The Oklahoma City Thunder don't really do splashy offseasons. This offseason was no exception. They just kept their patient rebuild approach going while continuing to add good intriguing prospects through the draft. This offseason, they did that by moving up two spots to get their guy in Kentucky's Cason Wallace.
While the Thunder did not make a big acquisition, they effectively did. Chet Holmgren missed all of last season with a foot injury he suffered around this time in 2022 playing pick up ball while getting ready for his rookie season. Holmgren made his return to an NBA floor during Summer League where he showed all the skills that made him such a tantalizing prospect a year ago.
— NBA (@NBA) July 4, 2023
Holmgren is going to have a profound impact on the Thunder this season. But, he is going to take a starting spot from somebody. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander certainly isn't giving up his spot. Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey seem unlikely to relinquish their spots either. So whose spot is Chet going to take?
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Chet at the four?
Chet started nearly every Summer League he played in at the four alongside Jaylin Williams, another rookie big man the Thunder drafted in the second round of the 2022 NBA Draft out of the University of Arkansas. This would make some sense. For all the things Chet does, he is still very slender at 7-1 208 pounds. Williams held his own banging with bigs last season and would make sense to ease some of the pounding Holmgren takes down low.
Williams is more than just that, though. His positioning defensively is already up there among the best in the NBA. He led the NBA in charges taken last season despite playing only 914 minutes. His positioning as well as Holmgren's length, athleticism, and dexterity as a roamer led to the Thunder devouring opponents in the paint during Summer League.
CHET DENIES IT AT THE RIM 🚫
— NBA (@NBA) July 6, 2023
Chet at the five?
The issue here, however, is it would take Oklahoma City's ace stopper Lu Dort off the floor. Having Williams on the floor to bang with bigs and anchor the defense is nice but Holmgren can already do these things too.
Chet Holmgren had 14 blocks in four summer league games. Chasedowns, isolation throwbacks, a recovery pin, came weak side to challenge several dunks at the rim, blocked two 3s. It is a reel. pic.twitter.com/l50b89J6rV
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) July 17, 2023
The Thunder could get these skills without having to sacrifice Dort's upper-echelon perimeter defense. That would mean that Jaylin Williams would have to come off the bench. Williams started 36 games for the Thunder last season. In addition to his defensive prowess, Williams offered plenty offensively too. The three wasn't a big part of Williams' arsenal in college, but he made it part of his game with the Thunder.
Teams gave Williams dare shots from deep last season, but he made teams pay for that approach. He shot 40.7% from three on 4.5 attempts per 36 minutes. That's a very healthy number for a center. If he keeps shooting like that, OKC could absolutely not just survive with him and Holmgren on the floor together but thrive.
Williams is also a great passer for a big man. Per 36 minutes, he averaged three assists and for the season he kept a +2 assist-to-turnover ratio. There are point guards that don't have that type of number. Williams can find shooters on the short roll, he can operate out of dribble handoffs, or he can just be a fulcrum at the top of the key to keep the ball moving and the offense humming. He did all those at a very solid level last season for the Thunder.
It might be time to have a conversation about Jaylin Williams ⬇️
7.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.8 APG in 18.5 minutes over the last 15 games 📈
This video doesn’t include any 3-pointers, and he’s shooting 65% from long range in the same time frame (13-of-20)
The flashes are impressive: pic.twitter.com/VaLQIrDdSq
— Ross Lovelace (@Rosslovelace) February 12, 2023
Who will it be?
Oklahoma City doesn't really have a wrong answer for how their starting lineup will look to start the season. Williams and Holmgren fit together really well in the frontcourt. But Holmgren also fits exceptionally well with Oklahoma City's starting lineup sans Williams from a year ago that badly needed an infusion of athleticism at the center position. Williams is a very skilled player, but he isn't the best athlete out there.
For that and other reasons, it seems like Williams' spot will be the one that Holmgren takes in the starting lineup. That doesn't Williams won't have a role or that the two won't play together for stretches. But his spot as a starter from last season is the most tenuous. How that starting lineup looks will be worth bearing once training camp tips off in a week or so.