OKLAHOMA CITY — Yes, the Thunder is a hot playoff pick, a team NBA insiders peg as a potential sleeper.
Sure, it’s a roster stocked with young talent that took a step forward in reaching last season’s NBA Play-In Tournament. And yeah, there’s a full-fledged star in OKC, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander coming off an All-NBA season and a FIBA World Cup where he carried Canada to a bronze medal.
But if you were hoping for the Thunder to announce its arrival as a playoff contender or a soundbite bragging about a breakout season, you’d have left Thunder media day Monday disappointed.
“We’re still building,” coach Mark Daigneault said, setting the tone early in the day. “I mean, let me be very clear on that. We’re still building. This is a young team, and the building process transcends any individual season.”
This is a team less focused on the playoffs than the process, at least in its public comments.
That and more takeaways from Monday’s tip-off of the Thunder season:
Hopes are high, but… : Daigneault wasn’t alone in tapping the brakes on OKC’s franchise momentum. General manager Sam Presti did it last week at his preseason news conference, laying the groundwork for what followed.
“I’m not trying to dismiss everyone’s excitement, but we’re not a .500 team…,” Presti said. “We have to finish our breakfast before we start acting like we’re on the cusp of something.”
To that end, there were no bold proclamations about any leaps the Thunder might make.
Lu Dort talked about the “tough” couple of seasons from 2020-22, when OKC won a combined 46 games, saying the Thunder can “kind of see the result” of the growing pains of those lean years.
But nobody was out on a limb about what comes next.
Gilgeous-Alexander said he’s entered some seasons with benchmarks for his individual play or for a team’s success, but found the “most success and the most fun” in taking it day by day.
“I think last year especially what I tried to do and what we tried to do as a group every day, tried to come in, get better as ourselves and as a unit and attack every game like the same way, and then we’ll see where we lay,” he said. “As long as we keep getting better individually and as a group, we’ll get to where we want to be eventually, but it’s about being patient and staying on course.”
There could be a World Cup bump: Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander were World Cup teammates with Canada. Thunder guard Josh Giddey was the engine behind the offense for his native Australia, with new OKC signee Jack White as a teammate. Davis Bertans played a significant role for Latvia.
And though that makes for an intense (and relatively short) offseason, the international experience could benefit the Thunder.
“It’s unique,” Daigneault said. “The game pressure of those games is incredible. I mean, the pride that those teams take in representing their countries and how competitive FIBA and the Olympics are a great development for our players’ growth.”
Daigneualt’s hope is that “their blade is a little sharper coming into camp because of it.”
“One of the reasons why I wanted to play Canada basketball in the summer is because it gives you a little bit more run and a little bit more bump before the preseason,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “In the summer I’ve always tried to find pickup games to do so, but there’s nothing better than a real game, real refs, real opponents.”
The new guys could help: Typically, NBA rookies have long to-do lists. Veterans can ask any number of tasks, from building a plate in the postgame buffet line to carrying bags to the plane. At 29 years old, rookie Vasilije Micic is hopeful — but not certain — that he’ll be exempt.
“I think they will not do that with me. I hope,” he said. “I’m too old for everything. But if it’s necessary, I will do it, no problem. It’s part of the game.”
But it’s reasonable to expect early impact from a couple of Thunder rookies.
Micic isn’t the only one with an atypical route to a rookie season. Chet Holmgren is only 21, but he sat out last season with a foot injury and enters his rookie season with a year of weight training and team acclimation to his name.
There are big expectations for the 7-foot-1 Holmgren, who adds elements the Thunder lacked last season with his offensive versatility and defensive acumen.
“Man, Chet is going to be special for us,” forward Kenrich Williams said. “I’m not even talking about just the offensive side of the game. Just defensively, the impact that he’s going to bring for us. I’ve been here four years, and I don’t think we’ve had a legit shot blocker, rim protector like Chet.”
That kind of talk is typical for a newcomer expected to be in the Rookie of the Year mix. More surprising: some of the praise for Cason Wallace, the No. 10 pick in the June draft, whose rotation role is far from guaranteed.
Gilgeous-Alexander said his fellow Kentucky alum “will be ready to play right away,” and Dort called him “a strong, tough guard” who’s “not easy to go by,” saying he looked forward to sharing the floor with Wallace and being comfortable to switch and see him “go to work and stopping guys.”
“The dude carries himself like he’s a 10-year vet already,” Williams said. “Very polished game, and he’s from Texas. Go ahead and buy your stock right now.”