The Oklahoma City Thunder are becoming the new standard of player development in the NBA.
One of the youngest teams in the NBA, OKC's roster features 11 players under the age of 24 and four born after the year 2000. Of course, this youth movement is led by 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who despite being a former lottery pick that has been known in basketball spheres for years, has grown into a player that not everyone saw him becoming.
After Gilgeous-Alexander, there's Luguentz Dort, a 21-year-old, who after going undrafted in 2019, got his first NBA opportunity on a two-way contract before solidifying himself as one of the league's best defenders in just two short years.
Now, history is on the verge of repeating itself.
While not the first, Dort is certainly one of the more recent testaments of the Thunder's development system, bringing him from relatively unknown to a near-household name. How do they do it? By providing opportunities to their young players in the form of meaningful playing time.
On top of a plethora of draft picks in the coming years, standing at the forefront of one of the league's most intriguing rebuilds is a group of young, relatively unknown players that you should probably get to know.
Here's why Aleksej Pokusevski, Théo Maledon and Moses Brown are three key members of OKC's future.
He's been ruled out for Wednesday's meeting due to the league's health and safety protocols, but Pokusevski is very much worth learning about for the future.
When you see him, the first thing you'll probably notice is his rail-thin frame. Listed at 7-foot and 190 pounds, Pokusevski is the youngest player in the NBA this season - he celebrated his 19th birthday on the same day he made his NBA debut.
Affectionately known as "Poku," the teenager is far from your typical seven-footer - he was selected 17th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft largely because of his fluidity and legitimate guard skills on the offensive end of the floor.
And while it's become trendy to falsely suggest that slender 7-footers can play like a guard, Pokusevski really has a few things in his bag.
Poku put 'em on skates ⛸ @aleksejpokusevs | #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/q6eTuk73Yu- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 30, 2021
From the elbow. @aleksejpokusevs | #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/MUavci63dx- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 28, 2021
It's not often that you see a 7-footer come off of a ball screen from another 7-footer to stick a mid-range jumper almost effortlessly, but it's a part of the Poku experience.
Since returning from a stint in the G League Bubble, Pokusevski has put forth a few impressive performances, including a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double against the Memphis Grizzlies in which he shot 5-for-8 from deep and a 21-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks.
There has been some inconsistency - which is to be expected of a 19-year-old - but the rookie isn't lacking for confidence, which will take him a long way in the coming years.
A number of draft-day moves led the Thunder to acquire the No. 34 overall pick, which was then used to draft the 19-year-old Maledon out of France.
A 6-foot-4 point guard, Maledon is the protege of former NBA Finals MVP and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker , with whom he has had a familial relationship for the majority of his life. Maledon, who played for Parker's club ASVEL prior to joining the NBA, has quickly made his presence felt in OKC, earning his first career start just 16 games into his rookie year.
When I watch him play, the one word that comes to mind is smooth.
Starting in 24 of 25 games since, Maledon has posted averages of 10.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists while hitting 2.0 triples per game at a 40.5 percent clip. In a Feb. 26 win over the Atlanta Hawks, Maledon finished with 13 points and 12 assists, a single-game mark that is the highest among all rookies this season and ties a franchise rookie record first set by Russell Westbrook.
THEO ⚪️🔶- NBA France (@NBAFRANCE) February 27, 2021
13 Points / 12 Assists (career high)
🌩 Théo Maledon & le @okcthunder l'emportent face à Atlanta: 118-109
Ses 12 passes sont le plus haut total réalisé par un rookie cette saison. #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/FEL8tBrsEZ
And on March 3, Maledon was honoured as one of 10 players selected as members of Team World for the 2021 Rising Stars Challenge that was not held at NBA All-Star due to time constraints.
RISE UP.- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 3, 2021
Congratulations, Théo on being selected as an @NBAAllStar Rising Star! ⭐ pic.twitter.com/cOymyNXXKJ
As with Pokusevski, there have been expected ups and downs given the fact that Maledon is a teenager learning to play the game's most important position on the fly but with time, it looks like he can be the primary ballhandler in the Thunder's three-guard backcourt of the future alongside Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort.
After going undrafted in 2019, Brown spent his rookie year on a two-way contract with Portland Trail Blazers before landing on a two-way contract with the Thunder ahead of the 2020-21 season.
The change of scenery - and the opportunity that has come with it - has done wonders for his game.
Listed at 7-foot-2 and 245 pounds, the 21-year-old Brown possesses a stature that is undeniably imposing. It's hard to encapsulate in words but his physical presence just feels more dominant than that of most 7-footers in the league. It's partly illustrated in this photo of him next to another famous UCLA big man in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
@UCLA welcoming freshman Moses Brown to my Alma Mater pic.twitter.com/p7J60htyhs- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (@kaj33) January 27, 2019
In his second NBA season, Brown is clearly starting to put it all together. Since the conclusion of the G League Bubble, where he averaged 18.5 points and 13.9 rebounds over 14 games, Brown has returned to make his mark with the Thunder, starting in six of the team's last eight games.
Brown's breakout performance came on March 16 in a loss to the Chicago Bulls where he finished with 20 points, 16 rebounds (eight offensive) and five blocks before fouling out in just under 30 minutes of action.
🚫 👀- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 17, 2021
Roby ➡️ Brown
Moses becomes 2nd player in OKC history with 20+ points, 15+ rebounds and 5+ blocks. #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/4tyQtMcWP4
Given his play against Chicago, ensuing double-doubles against the Houston Rockets on March 21 and the Memphis Grizzlies on March 24 weren't as much as a surprise. However, his performance against the Boston Celtics on March 27 was one for the record books.
Feeling no resistance on the interior, Brown registered 17 points and 19 rebounds (five offensive) against the Celtics.
In the first half.
The most rebounds in a half in OKC history, and the most in a half for any @NBA player this season 📊 #MosesBrown | 17 PTS, 19 REB pic.twitter.com/dwOMquqZlw- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 28, 2021
After becoming the first player since Shaquille O'Neal to record such a stat line in one half , Brown finished the night with 21 points and 23 boards, making him just the ninth player in the NBA this season to record a stat line of 20-plus points and 20-plus boards.
Brown has since signed a four-year deal with the Thunder similar to a contract signed by Dort last season, meaning he can now establish himself as one of the league's best rebounding bigs with contract security for years to come.
As he solidifies himself as the latest developmental success, the question will now be: Who's next?
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