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Who should the Thunder protect in an expansion draft?

Across the Oklahoma City Thunder’s brief 13-year history, the franchise has yet to cross paths with league expansion. In fact, the last time the NBA held an expansion draft dates back to 2004, in which the Charlotte Bobcats locked themselves into a franchise. In an event that had not even been televised, the Bobcats brought home a squadron of 19 players. As part of their return, the Bobcats filled their roster with fill-ins to the tune of Predrag Drobnjak, Desmond Ferguson, and Richie Frahm. As for their biggest returns, Charlotte brought in Zaza Pachulia (subsequently dealt to Milwaukee), Jason Kapono, and as the granddaddy of them all — Gerald Wallace.    

In the current scope of the NBA, chatter has sparked in favor of league expansion, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver coining the move as “inevitable.” Under this hypothetical, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in addition to all other 29 franchises, would be subject to leaving all but eight members of the roster up for grabs.

Here’s who Oklahoma City should keep their grasp on:

In an announcement shocking absolutely no one, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander receives a team protection while in the other guard spot, Lu Dort punches his reservation to return to Bricktown. Retaining your current cornerstones is a no-brainer, and Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort fit the profile.

To pair with the guard tandem, Sam Presti also holds onto the newer kids on the block with Josh Giddey and Tre Mann. In regards to both Giddey and Mann, the first-round guards freshen up to Thunder’s lineup as Giddey’s unique 6-foot-8 playmaking frame coupled with Mann’s 6-foot-5 craftiness and sharpshooting ability tack on potential game-changers for the future.

Rounding out the Thunder’s quintet of expansion locks, Aleksej Pokusevski gets the Thunder’s final nod. As a rookie, Pokusevski enamored all watching with his perimeter-centric, ball-dominant role as a 7-footer. Though Pokusevski’s shooting splits were far from efficient, shooting 34.1 percent overall and 28.0 percent from distance on 4.6 attempts, the Serbian Assassin put on one of the top highlight reels across the NBA. Whether it was a no-look alley-oop pass while flying out-of-bounds, nailing a 30-foot stepback three, or flying in for a dunk a step inside the elbow, Poku did it all. Pokusevski’s uncanny skill set paired with the fact his age reflects that of a current rookie makes him a keeper in an expansion draft, and a major piece in the rebuild.

Once past Oklahoma City’s first five, picking out the remaining three selections is up for interpretation. With 14 players age 24 or under, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the crosshairs of history at an average age of 22.8 years old. In the case of the Thunder’s trajectory, the blueprint has been laid out, hoard picks, accumulate young talent, and play said young talent in hopes of hitting on a gem. 

The Thunder’s gameplan looks to be a fun-filled, surprise-packed venture over the course of the next few seasons, but under draft expansion regulations — their priorities bolster current skill with projected potential. 

First off of the board is Darius Bazley. When it comes to who has been the most polarizing player on Oklahoma City’s roster as of late, Bazley ranks atop the list. The 21-year-old posted averages of 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, but the hitch came with his efficiency. Bazley recorded the fourth-worst TS% in the NBA at 49.1 percent while shooting 29.0 percent from distance on 5.2 tries a night. 

Bazley is facing a make-or-break season in competition with Aleksej Pokusevski in addition to up-and-comer Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Ideally, an extra year of play would provide a clearer image in regards to Bazley’s future outlook, but time is not on OKC’s side. Bazley gets swooped back up in hopes that the forward rejuvenates his value from the perimeter (34.8 percent in 2019-20). If that is the case, Bazley’s original title as a secondary ball-handler is reclaimed as his catch-and-shoot abilities would maximize his opportunities at slashing to the basket.

The Oklahoma City Thunder exercised their lone consolidation move in acquiring Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in a draft-day transaction. They opt to go all-in on the Nova product.

Robinson-Earl transfigured his stock from a questionable pickup to one of Oklahoma City’s most promising additions following the MGM Resorts Las Vegas Summer League. In his five-game stint in Vegas, Robinson-Earl led the Thunder in scoring with 12.0 points in addition to 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists. The 20-year-old flashed potential as another multi-positional piece under Daigneault to be utilized at either forward spot, or potentially at the five. At 6-foot-8, Robinson-Earl has a long way to go to solidify himself in the frontcourt, but a proficient showing in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop has created a sturdy baseline to work with.

For Oklahoma City’s final pickup, the story condenses to two names: Theo Maledon, and Ty Jerome. Both Maledon and Jerome have been pinned next to each other since the ladder stages of the regular season, but the position battle comes to a halt here. 

Though the competition is steep, Theo Maledon snags the final bid.

In contrasting between Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome, Jerome comes out as the more polished of the two. However, this advantage does not translate to the decision-making desk.

Theo Maledon led all Thunder players last season in minutes (1778) while logging 10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists across 27.4 minutes per game. The one knock to Maledon’s statline digs far into the advanced stats, during his rookie campaign, Maledon fell behind Bazley recording the second-worst TS% in the NBA at 48.9 percent while shooting 36.8 percent overall and 33.5 percent from downtown on 4.8 tries a night.

So what trumps him over a player in Ty Jerome you may ask? It all comes down to age, potential, and Oklahoma City’s timeline.

Ty Jerome provided the Thunder one of their biggest sparks last year placing 10.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and a 42.3 percent rate (5.1 3PA), but the downside is he’s already 24-years-old. Maledon on the other hand turned 20 in June.

Maledon closes the distance with his four years of adolescence and foundation of potential. Maledon flashed moments excelling working out the pick-and-roll finishing with floaters but also in facilitating via dump-off passes and kick-out passes. The former second-round pick outclassed his draft-day evaluation and is expected to break Jerome’s threshold from last season.

As aforementioned, Ty Jerome headlines Oklahoma City’s array of players to miss Presti’s protection blanket, instead joining the player pool for expansion teams. However, there is still a bountiful amount of talent coming out of Bricktown.

The Thunder’s newly acclaimed veteran core is all up for grabs in this hypothetical as 30-year-olds  Mike Muscala and Derrick Favors miss the cut. In addition to Muscala and Favors, 26-year-olds Kenrich Williams and Gabriel Deck are in the pool. Williams clocks in as a sneaky expansion pick-up to patch up any holes in the bench as he put up 8.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 66 appearances.

As for less-seasoned players, Oklahoma City hands out a variety pack of prospects. Isaiah Roby carved out a steady role playing at either forward spot and even the five last season, and at 23, he could be a mainstay bench piece for an incoming franchise. At 20-years-old, Josh Hall’s potential exceeds that of your typical two-way contributor. The 6-foot-9 had an up-and-down rookie season, though his intriguing play around the basket and as a ball-handler could raise some eyebrows. To a lesser extent, recent addition Vit Krejci sources the ability to handle the basketball, finish, and potentially shoot at age 21. Completing Oklahoma City’s list of draftable pieces, 22-year-old Aaron Wiggins sneaks in as a 3-and-D forward fresh off of signing a two-way deal.

A future NBA expansion calls for tough decisions league-wide, this case is no different for the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

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