Rebuilding Thunder have solid anchor in Gilgeous-Alexander

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder general manager Sam Presti said this season will be about examining young talent to see where they fit into future plans.

It was a different approach for a franchise that was among the best in the league the previous decade. But with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Chris Paul long gone, the Thunder have acknowledged that they are in the midst of rebuilding.

There were tough times this season, including a 152-79 loss to Memphis that set the NBA record for scoring margin. Injuries decimated the best players in the squad. The Thunder finished with a 24-58 record, fourth-worst in the league.

The woeful record gives the Thunder a chance at a top draft pick this year, a refrain familiar to the franchise. Oklahoma City has a staggering pool of 19 potential first-round picks and 17 potential second-round picks through the 2028 draft.

At least the players they already have are resilient. Eight times this season, the Thunder have rallied from deficits of at least 15 points to win. They overcame a 26-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers on October 27, tied for the longest comeback by a Thunder team.

“I think it’s a group that has been very upbeat,” coach Mark Daigneault said. “Obviously we’re not finishing top of the standings, but I’ve never really felt this team dampen our optimism or our commitment, and that’s a credit to the people we have on the team. They are guys who endure there.”

Through the challenges, the Thunder seem to have found some answers.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped up in his fourth year and had the look of a franchise player. For the season, the shooting guard averaged 24.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.9 assists. He averaged 30.4 points on 54% shooting in 13 games after the All-Star break before sitting out the season with a sore right ankle. He has scored at least 30 points in 10 of his last 13 games.

Rookie Josh Giddey lived up to the hype and then some. The 19-year-old Australian averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game and was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month four times this season. He became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double when he had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists against the Dallas Mavericks on January 2. At one point, he recorded three triple-doubles in a row just before going down for the season with sore right hip.

Another rookie, Tre Mann, averaged 10.4 points per game and had a season-high 30 in a win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Guard Lu Dort saw a significant jump in offensive production before missing the season with a shoulder injury. His scoring average jumped from 14.0 points per game to 17.2.

With all the injuries, the Thunder limped to the finish line. Oklahoma City had only six players see action in the finals.

“I gained a lot of respect for all those guys and I hope they enjoyed the opportunity to play in the NBA,” Daigneault said.

DARIO BAZLEY

The ultra-athletic striker fell out of the starting lineup at one point, but eventually regained his spot and had a solid season. He averaged 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game before breaking a bone in his right knee.

THE SECOND HALF OF POKU

Second-year forward Aleksej Pokusevski got off to a slow start before coming back strong late in the season. The 7-foot Serb averaged 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in March. He posted his first career triple-double on April 3, when he had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists against the Phoenix Suns.

FINISHING NUMBERS

Jaylen Hoard, who played for the Thunder’s G-League affiliate this season, stood out during a 10-day contract at the end of the season. The 6-8 forward from France averaged 17.2 points and 13.7 rebounds in six games after signing. He had 24 points and 21 rebounds on April 1 and 27 points and 17 rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 8.

LOCAL FIRST SHOOTER

Former Oklahoma State guard Lindy Waters entered the rotation after a series of injuries and performed admirably. She played 25 games, mostly as a reserve, and shot 36% on nearly six 3-point attempts per game. In his best outing, she scored 25 points in a home loss to the Atlanta Hawks and Norman North High teammate Trae Young on March 30.

ROBINSON-EARL

Second-round pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl also had his moments. The Villanova center-back started in 36 of his 49 games. He averaged 7.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. He missed 24 games with a broken foot.

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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