Individual Skill Development Helps Entire Thunder Team

The mastery of the specifics can make all the difference for an NBA player, and then for the team as a whole.

For the Thunder, the details have been what define its work habits and daily improvement efforts ever since the team arrived in Oklahoma City. Led by Head Coach Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others, the Thunder has held every man who walks through the doors of the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center to the same standards of work. In addition, the coaches also make sure to devote the same levels of individual attention to each player.

Skill development is an integral part of the Thunder’s program, and it encompasses everything from shooting to passing, rebounding to ball-handling and footwork to communication. In one-on-one work with the Thunder coaching staff, each of those areas could be viewed purely as individual improvement, but because of the consistency and cohesiveness of the approach team-wide, those habits are becoming uniform amongst players.

Perhaps the best example of individual development being a part of the Thunder’s overall team improvement is its communication on the defensive end. That facet of the game has improved by leaps and bounds for the Thunder over the past few seasons because every player’s own ability to talk through defensive possessions has gotten better.

“We put an emphasis on going back to the basis of talking the defense out,” Brooks explained. “It’s so important. If you talk your defense, you’re able to defend much better.”

“Our team has had major growth the last couple of years of just understanding what it takes to win the possession defensively,” Brooks continued. “All of the guys have done a better job the last couple of years of communicating and locking in on that side of the ball.”

That communication, be it verbal or non-verbal is an essential tool for putting players in the right spot to be disruptive on the defensive end. For each player, however, there are aspects of defense that require the development more physical tools to be effective.

One player who has demonstrated their ability to improve with footwork, timing and positioning on the defensive end is Durant. In the past two weeks, he has guarded the likes of starkly different players, including Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol and Miami Heat forward LeBron James.

“Kevin can guard one through five on certain possessions,” Brooks said. “That’s where he’s really taken his game to another level. He impacts the game defensively. He has the understanding of what we do defensively. He knows the personnel, who he is guarding and he has the ability. He has the skill set to be a good defender and he’s done it all season long. We’re a good defensive team because he participates in our defense.”

While Durant’s skill development on the defensive end to be able to defend players who attack, spot up on the perimeter, come off pin downs or who post up may be more subtle, there are certain areas where Thunder players have improved where it’s obvious to the naked eye.

The ball-handling and passing of Russell Westbrook was in full display on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, when the Thunder’s point guard put the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy with the way he carved up the defense. One-handed, left-handed bounce passes in transition, laser sharp one-handed chest passes in the half-court and delicate lobs while weaving through traffic are now all a part of Westbrook’s arsenal, putting the Thunder in even better situations offensively.

A beneficiary of Westbrook’s passing has been forward Perry Jones, whose growth on both ends has been staggering in its own right. The 6-foot-11 Jones has seen time defending point guards and shooting guards, combining his quickness with a better understanding of angles and how to navigate around screens.

On the offensive end, Jones’ relentless work on his perimeter shooting has expanded his game and given the Thunder another reliable option along the wing. After shooting just 39.4 percent from the floor and going 0-for-2 from the three-point line all of last season, Jones has already shot 16-for-42 (38.1 percent) from behind the three-point line this season, well above league average and the third best mark on the Thunder’s roster.

“(Jones) is a big body who can shoot the ball and he’s athletic,” Westbrook said. “He’s a threat. He practices that shot every morning.”

“I’m getting them up before and after practice, before the game and after shootaround, just all the time,” Jones explained. “I’m just being prepared to get ready for the corner shot, especially after Russ and Kevin drive into the lane.”

Jones’ ability to knock down the open three-point shot has also gotten him easier looks in the flow of the offense, leading to an efficient 50 percent shooting mark so far this season. Defenders now have to honor Jones’ outside shot, meaning his backdoor cuts, pump fakes and drives to the rim are that much more effective. In essence, his individual development has given him the chance to not just impact the game personally, but also to make everyone else’s jobs easier as well.

“If I attack and somebody helps, somebody is open,” Jones said. “It gets guys open shots and not just sitting in the corner.”

“With Russell’s speed, you have to be able to stay up with him,” Brooks said. “You have to stay ahead of the basketball and you have to sprint. Russell isn’t going to wait up for you. We want our wing players to get out in the open court and be ready to catch-and-shoot to the corner three or if you catch it earlier, catch-and-attack.”