LAS VEGAS — The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the Las Vegas Summer League with two wins after winning 2-1 in Salt Lake City earlier in the week. Second draft pick Chet Holmgren put on a show in his NBA debut, recording 23 points, seven rebounds, six blocks and four assists in a win over the Utah Jazz.
In the following game, it was rookie (and No. 12 overall) Jalen Williams who had 16 points, three rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes. In the last game before leaving for Vegas, sophomore point guard Josh Giddey had one of the best dunks of the summer so far when he crossed his opponent in the pick-and-roll setup and put Malik Ellison on a poster.
It all bodes very well for a young team that has won just 46 games combined in the last two seasons. Holmgren was the most desirable pick in the 2022 NBA draft, but don’t overlook the other players who picked her — No. 11 Ousmane Dieng (6ft-10, 7ft span), No. 12 Williams (6- 6, 7-2 span) and number 34 pick Jaylin Williams (6-10, 7-1 span). All four are long, athletic playmakers who can slide between multiple positions.
“It may not be this year as this group has to figure out how to play together, but the Thunder will be one of the best defensive teams in the league,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “While everyone was distracted by where other guys fell, Sam Presti put together a group of players who are over 6ft 6, can pass and have a lot of athleticism. Every single one of them. And you’ll put her next to Giddey, [Shai] Gilgeous-Alexander u [Lu] There? Ridiculous.”
Giddey, a 6-8 point guard from Australia, was the first piece of the puzzle in the 2021 draft when The Thunder picked him with the sixth pick overall (they also added guards Tre Mann, Aaron Wiggins and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl) . . Last season, Giddey was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for three straight months before being sidelined in February with a hip injury.
Giddey returned to the court for the Utah Summer League for the first time in four months and was comfortable alongside his new teammates. Holmgren always found the right spot from the pick-and-pop, and Giddey found his rhythm created for others when he got onto the lane or advanced the ball in transition. Last season, Giddey averaged 6.4 assists per game in just over 50 games. During the three games in Utah, Giddey dished out 28 dimes, which impressed fans with his crafty work in lane.
“It felt good to get back on the pitch and play with these new guys on the team,” Giddey said after his first game. “This is our first game together and we found little things and the more we play the more it will grow and grow and everything we find out now in this short time is just a bonus.”
Attuned to the first few games, NBA staff were more than impressed with the way Giddey, still only 19, took command of this fledgling team as floor general for the Thunder.
“The way Giddey takes up so much space with the ball in his hands frees everyone else on the court,” another NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “It’s going to be difficult for these Summer League teams to stop the ball movement with these guys who can see over the defense and the way Giddey comes in the paint.”
In the first three games in Salt Lake City, it wasn’t the incredible passes or flashy finishing that impressed most, but the effect on defense. The Thunder wreaked havoc while shooting the gaps, turning everything on and blocking shots everywhere, with Holmgren and 7-foot-1 Aleksej Pokusevski in the paint.
“I’m very excited and this is a special group of guys and I’m looking forward to what we can build,” Giddey said. “I can’t wait for training camp as we ramp things up to start the season.”
Adding the veteran players to this group during training camp will only reinforce the early glimpses of defensive versatility with Dort as one of the league’s best young defenders and a healthy Gilgeous-Alexander in backcourt with Giddey.
The Thunder still have a notable 38 draft picks (19 in the first round and 19 in the second round) over the next seven years, something unmatched by any other team. There is a lot of freedom and options as General Manager Sam Presti continues to build something special from the ground up.
With so many future draft picks, many are wondering if Oklahoma City will try again next season with French phenomenon Victor Wembanyama and G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson in the starting blocks of the 2023 NBA draft.
“We just want to be better than last year,” said Giddey. “As long as we keep improving and keep getting better, I think whether it’s the playoffs or not, we’re going to be good. We have a really hard working group of guys and I can’t wait to see where everyone is in it and get the season started.”
Many teams are taking steps a year in advance to put the franchise in a favorable position for next year’s draft.
The Jazz traded Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale, earning five first-round picks and one pick swap in the process. The San Antonio Spurs had three first-round picks, bringing in young, veteran players who could potentially find their way into the G League and develop. Speaking to league scouts in Las Vegas, many believe the Spurs will position themselves for a top-five pick next season. The Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets are two other teams still in the rebuilding phase.
That leaves the thunder. With all the draft picks they have (including a first-round pick and two second-round picks next year), the Thunder aren’t necessarily looking for another key player to add to this young, talented team. Only one team will land Wembanyama, the touted prospect who could be a generation-type talent. Only one. It might not be worth sitting down players and disrupting the growth and chemistry this current group could build.
The day after Holmgren’s draft, he immediately called Giddey and said he wanted to hit the gym as soon as he landed in Oklahoma City. The two had a practice session and ended up playing a singles match.
“He turned me on right away and wanted to go to the gym when he came to town and from that point on I knew we were going to have a special talent,” Giddey told Yahoo Sports. “We started playing one on one and I knew he was going to be a handful for the boys to guard. He may appear skinny but he is strong and strong with the ball in his hands. You think of every mismatch with a keeper and big, the keeper has the advantage but he can sit down and defend and yes he won that first one-on-one game.
“I can’t wait to continue playing with him and we’re both team first players and we want to win. What we are building here will be something special.”
With Giddey opening up space on the floor as early as Summer League and finding Holmgren, Pokusevski, Williams or anyone in the pick-and-pop, it’s hard to imagine the front office shutting things down to help the development of this dangerous young team disturb. The Thunder has the franchise’s future laid out right in front of everyone’s eyes and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes together on the pitch.