LAS VEGAS — The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the Las Vegas Summer League showcase with two wins under their belt, after going 2-1 in Salt Lake City earlier in the week. The No. 2 pick in the draft, Chet Holmgren, put on a show in his NBA debut, posting 23 points, seven rebounds, six blocks and four assists in a win over the Utah Jazz.
The following game, it was rookie (and No. 12 overall pick) Jalen Williams who shined with 16 points, three rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes. In the final game before heading to Vegas, second-year point guard Josh Giddey had one of the best dunks of the summer thus far when he crossed over his opponent in the pick-and-roll setup and put Malik Ellison on a poster.
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This is all very promising for a young team that won only a combined 46 games in the last two seasons. Holmgren was the prized pick in the 2022 NBA draft, but don't overlook the other players they picked up — No. 11 pick Ousmane Dieng (6-foot-10, 7-foot wingspan), No. 12 pick Williams (6-6, 7-2 wingspan), and No. 34 pick Jaylin Williams (6-10, 7-1 wingspan). All four are long, athletic playmakers who can slide between multiple positions.
"It might not be this year, because this group has to figure out how to play together, but the Thunder are going to be one of the best defensive teams in the league," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "While everyone was distracted with where other guys fell, Sam Presti drafted a group of players who are 6-foot-6-plus, can pass and have a ton of athleticism. Every single one of them. And you're going to put them alongside Giddey, [Shai] Gilgeous-Alexander and [Lu] Dort? Ridiculous."
Giddey, a 6-8 point guard out of Australia, was the first piece of the puzzle in the 2021 draft when the Thunder took him with the sixth overall pick (they also added guards Tre Mann, Aaron Wiggins and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl). This past season, Giddey was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for three straight months before being sidelined in February with a hip injury.
Giddey returned to the court for Summer League in Utah for the first time in four months and looked comfortable alongside his new teammates. Holmgren consistently found the right spot out of the pick-and-pop, and Giddey found his rhythm creating for others when he got in the lane or advancing the ball in transition. Last season, Giddey averaged 6.4 assists per game in just over 50 games. During the three games in Utah, Giddey dished out 28 dimes that left fans impressed by his crafty work in the lane.
"It felt good to get back on the court and play with these new guys on the team," Giddey said after his first game. "This is our first game together and we found little things and the more we play, it's going to grow and grow and anything we're figuring out now in this short time is just a bonus."
NBA personnel tuned into the first few games were more than impressed with the way Giddey, still just 19 years old, took command of this young team as the floor general for the Thunder.
"The way Giddey commands so much space with the ball in his hands, frees up everyone else on the court," another NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "It's going to be hard for these Summer League teams to stop the ball movement with these guys that can see over the defense and the way Giddey gets into the paint."
In the first three games in Salt Lake City, it wasn't the incredible passes or flashy finishes at the rim that were most impressive, it was the impact on defense. The Thunder wreaked havoc while shooting the gaps, switching on everything and blocking shots all over the place with Holmgren and 7-foot-1 Aleksej Pokusevski in the paint.
"I'm very excited and this is a special group of guys and I'm looking forward to what we can build," Giddey said. "I can't wait for training camp when we're ramping up things to get started for the season."
Adding the veteran players to this group during training camp will only strengthen the early glimpses of defensive versatility with Dort as one of the best young defenders in the league and a healthy Gilgeous-Alexander in the backcourt with Giddey.
The Thunder still have a remarkable 38 draft picks (19 in the first round and 19 second) in the next seven years, something never done by another team. There is a lot of freedom and options as general manager Sam Presti continues to build something special from the ground up.
With so many future draft picks, many wonder if Oklahoma City will attempt to tank again next season with French phenom Victor Wembanyama and G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson waiting in the wings of the 2023 NBA draft.
"We just want to be better than last year," Giddey said. "As long as we keep improving and get better and better, I think, whether it's the playoffs or not, we're going to be good. We have a really hard-working group of guys and I can't wait to see where everyone's at and get the season started."
Many teams are already making moves a year out to put the franchise in a favorable position for next year's draft.
The Jazz traded Rudy Gobert and Royce O'Neale and picked up five first-round picks and a pick swap in the process. The San Antonio Spurs had three first-round picks and drafted young, skilled players to potentially stash in the G League and develop. When talking to scouts around the league in Las Vegas, many believe the Spurs are positioning themselves to tank next season for a top-five pick. The Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets are two other teams still in the rebuild phase.
That leaves the Thunder. With all the draft picks they have (including one first-round pick and two second-round picks next year), the Thunder don't necessarily need to tank for another key player to add to this young, talented team. Only one team is going to land Wembanyama, the touted prospect who could be a generational-type talent. Just one. It might not be worth the effort to sit players and disrupt the growth and chemistry this current group could be building.
The day after Holmgren was drafted, he called Giddey right away and wanted to get in the gym as soon as he landed in Oklahoma City. The two had a workout and finished with a game of one-on-one.
"He hit me up right away and wanted to get in the gym when he got into town, and from that point on, I knew we were going to have a special talent," Giddey told Yahoo Sports. "We started playing one-on-one, and I knew he was going to be a handful for guys to guard him. He might appear skinny, but he's strong, and strong with the ball in his hands. You think in any mismatch with a guard and big, the guard has the advantage, but he can sit down and defend, and yeah, he won that first one-on-one game.
"I can't wait to continue to play with him, and we're both team-first players and want to win. What we're building here is going to be special."
With Giddey already opening the spacing on the floor at Summer League and finding Holmgren, Pokusevski, Williams or anyone in the pick-and-pop, it's hard to imagine the front office shutting things down to disrupt the development of this dangerous, young team. The Thunder quietly drafted the future of the franchise right under everyone's noses and it's only a matter of time before everything starts to come together on the court.