmgren. Holmgren infamously suffered a Lisfranc injury this summer, forcing him to miss the entire 2022-23 NBA season. One of Oklahoma City’s biggest weaknesses this year has been their lack of size, and the seven-foot-tall Holmgren will certainly provide that next year. Holmgren is an elite shot-blocker, and will likely further improve the Thunder’s already top-ten defense. He’s also expected to help the Thunder out offensively, as he possesses an impressive shooting touch for a big man, and will help space the floor for Gilgeous-Alexander’s already elite drives to the rim.

The Future of the Thunder

The fact that this team is so far ahead of schedule is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they have acquired enough talented players that they are a potential playoff team. On the other, they are not likely to have a top-ten pick this season, and could potentially not have a lottery pick at all if both they and the Clippers make the playoffs. It is my belief, however, that the Thunder are set up extremely well for upcoming seasons. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become one of the best players in the NBA. Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams both have borderline All-Star potential playing next to him. It remains to be seen what Chet Holmgren can do on an NBA court, but he was the second-overall pick for a reason. Oklahoma City still has a treasure chest of picks (13 first-round picks in the next four seasons, according to Fanspo). The Thunder could use those picks on more exciting prospects, but that is not the most likely outcome. OKC could package some of these picks for another All-NBA player to play alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. This would certainly put them into the championship conversation as the rest of the supporting cast improves.

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