Oklahoma City Thunder: Expectations for the Starting Unit

A new era of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball is fast approaching with the 2020-21 season set to begin. The Thunder released Admiral Schofield and T.J. Leaf, followed by Frank Jackson.

With the threat of COVID-19 lingering, all players on the roster figure to receive playing time. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, and Luguentz Dort will feature prominently this season while many will be eyeing the progress of rookies Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon.

Let’s take a look at expectations for each Oklahoma City player entering the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Expectations for the Starting Unit

George Hill Strives to Mentor Oklahoma City Thunder Guards

Acquired in the Jrue Holiday trade, veteran George Hill arrives at the Oklahoma City Thunder organization as one of the team’s most experienced players. The 12-year-veteran will receive a lot of playing time and figures to be the primary mentor to Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Maledon, and Frank Jackson. Hill averaged 9.4 points, three rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 51.4 percent shooting and a staggering 46.1 percent from three last season.

Hill is an excellent secondary ball-handler who can shoot, score, pass, and is steady in the pick and roll. His presence next to Gilgeous-Alexander will be invaluable as the 22-year-old learns how to be a lead guard. A passive guard in nature, Hill demonstrates competence in both on-ball and off-ball guard play and will likely step-in when things get ugly. The veteran is savvy with the ball in his hands and has one of the smoothest jumpers from the outside.

Oklahoma City is likely to move Hill near the trade deadline but giving Gilgeous-Alexander an insurance policy is smart to keep the young playmaker’s confidence high.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Must Prove Primary Ball-handling skills

After morphing himself into an upcoming star, Gilgeous-Alexander is now the face of the franchise. The 22-year-old guard will assume leadership duties from the newly departed Paul and guide a new crop of prospects into the near future.

Gilgeous-Alexander had a fantastic 2019-20 season averaging 19 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on 47.1 percent shooting and 34.7 percent from three. The 22-year-old took major strides as a secondary ball-handler, playing a bulk of his minutes alongside ball-centric guards Paul and Dennis Schroder. With both gone, Oklahoma City’s offense will presumably run through him.

The next step in Gilgeous-Alexander’s development is to prove himself as a primary ball-handler. He is a scorer by nature and often finds himself in tough situations if he can’t get to the rack. If the 22-year-old is to ascend to the next level, he must improve seeing the floor and create for others.

In his first two seasons, Gilgeous-Alexander is only averaging 3.3 assists per game but he did have a monster 20-20-10 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

He is capable but will need to show he can do it every single night. The Thunder have made it clear he is the franchise centerpiece so the 22-year-old must make every post a winner.

Luguentz Dort Must Become a Legitimate Three and D Threat

Fan-favorite Dort exploded onto the scene with a fantastic rookie year. While his 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds on 38.7 percent shooting and 29.7 percent from three don’t jump off the page, his elite-level defense irreplaceable. Dort made a name for himself as the Harden Stopper in last season’s playoffs. Additionally, Dort shattered a number of records thanks to his incredible 30 points in Game Seven of the playoffs against Houston Rockets last year.

Despite this, Dort needs to find consistency as a perimeter scorer.

Throughout the 2019-20 season, Dort showed flashes of fantastic shooting followed by periods of terrible perimeter play. The 21-year-old is still finding a consistent stroke but has made nice progress since his arrival to Oklahoma City. Dort is a physical specimen who can attack the rim with aggression.

He needs to do is add a consistent jumper, around league average, to carve a consistent career in the NBA.

Darius Bazley Must Unlock Playmaking Abilities

One year removed from being surprisingly drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Darius Bazley is set for a big sophomore season. The 20-year-old took huge strides last year, improving on both sides of the ball and adding new wrinkles to his game.  Bazley put together three straight 20+ performances in the bubble, including a career-high 23 points against the Washington Wizards.

In the playoffs, Bazley’s value as a two-way player increased significantly. He averaged 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds on 41.9 percent shooting and 50 percent from three. More impressively, he showed the ability to guard one through five and shot the ball with supreme confidence from deep. It must be taken with a grain of salt though since he only attempted 3.1 three’s per game.

One area Bazley must showcase is his ability to playmaker. The 21-year-old has a fantastic feel for the game and Oklahoma City must allow him to run more pick and roll. At 6’10, he possesses tremendous size for a ball-handler and possesses the vision to make the right play. Bazley could become the Thunder’s primary ball-handler if all indications render true.

Gilgeous-Alexander is in line to take on that responsibility but ultimately, Bazley has the IQ to share that role.

Al Horford is the New Oklahoma City Thunder Player-Coach

The arrival of Al Horford to the Oklahoma City Thunder is a bittersweet moment. The 34-year-old big man was rumored to be in talks with the Thunder back in 2016 but ultimately signed with the Boston Celtics after Kevin Durant failed to commit. Fast forward to 2020-21 and he’s now a patron of the MidWest.

Horford spent last year with the Philadelphia 76ers in a situation that did not fit. The Thunder acquired him in a trade for Danny Green and will look to rehab his value before presumably moving him to a contender. Horford is a skilled big man capable of playing inside and out, possesses high-level passing, a nice post-game, and a solid perimeter shot.

His best game as a Sixer came against Phoenix where he dropped 32 points including 5-8 from three.

Horford averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and four assists on 45 percent shooting and 35 percent from three last season.

His true value lies in his combinations with Gilgeous-Alexander, Bazley, and mentoring of first-round pick Aleksej Pokusevski. Horford is a great screener, pick and pop threat, and a fantastic positional defender who guide young players to their spots. On top of that, Horford will likely garner more touches than his time in Philadelphia. Oklahoma City is looking to reenact the Chris Paul Experience, rehab his value then move him to a contender.

Ultimately, Horford is the ideal veteran who can still play at a high level and mentor Oklahoma City’s youth.

Conclusion

Oklahoma City’s starting five will be a very competitive unit and have shown the type of basketball they want to play. In their final preseason game against the Chicago Bulls, coach Daignault gave his starters some extended playing time. The starting unit built a 22-point lead before sitting out the final two quarters.

This is a little concerning given the Thunder are striving for a high pick in next year’s loaded NBA draft but I suspect the club will offload some of its veterans by the trade deadline. I do not believe the team will be as bad as advertised and will win more games than expected.

It’s a nice development year for Gilgeous-Alexander, Bazely, and Dort who should take some nice strides in 2020-21.

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