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2023 NBA Draft Lottery Team Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder
With the 2023 NBA Draft fast approaching, we're taking a look at what each lottery team needs to target with their draft selections, continuing today with the Oklahoma City Thunder
Nick: The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a fascinating position heading into the 2023 NBA Draft. After #2 overall pick Chet Holmgren suffered a Lisfranc injury in his right foot before the season even started, the Thunder appeared to be headed for another season of rebuilding and preparing the next great Thunder squad of the future.
Instead of sitting near the bottom of the standings, though, the Thunder were one of the most positive surprise teams of the 2022-23 NBA season. They remained competitive all season long, and they hovered around .500 for the latter half of a season that many expected to be a developmental season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took yet another leap forward into MVP consideration, Jalen Williams quickly emerged as a critical do-everything wing who could slide up and down the positional spectrum, Josh Giddey made huge strides as a scoring threat, and the Thunder made the play-in before falling to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While Oklahoma City exceeded expectations last season, there is still room for improvement on the roster. The team struggled with size mismatches across the roster, especially in terms of their bigs, and they shuffled 17 different players into the starting lineup over the course of the season.
The return of Chet Holmgren will certainly solidify their frontcourt, but they are still lacking in size down low. The Thunder could search for a big man to pair with Holmgren, whether that be a pure center or a forward with the weak side rim protection ability to help Holmgren cover the back line. Alternatively, they could also use a shooter on the wing to help take some of the floor spacing pressure away from sharpshooter Isaiah Joe.
Paige, we know that the Thunder will be looking to secure a Top 6 spot in the Western Conference to avoid bowing out in the play-in once again. This team was ahead of schedule last season, but they will be looking to take another step forward this season now that the young core has shown what they can do. What are your thoughts on this Thunder squad, and what types of players do you think they should be targeting in the 2023 NBA Draft?
Paige: I think you’re spot on, Nick, in that the Thunder need to target either a rim-protecting big man or a pure shooter to help with some of the consistency struggles from downtown the team faced this past season. The Thunder’s 35.6% team three-point percentage came in at 17th in the league behind the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans. However, the Thunder put up the fifth-most points per game in the NBA this season (117.5) despite being below league average from downtown. Having more shooting options would make the Thunder even more of a pain to deal with as they continue to come into the NBA spotlight as arguably the best young rebuild team in the league. Isaiah Joe shot nearly 41% from beyond the arc on 5.4 attempts per game alone, while the next closest player on the roster to come close to that type of volume at that rate was Lu Dort (33% on 5.5 3PA per game). So, my bet is that Sam Presti will have a couple of options in mind when it comes to addressing this need for another consistent high-volume shooter. I also think you can never go wrong with adding a plus-positional size player that can shoot.
As you mentioned, Chet will finally be back this season! I expect him to be more than productive in his first “official” season with the Thunder. Holmgren’s blend of rebounding, shot-blocking, and scoring versatility adds a powerful punch to the Thunder’s frontcourt. Now, all they need is a complementary piece to Chet that can help protect the rim. The Thunder allowed opponents to shoot nearly 61% at the rim this season, which came to allowing 1.22 points per possession, per Synergy. That’s obviously not great. In addition to needing weak side help and size, another potential floor spacer in their frontcourt would do wonders. The Thunder’s “MO” is drafting long, lanky, versatile, and raw-potential guys. So, I think if the Thunder are able to add a springy, athletic, versatile, rim-protecting big that can guard multiple positions, they should jump on that opportunity in the lottery.
Yes, they have about a “zillion” future picks (33 picks over the next eight drafts, to be exact), but being able to capitalize on specific team needs now will only help develop their young core into a force in the league for years to come—and the best part is the Thunder are in a great position to do so.
With all that being said - Nick, which specific players are you eyeing for the Thunder to address these needs?
Nick: So you and I actually recently talked about this together on the Topic: Thunder podcast (check them out if you haven’t yet, Thunder fans!) with the great ThunderChats, and a few of the players I mentioned in that episode would be players who I think are possible fits for Sam Presti and company.
The easiest fit for them, in my mind, is Taylor Hendricks. While it seems more and more likely that Hendricks will not be on the board at #12, he would be an absolute dream fit for the Thunder if he ends up there—and might even be a trade target for OKC to move up and get somewhere in the Top 10. Hendricks checks all of the boxes we’ve mentioned above—he shot just a hair under 40% from deep this season on a healthy volume of attempts (39.4% on 4.6 3PA per game), and he’s also an exceptional weak side shot blocker at 6’9” who, while he still has room to add muscle to his frame, should be able to fit seamlessly defensively with this roster as a help-defending forward and potential small-ball 5 in the right lineups.
