Photo Credits: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe
The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the league Friday morning in shipping out centers Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a second-round pick for Kemba Walker, pick no. 16, and a future second-round selection. On a surface level, the Thunder’s recent move helped offload a once untradeable piece in Horford for draft equity and another block in Kemba Walker, but in this acquisition, a few current Thunder players are now stuck in crosshairs.
In dissecting Kemba Walker’s addition, it should be noted that his usage and priority among the franchise is still murky. Kemba has been a consistent starter, and at one point a cornerstone piece, ever since his sophomore season for the Charlotte Bobcats. Even with this however, Oklahoma City’s track record of rehabbing expensive “projects” runs through both Chris Paul, and Al Horford — both of whom followed strict resting policies. If Kemba Walker suits up in a Thunder jersey, chances are he’ll be a common no-show for resting purposes.
That still doesn’t alleviate the rotation.
One of the core components as to why Presti’s formula has worked to this point is the balance shown towards his players. For Paul and Horford, they did miss games — but, in appearances, they also played a hefty number of minutes. If Presti is able to turn Walker into a positive asset, capping the 31-year-old to a 20-minute bench role simply will not cut it. In order for Walker to change his outlook around the league, he needs to turn his three-year, $107.9 million deal into a palatable contract. He will need an abundance of minutes to do so.
With Kemba’s insertion into the rotation, a hefty 28-to-30 minutes would presumptively be placed upon the guard alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Not only does this lineup reminisce much of the Paul – Gilgeous-Alexander pairing from two seasons ago — but it also rips a lump some of minutes from the guard spots.
This minute disparity trickles into a sloe of Thunder guards.
Theo Maledon led all Thunder players this past in total minutes minutes at 1,778. In his rookie campaign, the 20-year-old transformed from a draft night slide to a recipient of five second team All-Rookie votes. In Maledon’s run, he spent 49-of-65 games starting for the Thunder providing an all-around presence with 10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 33.5% from distance in 27.4 minutes. For the 6-foot-5 guard, he cemented himself as a both an on-ball and off-ball threat playing at the one or two. From a potential standpoint, Maledon has shown the potential to be a multi-versed scorer and playmaker at a starting caliber. However, if Kemba Walker is active in the rotation — Maledon may need to find his stride off the bench.
This some tale of minutes also falls upon 23-year-old Ty Jerome. Jerome originally voyaged to Bricktown as a throw-in piece from Chris Paul’s move to Phoenix — now, he’s considered a microwave off the Thunder bench. Jerome’s sophomore season saw the Virginia product post averages of 10.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists off a paltry 23.9 minutes. In Jerome’s 33-game stint, he became Oklahoma City’s mini-Curry dialing up shots way outside of 30 feet with relative ease. Jerome’s slot on the Thunder with or without Kemba rests as a prime piece off the bench — but with Kemba’s induction, he’s likely guard no. 4 when the former All-Star plays.
Delving even further into Kemba Walker’s potential domino effect, there’s a real case that wings may even be scouring for minutes. Under Daigneault’s system last season, positional versatility was a must. For a guy like Kenrich Williams — his grip at playing from the 2-4 made him one of Oklahoma City’s premier wings. If Williams were to play while Kemba is active, his duties could solely rest at the small forward and power forward positions. With those minutes garnered, other wings in Charlie Brown Jr., Isaiah Roby, Gabriel Deck, and Josh Hall (if resigned) would essentially be butting heads for frontcourt minutes. Luckily for these names, with zero centers on roster — some of them could still etch into the rotation.
Gazing beyond the present day roster, Oklahoma City’s rotation will become even more jumbled up come next season. For one, the Thunder control six picks in the upcoming draft class, five of which lie in the top 36 selections. To make there situation even stickier, Oklahoma City could potentially walk out of Tuesday’s Draft Lottery with picks 1 and 5 and with guards Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Jalen Suggs dominating the board — there’s a solid likelihood a guard comes to Bricktown. Even looking past the top of this draft class, there’s still an abundance of guards sifting throughout the class meaning minutes could become even tighter.
In a scenario where Oklahoma City passes on all guards for the Draft (highly unlikely), their second-round guard from last season, Vit Krejci, mans definite power in the organization. Krejci, age 21, was selected 37th by the Wizards and subsequently traded to the Thunder on draft night — and has been in Oklahoma City rehabbing an ACL ever since. It’s expected he’ll be good to go for next year, whether by two-way contract, or full-on roster spot.
It’s evident Sam Presti’s mindset is still stuck in “asset acquirement” mode but do not get things twisted — his priority is set on nurturing young talent. If the Thunder go out and select a renowned guard, or any guard for that matter — don’t expect them to be an outcast for Kemba Walker. For a players like Maledon, Jerome, or even Krejci, they’ll still be getting their moments. The real question however, is how many moments.
There is a common belief among reporters Kemba Walker is already out on the open market. And for some — they believe he may never even suit up in a Thunder jersey. We’ll figure out Walker’s bearing with the team in time — but as for right now, his acquisition may very well tilt the rotation.