(A version of this story originally appeared in Brett Dawson’s This Week in Thunder newsletter, deliverable to your inbox each Monday morning. To sign up, see the form to the right of this article.)
DALLAS — Cason Wallace took a pass on the right wing and found himself face to face with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Well, sort of.
Wallace did have the ball on the perimeter on the Thunder’s first possession last Saturday against Philadelphia. And the closest defender to him was the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, the league’s reigning MVP.
But OKC’s rookie guard was behind the 3-point line. And the Sixers center had a foot in the paint.
“Embiid was a mile off him, and he didn’t shoot it,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said of Wallace, starting that afternoon in place of then-injured OKC win Jalen Williams.
Wallace swung the ball instead, and the Thunder ended the possession with a Chet Holmgren 3-pointer that missed. But Daigneault would have preferred the first good shot. The one Wallace turned down.
Nineteen games into his NBA career, Wallace is shooting an almost-certainly-unsustainable 59.8% from the floor, including 52.5% from 3-point range. And he’s built those gaudy numbers in part by taking mostly great shots.
Wallace has shot 92 times this season, and 52 of those attempts are what the NBA classifies as “open” (the closest defender is 4 to 6 feet away) or “wide open” (more than 6 feet away).
And that’s great. Getting open shots is an offensive objective.
But nobody gets perfect shots.
And sometimes the Thunder has to remind Wallace that discretion isn’t always the better part of valor. Sometimes, the rookie who’s been so adept at fitting in has to get outside his comfort zone.
“The hardest balance is that balance between aggression and confidence and functionality, and… Cason tends to lean towards functionality,” Daigneault said. “And so one of the things we can do to help him is encourage him to be more aggressive.”
That doesn’t just mean taking good shots that present themselves earlier in the shot clock, like the one against Philly. It also means driving more aggressively.
Wallace has 38 catch-and-shoot field goal attempts. He’s taken 16 shots on drives.
“I’m just playing the game and whatever comes to me comes,” Wallace said. “But I’m not just forcing myself to shoot the ball or anything. It’s open shots, and I’m taking them.”
Sometimes, though, he can force the issue. It’s OK. That’s Daigneault’s point.
The two had a meeting this week in which Daigneault stressed to Wallace the importance of being “less timid” on his drives. He’d like the 6-foot-3 guard to get into the paint and make a decision.
If there’s a layup, take it. If not, make a play. Find a teammate.
Wallace drove four times in a win against the Mavericks on Saturday and shot once. It’s a work in progress.
Still, the Dallas native had his best statistical game in that homecoming win, finishing with career highs in points (15) and rebounds (six), a performance Daigneault called “awesome.”
It’s a fitting descriptor for his season on the whole. Beyond the hot shooting, Wallace has been a versatile, dependable rotation player and spot starter. Given that Wallace played point guard in high school and college, Daigneault compared his knack for being in the right spots on the floor to a quarterback who converts to wide receiver and understands the nuances of route-running.
But at some point, the Thunder would like to see some more of those point-guard tendencies come into play, and Daigneault is comfortable asking for more from Wallace because the rookie is off to what he called “a very predictable start.”
That’s not to say the Thunder saw this shooting coming.
It means OKC has a reasonable sense of what to expect from Wallace every game. He’s even-keeled. He’s a reliable defender and a killer competitor.
“What allows us to have confidence to nudge him in that direction is how consistently he competes,” Daigneault said. “We’re very confident putting him on the court every night because he competes at a high level night after night.”
So now the Thunder will push for an even higher level.
And if Wallace’s gaudy shooting numbers fall off, so be it.
“Now it’s a matter of stretching him a little bit,” Daigneault said. “So if there’s a little bit of offensive aggression by the numbers, that’s probably not a bad thing, because it means he’s stretching, and it’s something we’re encouraging him to do.”
This Week in Thunder
at Houston, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Toyota Center
TV: Bally Sports Oklahoma
What to watch: The Rockets are 8-1 at home this season and 1-8 on the road. Houston is outscoring its opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions at the Toyota Center — the second-best net rating at home in the NBA — and being outscored by 9.3 per 100 on the road, the fourth-worst number in the league. The Thunder’s 7-2 road record is the NBA’s best, as is its net rating (+11.1) in road games.
Golden State, 7 p.m. Friday, Paycom Center
TV: Bally Sports Oklahoma
What to watch: Remember that San Francisco sweep the Thunder pulled last month? That was supposed to be the end of OKC’s regular-season series with the Warriors. Surprise! Golden State makes a second visit to Paycom Center this season, the result of the games the NBA added once the In-Season Tournament knockout rounds were set. Might get some buzz on NBA Today.