LAS VEGAS — The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the Las Vegas Summer League showcase with two wins under their belt, after winning 2-1 at Salt Lake City earlier in the week. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren put on a show in his NBA debut, posting 23 points, seven rebounds, six blocks and four assists in a win over the Utah Jazz.
The next game saw rookie (and No. 12 overall pick) Jalen Williams shine with 16 points, three rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes. In the last game before heading to Vegas, sophomore point guard Josh Giddey pulled off one of the best dunks of the summer so far when he ran into his opponent in the pick-and-roll setup and put Malik Ellison on a poster.
All of this is very promising for a young team that has won just 46 games combined over the past two seasons. Holmgren was the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, but don’t overlook the other players they picked up — No. 11 pick Ousmane Dieng (6-foot-10, 7-foot wingspan), pick No. No. 12 Williams (6-6, 7-2 wingspan), and No. 34 pick Jaylin Williams (6-10, 7-1 wingspan). All four are long, athletic playmakers who can slip between multiple positions.
“It may not be this year because this group has to figure out how to play together, but the Thunder are going to be one of the best defensive teams in the league,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “While everyone was distracted by where the other guys fell, Sam Presti drafted a group of players who are 6-foot-6 and up, can pass and have a ton of athleticism. Each of them them. And you’ll put them alongside Giddey, [Shai] Gilgeous-Alexander and [Lu] Sleep? Ridiculous.”
Giddey, a 6-8 Australian point guard, was the first piece of the 2021 draft puzzle when the Thunder took him in with the sixth overall pick (they also added guards Tre Mann, Aaron Wiggins and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl). Last season, Giddey was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for three consecutive months before being sidelined in February with a hip injury.
Giddey returned to the field for the Summer League in Utah for the first time in four months and looked comfortable alongside his new teammates. Holmgren always found the sweet spot off the pick-and-pop, and Giddey found his rhythm creating for others when he entered the lane or advanced the ball in transition. Last season, Giddey averaged 6.4 assists per game in just over 50 games. Over the three games at Utah, Giddey dished out 28 cents that left fans in awe of his shrewd lane work.
“It felt good to get back on the court and play with these new guys on the team,” Giddey said after his first game. “It’s our first game together and we’ve found small things and the more we play it’s going to grow and grow and everything we find out now in this short time is just a bonus.”
NBA staff watching early games were more than impressed with how Giddey, just 19, took command of this young team as the Thunder’s general.
“The way Giddey commands so much space with the ball in his hands frees everyone on the court,” another NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “It’s going to be tough for these Summer League teams to stop the movement of the ball with these guys who can see over the defense and the way Giddey gets into the paint.”
In Salt Lake City’s first three games, it wasn’t the incredible passing or flashy finishing on the edge that was most impressive, it was the impact on defense. The Thunder wreaked havoc shooting gaps, turning everything on and blocking shots everywhere with Holmgren and 7-foot-1 Aleksej Pokusevski in the paint.
“I’m very excited and it’s a special group of guys and I can’t wait to see what we can build,” Giddey said. “I’m looking forward to training camp when we ramp things up to start the season.”
Adding veteran players to this group during training camp will only solidify early glimpses of defensive versatility with Dort as one of the best young defensemen in the league and a healthy Gilgeous-Alexander in the zone. back with Giddey.
The Thunder still have a remarkable 38 draft picks (19 in the first round and 19 in the second) over the next seven years, which has never been done by any other team. There’s plenty of freedom and options as General Manager Sam Presti continues to build something special from the ground up.
With so many future draft picks, many are wondering if Oklahoma City will attempt to tank again next season with French phenom Victor Wembanyama and G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson waiting in the wings for the 2023 NBA Draft.
“We just want to be better than last year,” Giddey said. “As long as we keep getting better and better, I think it’s the playoffs or not, we’re going to be good. We’ve got a really hard-working group of guys and I can’t wait to see where everyone is here and let the season begin.”
Many teams are already taking steps a year from now to put the franchise in a favorable position for next year’s draft.
The Jazz traded Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale and picked up five first-round picks and one pick trade in the process. The San Antonio Spurs had three first-round picks and signed talented young players to potentially hide in the G League and grow. When speaking to league scouts in Las Vegas, many believe the Spurs are positioning themselves to tank next season for a top-five pick. The Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets are two other teams still in the rebuilding phase.
It leaves thunder. With all the draft picks they have (including a first-round pick and two second-round picks next year), the Thunder don’t necessarily need to find another key player to add to this talented young squad. . Only one team will land Wembanyama, the vaunted prospect who could be a generation-type talent. Just one. It may not be worth sitting players down and disrupting the growth and chemistry that this current group could build.
The day after Holmgren was drafted, he immediately called Giddey and wanted to get into the gym as soon as he arrived in Oklahoma City. The two practiced and finished with a one-on-one match.
“He hit me right away and wanted to hit the gym when he came to town, and from that moment I knew we were going to have a special talent,” Giddey told Yahoo Sports. “We started playing one-on-one, and I knew there was going to be a handful of guys to guard him. He may look skinny, but he’s strong, and strong with the ball in his hands. You think that in any lag with a guard and big, the guard has the advantage, but he can sit down and defend, and yes, he won that first one-on-one game.
“I can’t wait to keep playing with him, and we’re both first team players and we want to win. What we’re building here is going to be special.”
With Giddey already opening up the spacing on the floor at the Summer League and finding Holmgren, Pokusevski, Williams or anyone in the pick-and-pop, it’s hard to imagine the front office shutting things down to disrupt the development of this dangerous and young team. The Thunder have been quietly writing the future of the franchise right in front of everyone’s nose and it’s only a matter of time before everything starts to fall into place on the field.