While Hendricks would be ideal for them, his skill set is also ideal for a number of NBA teams who will be picking ahead of them; if Dallas holds onto the #10 pick and Hendricks is on the board, for instance, I would be stunned if they opt for someone else. With that in mind, I figured I’d throw a few more names out there—including the name that I highlighted first on the Topic: Thunder podcast.
I think that Jett Howard would also be an incredibly intriguing fit for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Howard is an elite shooter who works well off movement, and he offers both positional size and playmaking as a 6’7” forward. Howard did struggle defensively and on the glass at Michigan—especially after his two ankle injuries that derailed the latter half of his season—but he provides size for a Thunder rotation that ran small last season. He’s someone who the Thunder can trust to make great decisions with the ball in their hands, and his ability to be a floor spacer off the ball will help to open up driving lanes and kick out options for Gilgeous-Alexander, JDub, and Giddey.
In a similar vein to Howard, Gradey Dick might also be a prime target for the Thunder. He doesn’t quite offer the same degree of movement shooting or playmaking as Howard, but he’s much more ready to contribute defensively and on the glass while also being a top-tier catch-and-shoot threat who knocked down 40.3% of his 5.7 3PA per game for Kansas last season. He could fill a similar role to Howard as a forward with size who can help space the floor for OKC’s rim-pressure threats.
Those are the three primary targets in my mind, but I could also see them opting for the upside of Bilal Coulibaly or the interior presence of Dereck Lively II. How about you, Paige? Who might you be considering from that list, and which other players do you think the Thunder might be targeting with the 12th overall pick?
Paige: I’ll start by highlighting the three prospects you mentioned above.
I absolutely LOVE Taylor Hendricks, both as a prospect in general and as a fit for OKC. Hendricks brings plus positional size, shooting, versatility, and rim protection. The Thunder might as well have won the lottery if they do land Hendricks with the 12th overall pick. However, I do think he’ll be off the board by the Thunder’s pick, and I could see him going as high as #5 to the Detroit Pistons if the cards fall right. I personally have him seventh on my board, but who knows—a trade could happen, causing the talented 6’9” 3-and-D forward to fall into the laps of the Thunder.
I think the versatility with Hendricks is one of the things I love most about his game, aside from his shooting ability. A fun little knick-knack about Hendricks is that he was the only player in the NCAA to hit 60+ 3PT, 55+ blocks, and have 35+ dunks on the year. Hendricks is not afraid of any matchup on the court and is super comfortable guarding on the perimeter and getting switched on smaller or bigger players. The Thunder allowed 10.2 corner three-pointers per game which was mostly due to not having enough defensive-minded, multi-versatile players with length on the squad. Hendricks can help with that, and if he does fall here, I would be extremely excited for Hendricks and SGA pick-and-roll play, as the Thunder finished with the fourth overall worst efficiency as the roll man in PnR situations.
Both Jett Howard and Gradey Dick address their need for more floor spacing and size for the Thunder. Jett brings more offensive juice and “flair” as a ball-handler and shooter, in my opinion, but Gradey has made more strides on the defensive end this season than Jett has made. I could for sure see both of these guys being in play for the Thunder with the 12th overall pick. Of the two, I think I would personally go with Jett due to the fact I really believe in his off-the-dribble creation, his athletic tools, and his diverse scoring arsenal—not to mention he handles the ball like a point guard at 6’7”. I know he slowed down towards the end of the season in terms of production, but he was still able to impact the game in other ways, even with having a banged-up ankle.
You can never have too many players on the roster that are comfortable with the ball in their hands. Having another capable ball-handler next to SGA, Josh Giddey, Chet, and even friend of the program Jalen Williams is more than a plus in my book.
I’m glad you mentioned Bilal Coulibaly and Dereck Lively, as those are two prospects that also fit what the Thunder are looking for to a “T”—just like how I feel about Taylor Hendricks. Coulibaly and Lively have also been MASSIVE risers up draft boards as we get closer to the 2023 NBA Draft, and it’s easy to see why.
