What we learned from the Thunder’s 17-game January

What we learned from the Thunder’s 17-game January

What did we learn from the toughest month on the Thunder’s schedule? That Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in the thick of the MVP race, for starters. And a lot more.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 2, 2024, 6:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 2, 2024, 6:00am CST

(Brett Dawson’s This Week in Thunder newsletter is emailed on Mondays. Subscribe here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — They told Chet Holmgren what to expect, and it’s not like he doubted them. 

The Thunder rookie was warned in December what lay ahead for his team — and his body — in January. There were 17 games, 11 on the road. There would be five back-to-backs and just five days in OKC with no game. 

“Everybody was telling me, like, ‘January’s gonna suck; it’s gonna be hard; it’s one of the toughest schedules that any team has ever played in the NBA ever,’” Holmgren said. “So it’s not like I learned it was gonna be hard. I experienced it and I’m going to be better because of it. And I just got to take those experiences and continue to learn from them.”

The Thunder (33-15) learned a lot about itself over those 31 days. And we learned a thing or two about OKC. 

So as February tips off with Friday’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets, a look back at what we can take away from January — and what the month might mean moving forward. 

Another OKC MVP?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t the favorite in the NBA Most Valuable Player race, but he’s gaining ground. 

Offshore betting site BetOnline.ag released its updated MVP odds Thursday, and Gilgeous-Alexander is second on the board at 11/4 odds. Only the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (5/7) is higher. Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid — whose eligibility is in jeopardy given the strong possibility he’ll fall short of the NBA’s new 65-games-played requirement — round out the top five. 

And January is a big reason why Gilgeous-Alexander’s MVP case is getting stronger. 

For starters, he played in all 17 of the Thunder’s games in the month, the only top-five MVP candidate according to oddsmakers to do so. Jokic (14 games played) and Antetokounmpo (15) each missed one game. Doncic (10) and Embiid (nine) each missed five of their teams’ games. 

Without a rest, Gilgeous-Alexander was third in the league in January scoring (31.5 points per game) behind only Doncic (37.1) and Embiid (36.3). 

The key? Consistency. Gilgeous-Alexander’s 19-point game against the Clippers on Jan. 16 was the only time in the month he scored fewer than 24 points. 

He scored 30 or more points in 14 of OKC’s 17 games in the month. 

“I try to be as disciplined as I can off the court so that every night I give myself the best chance to be the best version of myself on the court,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Eating habits, rest, treatment, recovery — you got to be smart when you’re playing that many games, how much work you get in and don’t get in.” 

Among top-five MVP candidates, only Jokic’s Nuggets (10-5) had a better January record than Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder (11-6). 

It’s put Gilgeous-Alexander firmly in the mix for the NBA’s most prestigious award, won previously by Thunder players Kevin Durant (2014) and Russell Westbrook (2017). 

The season strikes back 

Victor Wembanyama notwithstanding, this time of year is supposed to be hard on a rookie. 

The San Antonio rook put up a January well beyond his years, and on Thursday he was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Month, an award Holmgren has won twice for October/November combined and December.

It was a tougher stretch for Holmgren. 

He had spectacular games — 31 points at Washington; 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks at New Orleans — and capped the month with one of the best games of his season, an 18-point, 13-rebound, five-block showing in a win Wednesday over the Nuggets. 

But Holmgren had his lowest-scoring month of the season (14.9 points) and shot worse than in any month from the floor (51.5%), the 3-point line (34.8%) and — in maybe the strongest indication of the wear and tear of a season — the free-throw line (58.5%). 

Fatigue? Thunder coach Mark Daigneault was unconvinced. He said after Holmgren struggled against Minnesota — four points, seven rebounds, three blocks, 2-for-9 shooting — that he’d “never make assumptions” about a player being tired. 

Still, Holmgren admitted after the Denver game that he was tired, and it’s reasonable. 

He played in all 17 games in January — that’s more than twice a typical month of college basketball — and has played all 48 Thunder games this season. That’s tied with teammate Cason Wallace for the most games played by an NBA rookie this season. 

(Wallace, for the record, had a statistical bounce-back in January, shooting 40.7% from 3-point range after plummeting to 30.8% in December.)

Holmgren ranks second in rookie scoring at 16.7 points per game. Each of the other four top-five rookie scorers in the NBA has missed at least six games. 

A self-professed “perfectionist,” Holmgren sometimes has a challenge accepting struggles in stride. But he’s driven to greatness, Daigneault said. The ups and downs of the season are valuable lessons for him. 

“Obviously for personal reasons I want to be a really good player, but also I want to help this team,” Holmgren said. “These dudes go out there and battle every single night and nobody’s feeling great. Everybody’s playing through stuff. So I feel like I owe it to them to go out there and be my best version of myself every night that I can be, and I’m just trying to do that and over a long enough period of time hopefully that lands me in a great place and molds me into a great player.” 

J-Dub doubles down

If it wasn’t already established, January solidified Jalen Williams as part of the Thunder’s Big Three. 

The second-year wing averaged 19.8 points, the highest-scoring month of his career — he averaged 19.8 as a rookie last March — and had the best full month of his career (excluding Octobers) shooting from the floor (57.2%) and the 3-point line (51%)

Beyond that, he continued to emerge as a playmaking threat. 

Williams averaged 5.4 assists in January, more than a full assist better than he’d previously averaged in a full month. 

That speaks to Williams’ growing ease with the ball in his hands, which has made him both a safety valve when teams aggressively trap Gilgeous-Alexander and a viable option for running the offense when SGA is off the court. 

“Over time he’s grown in confidence and comfort on the ball,” Daigneault said. “He’s always been a willing and great decision-maker. I always respected that about him, just his willingness to make simple plays. That’s the mark of a very mature player and he’s definitely got that.”

Injury luck turns

The Thunder expects to be without Williams (right ankle sprain) and backup guard Isaiah Joe (sternum contusion) for Friday’s game against the Raptors — they both sat out Wednesday’s win over Denver — and that reverses recent good fortune on the injury front. 

According to Spotrac.com, OKC players have missed 32 games this season due to injury, fewer than any other team. The Minnesota Timberwolves (34) were the only other team in the league this season with fewer than 40 games lost to injury entering Thursday. 

For context, Memphis led the league entering Thursday’s games with 254 games lost to injury. 

The Thunder’s number is remarkable, especially given the limited rest days it was afforded in January.

A lighter month is no guarantee of limited injuries, but OKC gets one in February. The All-Star break lightens every team’s load, and the Thunder plays 11 games this month. 

Six of those games will be at Paycom Center, and the Thunder doesn’t have an extended road trip. It plays at Utah on Tuesday and Dallas next Saturday but doesn’t have consecutive games on the road for the rest of the season. 

OKC plays two back-to-backs — a road-home at the Mavericks on Feb. 10 and at home against the Kings on Feb. 11 and home games against the Clippers and Wizards on Feb. 22 and 23. 

It’s a significantly lighter load than the one the Thunder towed in January. 

“I can’t overstate the grind that the month’s been,” Daigneault said Wednesday, hours before January wrapped. “I’m comfortable saying it now that it’s over.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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