Oklahoma City Thunder: Expectations for the Team’s Role Players

The Oklahoma City Thunder bench is remarkably young. Headlined by its 2020 first-round pick Aleksej Pokusevski and first-round talent Theo Maledon, the Thunder also have a number of players seeking an opportunity. Justin Jackson and Kenrich Williams will be looking to show they belong on an NBA roster while veterans Trevor Ariza and Darius Miller will be presumably used as trade chips down the line.

Perhaps the player with the most to lose is Hamidou Diallo, Oklahoma City’s second-round pick in 2018. The 22-year-old is entering season number three and the verdict is still out. Luckily for him, the 2020-21 season will be used to evaluate which players so he will get a chance to shine.

Oklahoma City’s bench players will likely see action due to the team’s developmental goals and possible COVID-19 infections.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Expectations for the Team’s Role Players

Make or Break for Hamidou Diallo

As the team’s longest-tenured player, Diallo stands to have a make or break season. The New York native possesses elite athletic ability but has a number of questions surrounding other parts of his game. Against the Los Angeles Clippers last season, Diallo surprised many by dropping a career-high 27 points.

Prior to his breakout performance, Diallo’s offensive game is relatively rudimentary. He is a high-energy wing known for his sky-high dunking ability but he must prove he can shoot the ball and make intelligent reads on offense. The 22-year-old’s primary goal is to show a level of poise with the ball and make good decisions.

While he is still young, time is ticking and he must show improvement.

Serbian Sensation Aleksej Pokusevski

The Oklahoma City Thunder prized possession of the 2020 Draft, 17th overall pick Pokusevski arrives with an eagle-eye shot and playmaking ability. At just 170 pounds, the Serbian needs a cheeseburger or 10 but is just 18 years of age. Oklahoma City will spend the entire 2020-21 season developing the young stud.

Pokusevski brings a level of intrigue given his skill set as a shooter and solid passer. Originally compared to Dallas Mavericks star Kristaps Porzingis, the Serbian is more guard than forward. He can dribble, initiate the offense, pass, and possesses a beautiful shooting stroke.

During preseason, Pokusevski has shown flashes of excellence and demonstrated why the Thunder traded up in the draft.

With every prospect, there are some concerns on decision-making, pace, and the defensive side of the ball. He comes to the NBA playing second division in Greece so the NBA is a big step-up in competition for him. Pokusevski has a nice feel for the game but is prone to mental mistakes, often trying to do too much in the flow of the game.  The NBA is also a lot faster than European basketball with the gluttony of elite-level athletes. This is will take some time to adjust but at 18 years old, he has a lot of time to develop his IQ and understand the game.

Pokusevski is playing with house money and Oklahoma City is at the early stages of a rebuild. Small steps are the goal for the rookie.

Theo Maledon – Future Oklahoma City Thunder Floor General?

When Maledon fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 32nd pick, it was a surprise to many around the league. The 19-year-old was a projected first-round pick after impressing with LDLC Asvel in the EuroLeague last season. Under the tutelage of former NBA star Tony Parker, Maledon made tremendous strides as a floor general and playmaker, improving in every statistical category. The rookie averaged 7.4 points and 3.1 assists on 45.6 percent shooting and 36.7 percent from three.

In his first game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Maledon displayed a great deal of leadership, poise, vision, and scoring ability. Against the San Antonio Spurs, the 19-year-old posted 20 points on 50 percent shooting, scoring in a myriad of ways.

The most impressive aspect of his game is how mature and polished he is. At just 19-year-old, Maledon made some high level reads and passes to open teammates as well as contributing on the glass. While it is preseason, his performance drew attention around the league.

Intriguing Young Big Isaiah Roby

Perhaps the most mysterious player on Oklahoma City Thunder roster, Isaiah Roby returns for his second season. The 22-year-old big man spent most of last season in the G-League and spent some time on ice as he recovered from a foot injury. General Manager Sam Presti watched Roby while he was with the Dallas Mavericks affiliate then traded for him the very next day.