Bilal Coulibaly has the size, length, versatility, and raw potential that just screams the mantra of “Thunder Up.” But it is his athleticism and willingness to finish at the rim that feels like the cherry on top of the Thunder Mountain. Coulibaly is shooting an absurd 67.4 FG% at the rim for the Metropolitans 92 this year, which can be credited to his insane motor and drive to attack the glass—especially off second-chance opportunities. The 6’6” wing is coming off an impressive 16-point, four assist, and two steal performance in his last game to help Metropolitans beat three-time defending champion ASVEL and advance to their first-ever Pro-A finals. There’s a lot to like with Coulibaly, and he’s improved—especially as a shooter—as the season has gone on. Coulibaly pops off the film every time you watch him play basketball and offers some next-level tools in terms of becoming a “go-to” two-way player for the Thunder.
Now, I do really like Dereck Lively to the Thunder. He has the height, athleticism, shooting upside, and (more importantly) the rim protection that can immediately help the Thunder.
But, I’m going to throw a bit of a curve-ball here to end our OKC lottery team preview and bring up one of “my guys” for this year’s draft class and a prospect I talked about on the Topic: Thunder Podcast with you, Nick—Jordan Hawkins.
Hawkins is the best movement shooter in the 2023 NBA Draft, in my opinion, and even makes an incredibly strong case for the overall best shooter. Hawkins is a madman coming off screens and is constantly leaving defenses in the dust by making them guess which of his spots he’s going to shoot at. Hawkins was crucial in UConn’s National Championship run—leading them at the free-throw line by shooting an absurd 88.7 FT% and shooting 38.8% from beyond the arc on 7.6 3PA per game. He was the second-leading scorer for the Huskies behind Adama Sanogo with 16.2 points per game.
Hawkins also made an incredible jump as a shooter from his freshman season to his sophomore season with the Huskies. He doubled his three-point volume to nearly eight attempts per game compared to shooting just three attempts per game as a freshman—all while increasing his 3PT% (from 33.3% to 38.8%). That’s not an easy jump to make by any means, and that just makes me believe more in Hawkins’s work ethic and game even more. In addition to his lethal shooting ability on the move, he is also an extremely gifted shooter off the catch, shooting 41.3% on catch-and-shoot threes overall; he is even more effective with a hand in his face (44.4%). He can create off the dribble and throughout the season, he becaume more assertive finishing at the rim, which is promising.
I know there are concerns with his defense, and I get it. But what Hawkins offers on the offensive end would be incredibly difficult for the Thunder to pass up on if he’s available with the #12 pick. I do think Hawkins can get to being a league-average defender one day based on his instincts, athleticism, and intangibles alone. On all field goal attempts this season, opponents only shot 37.2 FG% when guarded by Hawkins. On average, no rookie is an awesome defender in the NBA right away (I’m sure there are outliers, but still), and these things take time to develop.
If there’s a team that can install that tough, gritty defensive mindset to pair with Jordan Hawkins’s flamethrower shooting ability, I bet on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s developmental staff and front office.
I mean a young core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jaylen Williams, Chet Holmgren, Isaiah Joe, Lu Dort, Ousmane Dieng, and Jordan Hawkins alone is a defensive nightmare for opponents.
Nick: I am a huge fan of Jordan Hawkins, and I totally get why he’s one of “your guys” in the 2023 NBA Draft class, since he’s one of “my guys” as well. He will instantly upgrade the shooting and floor spacing of any team he joins—especially if they devote a few plays in their playbook to setting off-ball screens for him to sprint around and lose defenders before firing away from deep.
I also buy into his defense a little bit more than some do, especially off the ball. He impressed me quite a few times this season with his awareness as a help defender and his willingness to battle in the paint against much bigger defenders. I totally agree with you that he can get past the rookie defensive struggles that nearly every first-year NBA player endures and reach the point of being an average defender; in fact, I think there’s a more than decent chance that he ends up being a positive contributor to an NBA defense at some point in his career.
Of course, there’s the distinct possibility that Oklahoma City ends up targeting someone who is much further down most draft boards. Sam Presti has never been afraid to go against consensus and take someone who most people project to go later in the draft, just like friend of the program Jalen Williams last year. Also, just like with Jalen Williams last year, that tends to work out pretty well for the Thunder.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been building through the draft for years, and they’ve been exceptionally successful at it. There is a reason that Sam Presti has the reputation that he does, after all. This team is positioned to take another step forward next season after the pleasant surprise of the 2022-23 campaign. Whether they end up taking one of the prospects we discussed above or if they do something unexpected, picking up the right piece of the puzzle with the 12th overall pick could seriously alter the trajectory of a team that is already on the rise.