Jalen Williams, Ousmane Dieng and the Oklahoma City Fun-der

Through three years of meticulously acquiring draft picks like it’s the newest fad cryptocurrency, the Oklahoma City Thunder rebuild looked like it was finally coming to fruition.

Chet Holmgren, the talented star prospect of the 2022 NBA Draft, was taken second overall by the Thunder in what felt like the biggest move yet. The team had already acquired Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the blockbuster Paul George trade, but in the last two seasons since their last postseason appearance, it felt like the Thunder had been dormant, waiting to move their chips in the middle on one prospect. Then, it finally happened. 

The lottery gods played in the Thunder’s favor last spring, netting the second pick. Holmgren, one of the best players in college basketball the season before, had his own question marks. The thought was he was too skinny to last in the league, he wouldn’t translate, etc. The Thunder, never afraid to take a chance on a unique body type, happily took the Gonzaga product. In a few Summer League stints, Holmgren looked the part of a top prospect. 

The defense and elite shot blocking he showed in college also continued to hold up.

In just five games, Holmgren filled the stat sheet, averaging 14 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.8 blocks per game. Suddenly, people were beginning to notice the Thunder again, and a core of Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and more turned into maybe the most promising young core in the league.

Until it wasn’t. Holmgren was injured during an offseason Pro-Am game with poor court conditions and was later ruled out for the season. Gilgeous-Alexander, with his fair share of injury issues, suffered an MCL sprain before training camp and is questionable to start the regular season. The injuries, coupled with the allure of tanking top overall prospect Victor Wembanyama, suddenly have the world uninterested in Oklahoma City again. Maybe people will check back in next season.

As we prepare for the regular season, we’re seeing the other young prospects on the team flourish with their new opportunities. The Thunder are 5-1 in the preseason at the time of this writing, which is about as useful as bringing a toothbrush to duel Darth Vader, but the fun part for OKC is just how good the young guns have looked. They’re scoring at will, defending with energy and seem to be discovering a unique identity with talented, but raw athletes. 

The Thunder are still likely at least a year or two away from being in any playoff conversation, but this is a team that should still be on league pass radar this season. They’re not just a bad team anymore, they’re fun. Giddey has continued to improve and looks the part of one of the league’s future premier point guards, while younger rotational pieces like Darius Bazley and Tre Mann show flashes of great play as well. The most exciting part for the Thunder this season, however, is the other guys. 

Oklahoma City has never been afraid of getting weird, and right now weird seems to be working. They first took the gamble on Aleksej Pokusevski and we’re still unsure how he will factor into an NBA franchise’s future. 

Last season, the Thunder took Giddey, who can’t shoot and looks more like a Timothée Chalamet body double than an NBA player. Heading into year two, that pick looks to have struck gold in the middle of the lottery. Giddey looks the part of a potentially very good point guard in the league, if not great if he can improve his outside shot.

This season now, it’s the other guys. Holmgren was viewed as unorthodox, and the Thunder weren’t afraid to take a chance on him, but they also took two more lottery picks in the draft. Despite losing Holmgren for the season, it could be the work of a 6-foot-10 Frenchman by way of New Zealand and a three-year college player at Santa Clara that could make this a grand slam draft for the NBA’s most patient franchise.

Ousmane Dieng

Dieng has quickly become one of my favorite prospects from last season’s draft and has all the tools to become one of the best players from the 2022 class. He’s fluid with the ball, can shoot from deep and has the potential to be elite on both ends of the court.

In 23 minutes per game, Dieng is shooting 56 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three on 3.5 attempts per game. He’s already shown improvement from his predraft tape as a ball handler, showing an ability to get to the rack against smaller defenders.

His outside shot is also pure. The mechanics on it look great and if all goes well, could make him one of the best pure scorers in the league.

What makes Dieng most unique is his size. He’s listed at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan, but plays on the wing and thrives with the ball in his hands. The list of players with that skill set and that size is very small (it might just be Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Michael Porter Jr.), and it’s very valuable. Dieng still has things he needs to improve upon, including just getting more reps with the ball in his hands. He should have plenty of chances to do that on this season’s Thunder team.

The play above highlights his talent and room to improve upon for Dieng. He rectifies the situation by respotting for an open 3-pointer, but before that, he shows a fantastic array of dribble moves without really a plan of action. He gets stuck at the elbow and is forced to kick the ball out. When Dieng isn’t playing, he should be watching every piece of tape from Tatum’s game to see how he can improve in these situations and learn to get to his spots better.

Jalen Williams

One of the darlings of the NBA Draft combine, Williams flew up draft boards and was taken one pick after Dieng, with the Thunder trading up for the 11th pick and taking both players back to back. So far, both selections look like potential home runs. 

Williams is one of the most interesting talents on the Thunder roster. The 6-foot-6 guard is a terrific athlete and a terrific passer. He’s currently at six assists per game in five preseason games, second behind Giddey, the team’s de facto starting point guard. He’s also been an advanced stats darling during that span, with a 61.7 TS percentage, a 37.8 net rating and a 15.4 on NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate. His 15.4 PIE would’ve ranked 26th in the league last season, wedged between Stephen Curry and James Harden. Super small sample size, but the results so far have been promising. 

Along with the vision and 99th-percentile athlete, Williams is one of the few guys that looks like he benefitted from multiple collegiate seasons. He rarely makes mistakes for a prospect and is creative in finding ways to get to the basket. Once he gets there, his 7-foot-2 wing span takes over and makes his shot nearly unblockable.

Williams is also averaging 4.8 free throw attempts per game, which is almost one free throw every five minutes. The only current knock on Williams is his shooting. He’s currently at 12.5 percent from deep in the preseason. While his numbers should get better, playing him and Giddey together despite elite passing could be tough without either having a reliable jump shot. Hiring Chip Engelland, the premier shot doctor known for his work with Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray, might end up being one of the best things for Williams’ promising career. 

Losing Holmgren is a bummer. He looked the part of a dynamic, potentially franchise-altering prospect in the NBA. Despite the loss, don’t forget about OKC and what they still bring to the table. 

That treasure trove of unique and unorthodox prospects has the “Fun-der” among one of the most interesting teams to watch for the 2022-23 season.

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