At 6’8, 230 pounds, Roby is the prototypical Presti player – an athletic leaper and solid defender but did show skills as a creator off the dribble. During his three years at the University of Nebraska, Roby was one of the team’s best rebounders and rim protectors. He made heads turn in a Pac-10 game with a huge poster dunk against Minnesota.

He was selected with the 45th pick in the 2019 draft.

His play through the preseason has been uneven, to say the least, but it’s clear the Thunder will split his time at the four and five. With Oklahoma City moving away from athletic non-shooting players, Roby will need to find a consistent three-point jumper, show more aggression offensively and pay more attention to small details.

Roby converted 60 percent of his three-point jumpers in the preseason and needs to shoot close to 33 percent to open the floor. The 22-year-old shows flashes of playmaking off the bounce but tends to sink into the background on offense. Oklahoma City needs him to show more aggression as he is one of the most athletic players on the roster.

He will be behind Horford and Mike Muscala for minutes but Oklahoma City will definitely play him in spots.

Oklahoma City Thunder Favorite Mike Muscala

One of the few remaining players from last year’s roster, Muscala will likely assume the same role he did last season – a veteran voice who plays spot minutes at Center. Muscala has solidified himself as a Thunder favorite thanks to his ability to shoot. The 29-year-old shot Oklahoma City to a win against the Miami Heat last season, sinking a go-ahead three-pointer with less than six seconds remaining.

The preseason has been very kind to the veteran and he’s picked up where he left off. He shot 7-10 from three in two preseason games, averaging 15.5 points. Coach Daignault has implemented an offense that caters to three-point shooting big man and its complimented Muscala’s skills perfectly. This goes against the Thunder’s presumed tank but it’s nice to see nonetheless.

Young players on the roster will seek Muscala’s wisdom and knowledge of the game and his primary role will be to mentor them. On the court, his role will be the same as it’s always been – shoot the rock from deep at a good clip. He will eat up minutes as the back-up center early on but I suspect the mantle will be passed midway through the year.

Either way, Muscala is a fantastic locker room guy perfect for building culture.

Trigger Finger Darius Miller

To most NBA fans, Miller is an unknown quantity but possesses a smooth three-point shot. He spent six years as a rotational piece for New Orleans and worked himself into a 38.2 percent three-point shooter. The 29-year-old is coming off a serious knee injury which sidelined him for the 2019-20 season. In a recent interview with the media, Miller said he fully recovered and is ready for the 2020-21 year.

The Thunder are extremely light on perimeter forwards so I suspect he will receive time at the three-spot. Miller is a nice catch and shoot player and can also shoot on the move. He offers motion offense and would fit tremendously next to Oklahoma City’s playmakers.

He played a prominent role in New Orleans’ playoff run in 2017 as one of the team’s designated shooters next to J.J. Redick. Miller will need to show that kind of consistency to earn minutes this season.

The Pressure is on Kenrich Williams

Perhaps the most controversial inclusion in the squad, Williams was acquired in the off-season from the New Orleans Pelicans. After spending three seasons at TCU, he was undrafted but later signed a three-year deal.

Oklahoma City appears to be trending toward players who can fulfill a number of roles and Williams fits the mold. At six-foot-six, he is very versatile and capable of guarding two’s and three’s. He is an intelligent cerebral defender that does not possess the quickness or athleticism many in the NBA do. Williams is a strong rebounder at his position and did shoot the three well at college. In his final year at TCU, he converted on 39.7 percent of his triples.

In one of his best performances as a pro, Williams came up big in the clutch hitting multiple threes against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Williams’s key to receiving minutes is to do all the dirty work and act a glue guy. Oklahoma City will be a poor rebounding team so his primary objective should be to clean the glass while trying to find a consistent stroke from distance. His shot hasn’t translated to the pro’s so he must hit his threes around league average. Williams is a solid passer thus if he does everything right, he will fit Oklahoma City’s new motion offense.

He is hanging on by a thread so Williams must perform this season or he will find himself out of the league.

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