For weeks, the media had been certain that Auburn sharpshooter Jabari Smith, Jr. was going to be the first pick of the NBA draft.
Even as the Vegas odds shifted suddenly on the eve of the draft, with Duke point forward Paolo Banchero going from distant third to clear favorite, the people who are paid to know these things insisted that the top 3 picks would proceed in the manner predicted.
As team boards finalize today, the 1-2-3 of the NBA Draft is increasingly firm, per sources: Jabari Smith to Orlando, Chet Holmgren to Oklahoma City and Paolo Banchero to Houston.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 23, 2022
As the resident shaman of the NBA reporting world, Woj’s tweet had massive ramifications. All of the major casinos temporarily stopped taking bets on who would be selected first and when they returned it to the board, Smith was not only a favorite, but a massive favorite. Yet, as the pre-draft show began airing on ESPN, there was Woj eating crow with his first report of the night. Suddenly, Banchero was being very much considered at the top of the draft. Moments later, Banchero’s draft rights were the property of the Orlando Magic.
After this turn of events, the Oklahoma City Thunder and general manager Sam Presti were on the clock in a scenario few had considered. All of the pre-draft conversation had been centered on whether OKC would consider Banchero over Gonzaga unicorn Chet Holmgren. There was far less talk about Smith than even the possibility of the Thunder going way outside the box and choosing Purdue’s Jaden Ivey or even Canadian high schooler Shaedon Sharpe.
Less then two minutes into the five minutes allotted for the Thunder to make a decision, the ESPN crawl announced “THE PICK IS IN.” That pick was Holmgren.
While the rest of the world may have been unprepared for the scenario, Presti wasn’t. Without hesitation, he took the guy that he probably would have taken if they had been granted the first pick overall. We can all be confident he got his guy.
A STORM IS BREWING IN OKC ⛈️
The Thunder take Chet Holmgren with the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft! pic.twitter.com/3p18jo9MMx
— ESPN (@espn) June 24, 2022
That is not to say the night did not get weird for the team.
As the draft proceeded toward their second scheduled pick at #12, most of the players that OKC had been rumored to like fell off the board. Ivey went fifth to Detroit. Sharpe was snatched up by Portland. Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan, who had implied to reporters he hoped to be a Thunder player, was taken at nine by San Antonio. By the time Ousmane Dieng was announced as the Knicks’ pick at eleven, everyone who had been associated with the Thunder in pre-draft reporting was off the board.
Except, the Knicks didn’t select Dieng. The Thunder did.
The initial assumption by most Thunder fans had been that Presti had moved up one spot to get his man. Instead, it turned out OKC had simply acquired pick eleven for three first-round picks in next season’s draft (only one is actually expected to convey next year). They continued to possess pick twelve where they tabbed Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams. From there, the Thunder were silent until the second round of the draft when they took an Arkansas player whose name was phonetically identical to their previous pick, Jaylin Williams. This concluded their night.
Presti Gets His Man
To the dismay of many fans of the team, it became clear that Chet Holmgren was always going to be the pick at two. For those who fixated on his skinny frame and extreme whiteness, there is a lot of consternation and predictions of a draft flop from the general manager who has a 75% success rate at choosing future MVPs with top five picks.
For those who can look past the two inherent flaws, there is a lot to like about this selection. Holmgren was the consensus top recruit out of high school — a class that also included Banchero and Smith — where he starred for Minnehaha Academy, a school that won four Minnesota state championships while he played there. For college, he followed Jalen Suggs, his teammate since elementary school, to Gonzaga.
At Gonzaga, he showcased many of the qualities that attracted him to Presti. With his 7’1″ frame and 7’6″ wingspan, he absolutely demolished shots from players trying to test him at the rim. He averaged 3.7 blocks per game on shots that actually challenged him. Scores more shots were not even attempted for fear of him swatting them. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony stated that he has never seen a prospect with better instincts than Holmgren. As such, there are many who project Holmgren to develop into a difference-maker that could be considered for Defensive Player of the Year perennially.
One place his decision to attend Gonzaga hindered Holmgren was in showcasing offensively. Had he not played for a team that featured Drew Timme, a big man who had helped power the team to the National Championship Game the prior season, Holmgren would have been offered a lot more freedom. Timme, however, camped in the lane during the time they shared together, which was most of the minutes. As such, Holmgren was mostly utilized as a “stretch five.” He excelled there, making 39% of his three-point attempts. However, when he was granted the space to work near the basket, he was incredible, making 74% of his two-point attempts and 80% on finishes when used in the pick-and-roll.
