The Thunder X Factor For 2021-22 NBA Season, And It’s Not Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
The Oklahoma City Thunder did not have much success in the 2020-21 NBA season. After making the Playoffs in each of the five seasons prior to that and 10 times in the last eleven years, the squad went 22-50 last year, as they focused more on the evolution of their young guns. The leader of the team is undisputedly led by guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had an amazing year, but he was not the only contributor. Serbian forward Aleksej Pokusevski had a few great games and sophomore Darius Bazley had a good year as well.
Based on what the Thunder are doing, it seems like the next two years will still be focused on rebuilding the team. The front office accumulated many assets for the future, but that does not mean that this squad will not play their heart out and try to reach the postseason. For that to happen, however, it will take more work and steady improvement from absolutely everyone on the roster.
While all eyes will continue to be on Gilgeous-Alexander and his further development, this roster has several parts that can contribute in a big way. The focus of this season is clearly to develop youngsters and the Thunder has one who can take major steps forward in the form of Luguentz Dort.
The Canadian forward came seemingly out of nowhere in the NBA Bubble a year ago. After averaging just under seven points, Dort exploded with some huge games in the Playoffs, giving him an opportunity to really earn his minutes on this roster. When last season started and when it was clear that the Thunder coaching staff will give more minutes to the youngsters on the squad, Dort used the opportunity perfectly.
The forward came from averaging just under 23 minutes to averaging almost 30 and used the time well. He increased his points per game to 14, albeit with the efficiency still being an issue. His shooting splits were 38.7/34.3/74.4, which is not ideal, but that only means that he has a lot of room for improvement.
It is clear that he is being pushed into the role of a second option on offense, which is understandable since Dort is the second-best prospect on the squad. However, it does not always seem to suit him, but he could work on it this summer and in the preseason. If he can improve his efficiency and settle in the role coach Mark Daigneault clearly wants him to have, Dort can take massive strides to further inspire optimism in Oklahoma City.
Apart from Dort, Aleksej Pokuševski is another promising youngster for Oklahoma City. He did not have great numbers last season, but that was understandable as he was just a rookie then He averaged 8.2 points on 34.1/28.0/73.8 shooting splits, which is not ideal. However, in extended minutes, Pokuševski absolutely filled it up. On the 16th of May, against the Clippers, he scored 29 points on 10/19 shooting, including 6/9 from behind the arc. Additionally, on the 7th of April against the Charlotte Hornets, he scored 25 on 9/14 shooting, including an efficient 7/11 from three.
It is clear from these games, where he played 40 and 33 minutes, respectively, that Pokuševski has a ton of potential. All that he really needs is to increase his consistency and efficiency overall. It is good that he is playing for the Thunder, where he can have a lot of time and space to do it. Obviously, the issues he had were mostly due to the adjustment to the league, so he should improve on that eventually. It will be up to his work rate and the willingness of his coach to give him more minutes and opportunities to show his worth.
While the Thunder are definitely not the greatest team in the West, they still have tools to make the postseason race interesting. It all depends on how Gilgeous-Alexander develops and how the coaching staff distributes minutes. Other than the aforementioned Pokuševski, Bazely, and Dort, the squad also has rookies Josh Giddey, taken with the sixth overall pick, and Tre Mann, taken with the 18th selection in the 2021 NBA Draft.
While the rookies are going to impact the team from the get-go, due to the position of the franchise, it will be up to the more experienced guys on the roster to carry the load and increase their chances for a Playoff run. At the end of the day, even if the Thunder do not make the postseason, the sheer amount of assets on and off the floor the front office assembled promises Oklahoma City that it will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
One thing is for sure – this is a hungry roster that can give opponents a run for their money.