Photo Credits: Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports
Throughout the Oklahoma City Thunder’s brief existence, one struggle has continually remained — bench depth. Whether it be cycling through the likes of a rookie Cam Payne or Semaj Christon, handing Patrick Patterson a lump sum of minutes, or filtering through up-and-coming wings in Terrance Ferguson or Alex Abrines — the roster has always mingled with a testy second unit while in search of contention.
Now, the Oklahoma City Thunder have shifted gears from their title chasing days to tackling a full-fledged rebuild headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The new story coming out of the Thunder, however, paints a polar opposite picture to that of seasons prior. The roster is loaded with depth, particularly in the backcourt.
Here’s the breakdown on how Oklahoma City may look to fill their guard minutes:
For starters, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has solidified himself as Bricktown’s cornerstone for the next five seasons following the guard inking a five-year $172 million max extension over the summer. Justly so, SGA’s alignment in the rotation will reflect his major payday.
Gilgeous-Alexander concluded his third-year tirade averaging 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists across 35 games, but he also assumed a 33.7-minute role to do so. Moving forward into next season, Gilgeous-Alexander enters as the Thunder’s ring leader, whatever slice of the pie the guard likes — he’ll get. Recent Thunder standout Russell Westbrook mirrors much of the same scenario as the one SGA is currently sitting at. Westbrook took on a cut of 34.6 minutes a game during his MVP 2016-17 campaign, and it’d be reasonable to imagine Gilgeous-Alexander will receive similar treatment at the scorer’s table.
Unlike Gilgeous-Alexander’s point guard lockdown, a conversation may be had as to who should join the former Wildcat in the backcourt.
Third-year guard Lu Dort will undoubtedly receive a 30-plus minute role starting under Mark Daigneault, but pinning the 6-foot-3 lockdown to the shooting guard or small forward spot may be a bit too early for the time being. If Daigneault opts to move Dort back to his natural spot, the core of SGA and Dort has been fortified, but if Dort remains at the three — two contenders hop into play.
As one of biggest contenders to start, Aussie guard Josh Giddey has the ability to source minutes from either guard spot, or potentially small forward. Giddey, the sixth overall pick, tags along a rebuilding Thunder squad as an 18-year-old oozing with globs of potential. Giddey impressed scouts playing an exclusive role at the point guard last season in the NBL, but his uncanny 6-foot-8 frame allows for a multi-positional role. Similar to how Daigneualt utilized Aleksej Pokusevski last season, the Thunder may opt to play Giddey in segmented runs at the one, two, and three while running with the first and second unit. Though it is unclear if Giddey will instantly receive a starting nod, a safe trajectory for the guard’s rotational impact would see him garner 26-to-30 minutes a night.
To begin the list of unlikely, but potential starting candidates — sophomore guard Theo Maledon hits the Paycom Center with an undeniable resume. As a second-round pick, Maledon led the Thunder in minutes played last season while recording averages of 10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists across 65 games, 49 of which came as starts. The 6-foot-5 combo guard climbed the Thunder’s ladder early last season as a bench piece, but a thumb injury at the hands of George Hill placed Maledon starting next to Gilgeous-Alexander. He never looked back.
Theo averaged 27.4 minutes a game in his first NBA season, but additional depth coupled with incoming pieces could dwindle his playtime into the low twenties.
Ty Jerome joined the Thunder last season as nothing more than a throw-in for Chris Paul’s movement to Phoenix, but the 24-year-old’s resounding play has his name in the conversation. Jerome 10.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists last year playing 23.9 minutes a game, but the third-year guard struck a safe haven from distance — shooting 42.3 percent on 5.1 tries a game. The 6-foot-5 guard proved his value late last season, but the return of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander almost binds him to Theo Maledon for a positional battle.
That is the byproduct of Sam Presti’s draft-day escapade.
Oklahoma City double-dipped into the pool of guard prospects this offseason selecting Florida guard Tre Mann with the eighteenth pick in the draft. As a 6-foot-5 guard, Mann adds to Thunder’s core of playmaking sharpshooters as an electric ball handler proficient in floaters, but also creating triples from his hallmarked stepback. Mann’s venture to the rotation may see him test the G-League waters early, but the 20-year-old’s hybrid blend of self-creation and ball-handling makes him a prime target to snatch minutes at the two spot, further restraining Maledon and Jerome.
As for other players to be in the mix, Kenrich Williams is stuck in the crossfire as though the guard proved to be one of most reliable pieces on the roster, the 26-year-old clocks in far older than his counterparts. Williams averaged 8.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists last season while juggling between the two-guard, three-guard, and power forward spots, but now his versatility is his biggest luxury. Williams’ time in the backcourt may come to an end due to the stark influx in talent, but the 6-foot-6 swiss army knife could gel into either forward position.
Oklahoma City’s complex entanglement of guards is messy as is, but the recent addition of Czech guard Vit Krejci adds an extra string or two. Krejci, age 20, is a 6-foot-8 guard who prior to this point played a set point guard role in his last few seasons overseas. Returning from a torn ACL injury suffered last September, Krejci should be a prime candidate next to two-way wing Aaron Wiggins for seeing extended time in the G-League. Outside of G-League competition, however, Krejci sources a unique array of playmaking, finishing, and perimeter play to mesh with oversized pieces in Aleksej Pokusevski and Josh Giddey.
Across both standard and two-way contracts, the Oklahoma City Thunder have nine different players to sift through in the backcourt. A lot is unknown as to how Mark Daigneault and company elect to distribute these minutes out, but one thing is for certain — surprises are sure to be on their way.