Four storylines worth watching as Thunder training camp approaches

Four storylines worth watching as Thunder training camp approaches

Brett Dawson: Is Chet Holmgren a game changer? Is Jalen Williams ready for a jump? And can the young Thunder really make a playoff push in a loaded Western Conference? Those are some of the storylines worth watching with media day and the start of training camp less than a week away.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Sep 26, 2023, 12:22pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Sep 26, 2023, 12:22pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — This is supposed to take longer. 

By this time next week, general manager Sam Presti and the rest of the Thunder will have met with reporters to tip off the 2023-24 NBA preseason, raising the curtain on a campaign that’s been building buzz since last season’s NBA Play-In Tournament. 

Around the league, there’s a growing sense that the Thunder has a legitimate playoff roster. A “breakout and bust” discussion on ESPN’s “Brian Windhorst and the Hoop Collective” podcast this week put OKC squarely in the former category, with co-host Tim MacMahon saying the Thunder is “pretty widely considered to be a likely playoff team.”

If the Thunder finds itself back in the playoffs this season, it will be after a three-year absence, hardly a protracted rebuild. OKC went 22-50 in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season and 24-58 the season after. Last season’s team went 40-42, then 1-1 in the Play-In. 

The key reason for the expedience is the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a first-team All-NBA selection last season and a better player than any reasonable projection expected four years ago when the Thunder acquired him in the Paul George trade. 

But while Gilgeous-Alexander has revved up the rebuild, the Thunder still has taken it steady. Presti pushes back on the notion of pushing in his chips, using his draft capital to acquire a star to play alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. 

That’s in large part because OKC doesn’t even know yet what it has on the current roster. Rookie Chet Holmgren missed last season with a foot injury, and the Thunder hasn’t seen him play an NBA game. There might be leaps forthcoming from third-year guard Josh Giddey and second-year wing Jalen Williams. 

At his postseason news conference in April, Presti equated making a big move too soon to picking out paint for a house you haven’t purchased. 

“We need to know what the house looks like before we start thinking about the cosmetics, in my opinion,” Presti said then. “We might know a little more after another 82 games and if we’re fortunate enough to get to the postseason.” 

That study starts soon.

Before it does, four storylines we’ll be watching as the Thunder open camp next week and look to make a leap this season:

The Chet Fit: In theory, Holmgren addresses two glaring areas of need for the Thunder.  Though it was strong defensively, last season’s team lacked a rim deterrent, finishing in the bottom 10 in the league in blocked shots and opponent field-goal attempts from 6 feet and closer. 

And offensively, OKC lacked punch in the pick and roll, scoring 1.07 points per possession on plays to the roll man. Only three teams scored fewer. 

The 7-foot-1 Holmgren has been a standout rim protector at every level. In his one season at Gonzaga, he blocked 12.6% of opponents’ field-goal attempts when he was on the court, tied for seventh-best in men’s Division I basketball in 2021-22. 

And on paper, he’s a terrific partner in the pick and pop —  following a screen with a step to the perimeter for a jump shot — or the pick and roll, setting a screen and diving to the basket. 

To say the Thunder lacked vertical spacing — the threat of a lob at the rim on a pick-and-roll play — is a staggering understatement. OKC finished last in the NBA in dunks (eight) and layups (six) off of lob passes. Atlanta led the league in both, with 130 dunks and 57 layups off lobs.

A healthy Holmgren should spike those numbers. 

But adding a player of his caliber comes with challenges, and though Holmgren can make Oklahoma City better, he undoubtedly will make it different. That may take some adjusting.  

The Thunder had 340 combined dunks and layups off cuts to the basket last season. Only Golden State (453) had more. That quick-cutting offense was built in part on small-ball lineups packed with playmakers. Does inserting Holmgren — a likely starter — change the approach? 

The World Cup carryover: It was a disappointing FIBA World Cup for the United States. Less so for the Thunder. 

Gilgeous-Alexander led Canada to a bronze medal and was named to the All-Tournament team, finishing fourth in the event in scoring at 25.4 points per game. 

Giddey tied for 11th in scoring, leading Australia with 19.7 points per game. And though he struggled shooting — he made 16.7% of his 3-pointers and 65.4% of his free throws — Giddey showed the same confidence and competitiveness that helped key OKC’s Play-In win last season at New Orleans.  

How the experience carries over for both players will be worth watching. 

Gilgeous-Alexander already was on the ascent, but leading Canada to a medal — with a bronze-game win against the United States — further bolstered his case as a future MVP candidate. 

And though he too struggled to shoot from distance, making 30% of his 3-point shots on 3.8 attempts per game, Gilgeous-Alexander appeared early in Canada’s tuneup games to have fine-tuned the fluidity of his long-distance release, a potential improvement to track this season. 

Also worth monitoring: The World Cup is unlikely to quiet concerns about the long-term fit of Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Each had his country’s offense in his hands (Gilgeous-Alexander was 10th in the tournament in assists, Giddey tied for 11th), a reminder of how good the Thunder guards are on the ball and potentially further fodder for a debate about whether they can hit their potential together. 

A J-Dub jump? Gilgeous-Alexander has been on a steady climb since his arrival in OKC. Giddey improved across the board from his first season to his second. 

If the Thunder are to make a leap as a team, Williams’ development figures to be a factor. 

The 22-year-old Williams flashed some defensive upside and playmaking potential last season. 

At 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds, he can guard all over the floor, and though his ballhandling opportunities are relatively limited playing alongside Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey, he’s dynamic off the ball, finishing in the 88th percentile last season in points per possession on cuts to the basket. 

Moreover, he made monthly strides as a rookie, increasing his scoring average each month between October and March before dropping in three April games. 

He outclassed the competition in his only game at the Utah Summer League in July, scoring 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. The Thunder outscored the Jazz by 19 points in the 22 minutes he played. 

Williams figures to be a fit in new-look lineups featuring Holmgren, if only because his off-ball skills made him a near-universal plug-and-play offensive option. 

But he could be a game-changer if he makes a leap as a secondary creator or as a jump shooter. After shooting 32.4% on 2.7 attempts per game from 3-point range before the All-Star break, he hit 42.9% on 2.9 attempts per game after. 

The Wild West: For all the optimism surrounding this rapid rebuild, the road to the Western Conference Playoffs is filled with potential speed bumps. 

It’s likely that each of the West’s top six teams last season — the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Kings, Suns and Clippers  — will be in the mix again. The Lakers, Timberwolves and Pelicans all finished with more wins than the Thunder, and each could be better this season. 

The Mavericks expect to improve on last season’s 38-44 record. The Rockets upgraded their roster in the hope of accelerating their own rebuild. 

The West might not be stocked with powerhouses at the top, but it is loaded with competitive teams. On paper only the Jazz, Blazers and Spurs seem unlikely to be pushing hard for playoff appearances.  

So it’s reasonable to be cautious. 

The Thunder looks to be ahead of schedule. But it could reasonably have a better team and finish with fewer wins. NBA rebuilds — particularly in small markets — aren’t supposed to be fast. 

The story of this season will be how hard the Thunder can push the gas. 

“A lot has been accomplished in a short amount of time,” Presti said in April. “To be where we are from where we started after two drafts, I’m very pleased with the players and the coaches. But we still are under .500, and we’re gonna be one of the youngest teams in the league. And we have a lot more work to do internally.” 

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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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