Entering Thursday night, Aleksej Pokusevski’s expectations were all but clear. The 19-year-old hadn’t suited up for the Thunder since February 1, and his 13 game stint with the G-League hinted both positives and negatives. His Blue stat line of 7.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists rendered all aspects of play, however his 3.7 turnovers and shooting splits of 31.2%, and 27.0% from three, still made him a wild card.
Upon Pokusevski’s recalling to the Thunder, speculation prior experience suggested the 7-footer would attract 15-20 minutes in a bench role — that didn’t happen. With Darius Bazley’s first absence of the season (left shoulder contusion) the Serbian Assassin got thrusting right into the limelight, handed the starting job.
Aleksej Pokusevski took full advantage of the opportunity Thursday, garnering career numbers with 14 points (4-of-11) and another personal best in 8 rebounds, even dicing in 3 assists and 2 blocks. On paper, those stats look amazing, but the magic lies far beyond the numbers. Let’s break down the tape.
Pokusevski gravitates towards the perimeter all game, so it should be no avail the rookie struck gold outside.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander picked the Mavericks alive off of isolations and high ball screens Thursday night. In efforts to slow down the 22-year-old, help defense was almost always employed. SGA recognizes the pressure from Dorian Finney-Smith early, resulting in a perfect dime to Pokusevski — splash.
Pokusevski’s three-point performance took a roller coaster of emotions, actually shanking three-consecutive wide-open corner threes. Rick Carlisle made it clear that giving Poku an open shot was a worthwhile investment — it was not. Maxi Kleber crept too far down in anticipation of a Dort drive, leaving Poku daylight in the corner. The rookie hoisted up his shot in one motion giving the game’s dagger no nerves with an on-the-money swish.
Navigating the Lane
One of Pokusevski’s biggest slights in his initial stretch with the Thunder came how he moved. The forward had tendencies to take the ball past the timeline, halt at the hash mark, and distribute the basketball in an effort to settle outside. That habit appeared to be broken against Dallas as he stayed active in the lane to not just create for himself, but others.
It only took Poku five minutes to find some action inside. He pulled his best Mike Muscala impression waddling back on fastbreak offense. In doing this, Maxi Kleber and Willie Cauley-Stein got tripped up in confusion, lackadaisically scanning around for Poku. Once Kleber established his location, it became far too late as the rookie blazed right by for a mid-range shot. With minimal help from Cauley-Stein, this shot was a gimme.
Pokusevski’s movement off the ball created Al Horford’s faceup jumper. The 19-year-old dumped the ball up top to Horford upon reaching the hash, but his decision to cut across court breathed life into this play. James Johnson, in efforts to get back onto Poku, sliced right between Horford and Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein reacted with the slightest of movements slipping down a pair of steps, but that was all Big Al needed for the jumper.
Poku’s final act in the lane hinted back towards his Olympiacos days. The play originated off a simple pump-fake, buying time inside off baiting James Johnson. Once he had the angle, Pokusevski gathered the basketball right at the three-point line taking one stride in for a finger roll. His original attempt veered back iron, yet his soft touch popped it up for easy access on the putback.
Coming into Thursday, Poku’s highly touted passing game had much anticipation, especially after his Sportscenter pieces in Orlando. Though his dishes may not attract national attention, the big man stayed right on track spreading the love.
Pokusevski got his name in the mix immediately, tallying a dime for the first basket in the contest. Shai planted the seeds for this basket, latching two defenders on him to sprout a game of hot potato. Shai dumped it right at an open Poku, but his recognition of Jalen Brunson stuck inside culminated a no-look dime to Theo Maledon for the corner triple.
The rookie’s second coined assist showed off his excellent court vision yet again. Poku breaks out into fastbreak offense immediately after Oklahoma City gained possession, and once the game of numbers broke out — he stayed ready. Dort connected a solid outlet pass to Pokusevski but instead of looking to wiggle inside, he kept his options open. In its infant stages, the play started as a 2-on-2 with Maledon seated right corner and Poku at the left wing. Al Horford surprisingly bolted right into the lane, however, and with Maxi Kleber too far onto Theo, Horford got a free prize.
Grasping to a 7-foot-3 wingspan Pokusevski stayed lethal swatting shots in the NBA and the G-League with respective 1.1 averages in both leagues. Bumping back up to NBA play may could slippages defensively, but not for Poku.
Both of Pokusevski’s rejections on Thursday group in very similar categories. Mavericks members Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith respectively saw daylight on their shots, but they were no dice. In Brunson’s case, his step lead on a typical big would net an easy layup off the glass, on Poku, it’s much different. With the 7-footer’s lanky frame, chasedown blocks can be issued with zero contact enforced. All he had to do there was stick his hand up in formation and volleyball swat the layup.
Aleksej got caught ball-watching in his final sequence, seeping down low on a Brunson drive he had not part in. Brunson made the safe call to swing-out to Finney-Smith, but once again only one Pokusevski stride turned a shootaround shot into an easy rejection for the Serbian.