OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder general manager Sam Presti said this season would be about sifting through young talent to see where it fits into future plans.
It was a different approach for a franchise that was among the league’s best the previous decade. But with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Chris Paul all long gone, the Thunder have acknowledged that they are in full rebuilding mode.
There were rough moments this season, including a 152-79 loss to Memphis that set the NBA record for scoring margin. Injuries decimated the roster’s top players. The Thunder finished with a 24-58 record — fourth-worst in the league.
The woeful record gives the Thunder a chance to pull in a high draft pick this year — a familar refrain for the franchise. Oklahoma City has an astounding stockpile of 19 potential first-round picks and 17 potential second-round picks through the 2028 draft.
At least the players they already have are resilient. Eight times this season, the Thunder rallied from deficits of at least 15 points to win. They overcame a 26-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 27 — tied for the biggest comeback for a Thunder team.
“I think it’s a group that has maintained a ton of optimism,” coach Mark Daigneault said. “Obviously, we’re not finishing at the top of the standings, but I’ve never really sensed from this team dips in our optimism or our commitment, and that’s a credit to the people that we have on the team. They’re guys that hang in there.”
Through the challenges, the Thunder appear to have found some answers.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped forward in his fourth year and had the look of a franchise player. For the season, the guard averaged 24.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He averaged 30.4 points on 54% shooting in 13 games after the All-Star break before getting shut down for the season with a sore right ankle. He scored at least 30 points in 10 of his last 13 games.
Rookie Josh Giddey met expectations and then some. The 19-year-old Australian averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game and was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month four times this season. He became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double when he had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 2. At one point, he recorded three straight triple-doubles just before going down for the season with a sore right hip.
Another rookie, Tre Mann, averaged 10.4 points per game and had a season-high 30 in a win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Guard Lu Dort saw a significant jump in offensive production before going down for the season with a shoulder injury. His scoring average jumped from 14.0 points per game to 17.2.
With all the injuries, the Thunder limped to the finish line. Oklahoma City had just six players see action in the finale.
“I gained a lot of respect for all of those guys, and I hope they enjoyed the opportunity to play in the NBA,” Daigneault said.
The ultra-athletic forward fell out of the starting lineup at one point, but eventually regained his spot and had a solid season. He averaged 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game before breaking a bone in his right knee.
POKU’S SECOND HALF
Second-year forward Aleksej Pokusevski got off to a slow start before coming on strong late in the season. The 7-footer from Serbia averaged 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in March. He got his first career triple-double on April 3, when he had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists against the Phoenix Suns.
Jaylen Hoard, who played for the Thunder’s G-League affiliate this season, stood out during a 10-day deal at the end of the season. The 6-8 forward from France averaged 17.2 points and 13.7 rebounds in six games after signing. He had 24 points and 21 rebounds on April 1 and 27 points and 17 rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 8.
Former Oklahoma State guard Lindy Waters stepped into the rotation after the rash of injuries and performed admirably. He played 25 games, mostly as a reserve, and shot 36% on nearly six 3-point attempts per game. In his best outing, he scored 25 points in a home loss to the Atlanta Hawks and Norman North High teammate Trae Young on March 30.
Second-round pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had his moments, too. The center from Villanova started 36 of his 49 games. He averaged 7.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. He missed 24 games with a broken foot.
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