Last season Coach Daigneault experimented with his options in the front court and the starting lineup changed quite regularly. We saw Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Isaiah Roby, Derrick Favors and Olivier Sarr spend 5 minutes. It’s unusual to see so many changes, but Favors fell out of favor and JRE’s injury forced coach Daigneault to make proof of creativity.
Sam Presti’s decision to sign Chet Holmgren was huge for the Thunder. The addition of Holmgren meant Oklahoma City would have a solution ready and available at center who could play in different covers and keep different types of players. Chet’s injury has now thrown a spanner in the works.
He will be out for the entire 2022-23 season and will spend an entire year recovering from the Lisfranc fracture. For Holmgren, it will be a long road to full health, but for the Thunder, Chet’s injury opens up that old question again, who starts for the Thunder?
Coach Daigneault has a few options to choose from at center. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jaylin Williams and Darius Bazley could all make legitimate arguments to be the starting 5. Derrick Favors didn’t play at all towards the end of last season and I think that will continue this season.
The favors do not fit into the Thunder’s current competitive window and would only take minutes away from young players who need time to develop. If anything, I would expect the Thunder to buy favors before training camps start and use that roster spot to experiment more with the roster.
The same could be said for Mike Muscala. Muscala’s role is to knock down pick and pop jumpers from the bench and play good inside defense. He flourished in this role and I don’t see the point of disturbing this chemistry.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has the strongest case to start with. Robinson-Earl already started at center for the Thunder last season and was impressive in the way he led the team on the defensive end of the field. JRE’s voice and timely rotations anchored the Thunder’s defense and allowed them to play an effective style of play in which the Thunder crushed their opponents.
That being said, Robinson-Earl isn’t the perfect fit at center. Jeremiah is 6’8 and gives up height to centers like Embiid, Jokic and even someone like Valanciunas. JRE is strong enough to play 5, but I wonder if Robinson-Earl can play that position for all 82 games consistently.
We’ve seen players like PJ Tucker and Draymond Green burn out after playing long minutes at center every night. There’s a reason the Warriors are protecting Green’s health by running Looney lineups for most of the game.
Jaylin Williams hasn’t really been discussed as an option for the Thunder at 5, but his skills seem to translate well to the position. Williams is two inches taller than JRE and has a frame more suited to protecting traditional, beefy centers. His willingness to play physically is what sets him apart from other options.
Jaylin Williams is more than willing to sacrifice his body and seems to be playing with more energy after taking on a charge. Williams will be knocked down, get back up and rush like he’s kicked into high gear. It’s a hard quality to define but Joakim Noah or Kyle Lowry have it; a big defensive play boosts morale and locks the whole team in.
Robinson-Earl is a significantly better shooter than Williams and would provide good spacing for the Thunder’s shot-makers. That being said, I think Jaylin Williams is a rollerblader and has shown a sense of overcoming that Robinson-Earl hasn’t been able to match.
Robinson-Earl is a decent passer who can do simple reads but doesn’t necessarily have the creativity to exploit openings in a defense. Williams averaged 3.5 assists in summer league play and his passing was incredible. J-Will’s tempo control allowed him to open up defenses and get others to play.
Starting Williams would require accommodation in other positions. Coach Daigneault should seriously consider playing Bazley, Dort and Giddey in the same roster as Jaylin Williams. Daigneault would need to put Bazley or Dort on the bench to balance the starters a little better.
Darius Bazley is the last option for coach Daigneault and is arguably the most unorthodox choice of the three players discussed so far. Bazley has played most of his minutes at 4 and is a completely different build from JRE or J-Will. Bazley is light-footed, bouncy, and has long arms. He is a versatile defensive player who can play games against bigger and smaller players.
It would be a step outside of Bazley’s comfort zone, but playing in the middle seems to suit him. Darius could get into the dunk zone more often and have a better chance of finishing around the edge instead of being locked on the perimeter. Coach Daigneault could then play a spacer on the ground at 4 like Dieng or Kenrich Williams.
He is already a good inside defender and has shown an ability to challenge shots without racking up fouls. Bazley stays with his man and uses his footwork to expertly wall off the rim. Playing Bazley at center would require changes to the Thunder’s scheme. Coach Daigneault should change cover more regularly to maximize Darius’ versatility and mitigate the risk of Bazley being dissected at the position.
Switching when executed well is an excellent form of defense and effectively smothers the opposition. However, changing every cover is a high-risk approach that can lead to team burnout if rotations aren’t perfect.
It’s a tough decision for Coach Daigneault to make but I believe Jaylin Williams is the best candidate for the job. His willingness to sacrifice for the team energizes his teammates and raises the level of the Thunder at this end of the field. That energy was palpable during the Summer League and I’d love to see how Williams’ style of play meshes with established players.