The Oklahoma City Thunder are now a couple of years removed from perennial contention, but they're trying to get back to that point, and they've already started to amass the type of the young talent that could ultimately help them do so. For the Thunder, the 2021-22 NBA season will be all about the development of their young guys -- including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who signed a max extension with the team over the offseason -- much like last season was.
Oklahoma City finished 14th in the West with a 22-50 record last season, and with a roster comprised almost entirely of young, inexperienced players, the team might not fare much better during the upcoming campaign. But in the midst of what could be a tough season in the standings, the Thunder will look for silver linings which will come in the form of player improvement. With that said here's a look at the Thunder's roster, and three players to keep a close eye on over the season.
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Oklahoma City Thunder roster
Guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Theo Maledon, Tre Mann, Ty Jerome, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey
Forwards: Aleksej Pokusevski, Kenrich Williams, Gabriel Deck, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Darius Bazley, Josh Hall
Centers: Isaiah Roby, Derrick Favors, Mike Muscala
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Any list of Thunder players to watch has to start with Gilgeous-Alexander, who signed a massive extension with the franchise over the offseason. The deal demonstrates that the team views him as a huge part of their future, and for good reason. Since being selected No. 11 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers -- via the Charlotte Hornets -- Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as one of the best young guards in the entire NBA.
He started 73 games for the Clippers as a rookie, and he was named Second Team All-Rookie as a result of his promising play. After the season, he was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder as the centerpiece in the package that netted the Clippers a perennial All-Star in Paul George and since joining the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has continued to blossom as a player.
This past season, Gilgeous-Alexander took a major step forward, both in terms of production and efficiency. He averaged career-highs in points (23.7) and assists (5.9) per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 41 percent from long range. The 23-year-old looked a whole lot like a future perennial All-Star himself in the process, despite the fact that his season was cut short due to a tear in his plantar fascia.
Only four players in the Western Conference averaged at least 20 points and five assists per game while shooting above 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range last season. Gilgeous-Alexander was one of them. The other three were Nikola Jokic, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
Now that he's locked up long-term and will be making a pretty penny for his services, the Thunder will be looking for him to take another step forward during the '21-22 season. That means development on both ends of the floor and as a leader. Gilgeous-Alexander has an extremely high ceiling, and finding out just how good he can be will go a long way toward determining the direction and duration of the Thunder's rebuild.
2. Josh Giddey
In addition to Gilgeous-Alexander, all eyes will be on the Thunder's most recent lottery pick, Josh Giddey. Giddey injured his ankle during Oklahoma City's first Summer League game, so we didn't get to see much of him over the summer, which adds a layer of intrigue to his rookie campaign.
The Thunder could have gone in a whole bunch of different directions with the sixth overall pick in the '21 Draft, but the team ultimately went with the intriguing Australian, and for good reason, as his ceiling appears to be pretty high. CBS' Sports Colin Ward-Henninger compared Giddey to reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball prior to the draft. Here's what he had to say:
Technically, Giddey is a forward, but in his realized form he'd essentially be the point guard, running the show with dazzling passes in both transition and the halfcourt, just like Ball. The questions facing Giddey are the same that face Ball -- defense and 3-point shooting -- but both have the chance to be truly special players.
Ball looked like a future star during his rookie season. Only time will tell if Giddey will do the same, but he certainly should have plenty of opportunity to try. It will be interesting to see how he fits alongside Gilgeous-Alexander -- something Giddey is already thinking about.
Josh Giddey on playing with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander “I’m really excited for that. Something I’ll have to get use to, learn how to do so, we are both ball handlers. We will all figure out how to play with each other, learn to play off the ball.”— Rylan Stiles (@Rylan_Stiles) September 27, 2021
If those two are able to click, they could form an extremely formidable young duo for Oklahoma City.
3. Darius Bazley
Darius Bazley showed a lot of potential during his second season with the Thunder, but there were also some clear areas of improvement. On the positive side, Bazley stepped into a starting role in Oklahoma City, and his production jumped as a result. After averaging 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per performance as a rookie, Bazley averaged 13.7 and 7.2 points during his sophomore season. He also threw down some sweet in-game dunks, like this one against Atlanta in February.
In terms of improvement, Bazley still has a lot of developing to do defensively. Also, he needs to become (much) more efficient on the offensive end. He shot just 39 percent from the field and an anemic 29 percent from long range last season -- a number that is especially egregious considering the fact that he attempted over five 3-pointers per game. If you're going to shoot that many 3's, you have to shoot much better than 29 percent.
No one expects Bazley to be a finished product at 21 years old, but the potential is clearly there. The '21-22 season will be an important one for Bazley to take advantage of what should be ample on-court opportunity and establish himself as an integral part of Oklahoma City's plans moving forward.