Unsung Heroes Keeping OKC Relevant


Embrace the tank they said. Fade for Cade they said.

A vast majority of NBA fans and a large contingent of OKC fans expected the Thunder to be one of the league’s worst teams this season.

Yet, at the All-Star break, the Thunder were 15-21, only three spots out of the Western Conference playoffs.

There’s one big reason why the Thunder have out-performed expectations.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

SGA’s emergence as a bonafide star — and should be All-Star — has elevated Oklahoma City’s production all season long. The Thunder’s offensive rating surges by +9.6 points per 100 possessions when SGA is on court.

He’s averaging .172 win shares per 48 minutes. The next highest on the team is George Hill at .143 per 48 minutes.

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Hill hasn’t played a game in nearly two months.

Much can be made of SGA’s widely impressive season.

The Thunder have only won two out of the seven games without Gilgeous-Alexander on the court.

But here’s where things get interesting.

Out of the five losses, three of them were lost by a margin of three points or less, pointing to a larger trend on the season.

The Thunder are overperforming expectations with or without SGA on the court.

There isn’t one individual or reason you can point to. It’s a collective group effort every night when the Thunder take the court. That’s in large part due to one of OKC’s several unsung heroes.

Mark Daigneault

Flying under the radar for Coach of the Year, Mark Daigneault’s first season as a head coach in the NBA has shown nearly as much promise as Oklahoma City’s young core.

Little mention has been made of Daigneault’s success thus far– and that’s surprising. Sure, the Utah Jazz have exceeded expectations and Quin Snyder is a great coach. Nothing should be taken away from Snyder’s COTY bid.

But the Jazz have been successful for many other reasons. Rudy Gobert is playing at his peak and Donovan Mitchell has taken another stride forward. Tack on a veteran point guard in Mike Conley, a 6th Man of the Year candidate in Jordan Clarkson and a roster that has been able to avoid injuries for the whole season and you get win-column Bingo!

In comparison, Daigneault has coached his team to a 17-22 record with Hill missing half the season, Al Horford missing nearly a third of OKC’s games up to this point, and SGA missing seven games so far.

In fact, the only two players on OKC’s roster who have logged minutes in every game this season are Luguentz Dort and Kenrich Williams.

Much has been made of how competitive the Western Conference is yet again this season.

Oklahoma City sitting tied for 11th in the Conference isn’t by accident. Coach Daigneault is a really good leader.

But no matter how good a coach is, if his players don’t produce, the results won’t come.

Kenrich Williams

Even educated NBA heads may not know who Kenrich Williams is. And educated NBA heads certainly don’t sport the majestic shag worn by Williams.

As is the case with multiple players on the team, Williams went undrafted. He signed with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018 and was a solid role player for the squad. A player involved in one of several Oklahoma City trades in 2020, Williams, as mentioned prior, is one of two players to have logged a minute in every game this season.

What’s more impressive is the leap he has taken in his third year in the league.

Prior to this year, Williams’ best shooting splits were 38.4% from the field and 33.3% from three. This season, those numbers have ballooned to 57.3% from the field and 42.9% from three. He is still a poor free-throw shooter, but becoming a reliable offensive threat for SGA or Theo Maledon to target on the perimeter has proven highly useful in key moments.

Theo Maledon

Maledon’s another little-known name around the league. But given time, he could hold the same sort of respect as someone like Patty Mills does.

A second-round pick in the 2020 draft, Maledon already looks like a steal in his rookie season, as he’s averaging 7.9 points (40% FG, 37% 3PT, 71% FT), 3.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game.

When Shai has been hurt, Maledon has stepped into a starting role and held his own. When SGA is healthy, Maledon keeps the Oklahoma City offense stable. His game is very polished for a 19-year-old second-round pick, and he plays with a maturity that is rarely seen in rookies.

Isaiah Roby

Another second-round pick, steal and player that far outperforms his expectations is Isaiah Roby.

Roby has been excellent this season. He struggled to find floor time early on, but has blossomed since into a strong role player. Per 36 minutes, Roby is averaging 14+ points, nearly nine boards, and three assists per contest. He’s shooting the ball efficiently and he’s been aggressive all season.

Roby is a bit undersized for his position, but he has that “dog” inside of him. He’s been willing to muck it up in the paint all season and is even shooting the three at a 35% clip.

He is still a bit raw in places, but has flashes of brilliance.

Looking Forward

Roby’s development is far from over. Same with Maledon. Same with Williams. Mark Daigneault still has a lot to learn to be a highly successful coach in this league.

But if the first half of the 2020-21 season was any indication, the NBA should be scared.

Sam Presti is sitting on a Mount Everest of draft picks– yet another was acquired today in the Trevor ArizaMeyers Leonard swap. The talent that he’s been able to find is exceptional.

The only problem is if his current roster continues to outperform expectations, those picks might become a little less valuable.

17-23 isn’t just a product of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s testimony to a team of unheralded gift.

Follow us on Twitter @ThunderLead for the latest Thunder news and insight. 

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About Adrian Walker

Graduate from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Been covering sports since I was 14 years old. I have an Emmy nomination to my name and have helped produce two documentaries. I Co-Host a podcast called the Flight School Podcast which can be found on Spotify and iTunes. My mind is basically a storage base for every known fact about Russell Westbrook.

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