All of these attributes are things the Thunder have been lacking. The team has not had a shot eraser since Serge Ibaka began to deteriorate, and they have had zero presence around the basket, maybe ever. Add in that Holmgren absolutely has the ability to snatch a rebound and move the ball up the floor — including good vision as a passer — and he seems custom-made for the system Coach Mark Daignault has implemented.
Presti Cashes in Some Chips
This needed to happen. With 18 first-round picks owned over the next five years (going into last night), the team is never going to be able to roster them all. Last night, Presti exhausted three future firsts to acquire French wing player Ousmane Dieng who played in the Australian basketball league last season. Was Dieng worth three future first-rounders? (shrug emoji)
Of all the players connected to OKC in mock drafts, Dieng was the one I was least excited about. While the Australian NBL has become a surprisingly good feeder system for the NBA, and a well that Presti has now drawn from three times, Dieng was not a good NBL player. For the New Zealand Breakers he averaged 8.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and had more turnovers than assists. Worse were his shooting splits, making 39.8% overall and just 27.1% from behind the arc.
Those who were optimistic about Dieng will say he played much better over the last ten games of the season, and yada-yada past the first two-thirds of the year by saying he was a teenager adapting to a new country where his primary language was not spoken. They will also point out that he grew physically while in the NBL, probably hindering his coordination, and that the form on his shot looks good visually.
My take on Dieng from watching highlight clips after it was clear he was now part of this team, is that he is an old school Presti player. He is athletic and will probably be a very good perimeter defender. His film gave me a lot of Thabo Sefolosha flashbacks, down to the glacial speed he got his jump shots up with.
The Santa Clara Jalen Williams taken at twelve is a case study in actually showcasing during the draft process. While the representation of most NBA draft prospects attempt to hide their clients from NBA scouts unless it is in a carefully curated workout environment designed to highlight the players’ strength, Jalen’s people just made sure he played basketball. Probably a borderline second-round prospect going into the NBA combine, he skyrocketed up boards on the back of good athletic testing, fantastic interviews, and actual participation in the five-on-five competitions.
Listening to him talk to The Oklahoman’s Joe Mussatto, it’s easy to see how Jalen would impress NBA front offices:
One-on-one with Jalen Williams pic.twitter.com/m0PALlLM12
— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) June 24, 2022
As a player, seeing his fit in OKC is harder. Playing guard, he will be fighting the team’s best players for minutes. Between Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, and Tre Mann, most of the guard rotation minutes are booked. Though, if Williams shows the glimpses of James Harden I saw in his highlight videos, he will be hard to keep off the floor.
Second-round picks are not guaranteed to ever make the NBA and with the roster crunch for OKC, the best bet is it will be a two-way contract if it happens. However, the Thunder’s pick at #34 last on draft night is still notable because he shares his name with the team’s previous selection:
I asked Jaylin Williams about his new OKC Thunder teammate, Jalen Williams. He joked:
"He and I would always end up in the same room at the same time [at the combine]. We were always like: 'Bro, go somewhere else!'" 😂😂😂https://t.co/qK4KEBvMzf | @Jay_MWilliams_ @JdubPSCEO pic.twitter.com/OfxWHMLvWA
— Bryan Kalbrosky (@BryanKalbrosky) June 24, 2022
If Jaylin is able to stick with the Thunder it will be because he is so similar to team legend Nick Collison. His calling card for the Razorbacks was his ability to draw a charge, a talent he used remarkably in the upset victory Arkansas had against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament. Williams was able to neutralize new teammate Chet Holmgren and the aforementioned Drew Timme by getting them both in foul trouble. His basketball IQ is off the charts, both defensively and with crafty passing. While he only shot 30% from three, he was very confident in that shot during the tournament.
After the 2021 draft, I was pretty down on the Thunder’s path forward. Despite being intrigued by Josh Giddey, it felt like the team was treading water. After the 2022 draft, I feel much more optimistic about the timeline. Acquiring a potentially elite talent in Holmgren certainly helps in that regard. However, I think the boldness of getting Ousmane Dieng (a player I’m not particularly excited about) is what really perked me up. By being aggressive and spending some of that treasure trove of picks he has stockpiled, it gives me hope that the rebuild is moving forward.
While I do not expect that this class of players will suddenly make the team a playoff contender — rookies rarely impact winning, positively — I do think this aggressiveness indicates that the tanking strategy is winding down.