For Thunder fans, the last week brought nothing but utter despair with the end of the team’s season. However, the best may be yet to come for the relatively young team. Writer Ethan Worley analyzes some of the top prospects for Oklahoma’s next superstar.
After a game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets to cap off a surprise season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a lot of questions to answer this offseason with head coach Billy Donovan’s contract expired, starting power forward Danillo Gallinari hitting free agency and a possible Chris Paul trade. Luckily, the Thunder may have three young players to be the foundation for the future, regardless of what the future holds.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks to be the foundation of future Thunder teams. He was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the blockbuster Paul George trade that marked a new era for the Thunder. He played point guard for the Clippers, but predominantly played shooting guard this year with the acquisition of Chris Paul. In only his second year in the NBA, he was the leading scorer for the Oklahoma City Thunder. While his pure shooting ability is slightly above-average, his offense shines in getting to the rim and scoring. Gilgeous-Alexander’s role could expand even more next season if Chris Paul is traded. After Chris Paul led the Thunder to the playoffs after they were given a .2% chance to make the play-offs in the pre-season, his trade value is at an all-time high. If general manager Sam Presti wants to begin a rebuild, Paul could be traded for prospects and picks, which could see Gilgeous-Alexander expand his role to be more of a primary ball handler.
Lu Dort: Lu Dort was the underdog story of the season. He was an undrafted rookie who signed a two-way deal and started the season in the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. He was called up midway through the season. Dort made his first start on Jan. 20 against the Houston Rockets and hasn’t looked back. Dort has the defensive skill set that the Thunder have lacked since Andre Roberson was injured in January of 2018. Before the bubble, Dort signed a four-year deal worth 5.3 million dollars total that will keep him in the starting lineup for the next three years on what could end up being one of the most team-friendly deals in the NBA. Dort ended the season on a high note after scoring 30 points on 10/21 shooting and 6/12 from the three-point line in Game 7. It remains to be seen whether or not this was a fluke, since, two games prior to this, he had 6 points on 3/16 shooting and went 0/9 from the three-point line. During the regular season, Dort was consistently a below average shooter with a 39% field-goal percentage and 30% three-point percentage. Dort is only a rookie, so still has time to develop an at least average shot. He has drawn comparisons to Boston Celtics shooting guard Marcus Smart who is a similar size and came into the league as a primarily defensive player. Since getting drafted in 2014, Smart has improved his shooting in both percentage and volume while also being an All-NBA 1st-team defender. Dort will never be the primary offensive weapon for the Thunder, but if he develops in a similar way to Smart, will still be a valuable part of the Thunder starting lineup
Darius Bazley: Darius Bazley was the other rookie who saw significant time with the Thunder this season. He was notable heading into the draft for forgoing college and doing an internship with New Balance. After trading back from the 21st pick to the 23rd pick in the draft, the Thunder drafted Darius Bazley. Bazley looked to be the prototypical Sam Presti draft pick. He was versatile, athletic and had above average defensive ability. While being listed as a power forward, his offensive skill set was closer to a wing player rather than the traditional power forward. But in the modern NBA traditional skill sets matter less and less. At 6-8 and 208 pounds, there were worries about his size. Analysts also questioned how not playing competitive basketball in over a year would affect him. Despite all the worries, he developed throughout the season and managed an impressive playoffs coming off the bench averaging 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. If Danillo Gallinari does not re-sign with the Thunder this offseason, Bazley is a likely contender to start at power forward next season.
While the Thunder have three young players who are sure to be in the league for years to come, the most exciting aspect of the Thunder’s future are the players that aren’t on the team yet. After the Thunder traded Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Jerami Grant last off-season, the Thunder have fourteen first-round picks over the next seven drafts, as well as four possible pick swaps. Going into this season, many thought that this would be the end of the Thunder putting together competitive seasons. Yet The Thunder shocked the NBA and finished with the fifth seed in the West. With the emergence of the young players on the team, and the amount of picks in the future, the Thunder have put themselves in a good position for the next decade.