30 Teams in 30 Days | 2022

30 Teams in 30 Days: Thunder pick up pieces in wake of Chet Holmgren's injury

Player development and patience will once again be key for Oklahoma City after its top rookie was lost for 2022-23 even before it began.

Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are two of the few proven players on a rebuilding Thunder squad.

Oklahoma City Thunder

2021-22 record: 24-58

Key additions: Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng & Jalen Williams (2022 draft)

Key subtractions: None

Last season: It was hard to keep track of the Thunder with a roster that constantly changed and evolved, as the franchise spent the entire season sifting through bodies to determine who was an asset and who wasn’t. Outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Josh Giddey, the others on OKC’s roster seemed rather anonymous. Such was life for a team in the early stages of redevelopment, as the Thunder’s search for an identity continues after losing franchise stalwarts Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in recent seasons.

Summer summary: In a cruel twist of fate, the franchise that relocated from Seattle essentially suffered a setback, years later, in Seattle. That’s where Holmgren, while playing in an August pro-am game, landed on his right foot and suffered a Lisfranc injury that ended his 2022-23 season before it began. These injuries typically take a year to heal, but as with all foot injuries to big men, it’s complicated.

For Holmgren, this can go one of two ways. He can resume a normal NBA life and even prosper despite the temporary delay, much like Joel Embiid (navicular bone). Or this could be problematic and linger following rehab. Other highly-drafted players suffered knee injuries (Blake Griffin, Greg Oden) and sat for a year; in the case of Oden, it was chronic.

There’s also the issue of Holmgren and his lack of weight and strength and whether that will impact his ability to stay healthy. Rather than become an armchair sports scientist, it’s best to allow that process to actually develop and see what happens. And that must wait for another year.

Purely from a basketball standpoint, Holmgren’s body was a talking point even before his injury. OKC, choosing second overall in the Draft, had its pick of every eligible player except one (Paolo Banchero, a surprise No. 1 overall pick by the Orlando Magic). Therefore, OKC boss Sam Presti was faced with an interesting decision: take Jabari Smith Jr. or Holmgren? They were the next best prospects according to nearly all scouting reports.

Presti ranks among the NBA’s finest evaluators of young talent, and his Draft history since taking control of the club in 2007 put him there. When Presti said Holmgren was the pick, you simply nodded your head and assumed he did his homework and chose wisely again.

If there is a silver lining to Chet Holmgren's injury, it's how much more prepared he'll be when he does take the floor.

Yet the Draft is an inexact science. There are no guarantees, and the general rule of thumb is when you’re selecting in the top five, don’t take any chances. Does Holmgren support that theory, or defy it?

From a physical standpoint, it was definitely a risk, and questions arose after his foot injury. Holmgren is a pipe cleaner who looks like he can be folded in half — he’s heard all the jokes by now. But that was the extent of his perceived weaknesses. In almost every other way, Holmgren is a freak of nature: a tall man with short man skills who can dribble beyond the paint, cross up defenders, as well as see and stretch the floor. He can disrupt shots while wielding a basketball awareness that is anything but robotic.

Why draft someone who might turn out to be pretty good over someone who might be a unicorn?

OKC snagged the 6-foot-10 Dieng, in a Draft-night trade with the Knicks, and the 19-year-old will need to graduate from development school. Because they’re still reaping the future-pick benefits of trading Paul George to the LA Clippers, the Thunder had a third lottery pick (No. 13 overall), which they used to select Williams, a guard from Santa Clara, bypassing the chance to add more frontcourt help in the form of Mark Williams, Jalen Duren or Tari Eason.

The only other significant summer decision involved Dort. As a very good defensive guard who improved his shooting over the last year, he clearly outplayed his contract, which paid less than $3 million a season. He got his payday in the offseason, a reported five-year contract worth $87.5 million — which goes very far in the Midwest.

Despite that payout, OKC remains safely away from any salary cap danger and could serve as a salary dumping ground (if they so choose) and add more picks to their already years-long surplus.

This offseason was all about adding more rookies, developing them and laying a foundation for the future, all while hoping for a potential star. For a franchise that’s not exactly a destination spot for free agents, this is the best way to improve.

Given their youthful makeup and abundance of players who need minutes and reps, OKC isn’t out of the woods yet. There will very likely be a round trip to the Draft lottery in 2023, especially with Holmgren out of action. That means the search for a star continues.

By then, Holmgren will begin the final phase of a rehab stretch and prepare for … his rookie season.

Up next: Memphis Grizzlies | Previously: New Orleans Pelicans

> 30 teams in 30 days: Complete schedule

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.