2021 End-of-Season Interviews
The Thunder’s 2020-21 campaign finished on a high note on Sunday with a 117-112 victory over the LA Clippers, as rookie Aleksej Pokuševski scored a career-high 29 points on 6-of-9 three-point shooting, rookie wing Josh Hall
With the win the Thunder finished the season with a 22-50 record, but six months’ worth of opportunity, growth and development to look back upon. On Monday during end of season interviews, Head Coach Mark Daigneault and each Thunder player addressed the media and gave their perspective on this unprecedented season and the way they navigated it all.
Head Coach Mark Daigneault
It’s hard to imagine more curveballs being thrown at a first-year NBA head coach, but during the 2020-21 season, Mark Daigneault took each pitch in stride. With an extremely short offseason coming off of the 2020 bubble, no summer league, no build-up in the fall and twice- a-day COVID testing for staff and players, even navigating the schedule each day must have been quite the challenge. Despite that, the Thunder organization rallied together to get the most out of every single day.
“The most special thing is the people I got to work with every day,” Daigneault said. “It was as volatile a season that you could draw up if you trace it back to the bubble, yet everybody here was so consistent with their approach.”
Although practices and shootarounds were rare during this year’s condensed schedule, Daigneault and the coaching staff gave players a platform to develop. Under restrictive COVID regulations regarding free time both at home and the road, players stepped up to the plate and brought energy, effort and focus to not just their work on the court but their diligence to following the rules off of it.
“The players raised the bar with their professionalism this year,” Daigneault said. “Those guys were outstanding, high-high character, hard-working, committed and consistent – all the things that we want to make sure that we continue to establish here.”
The Thunder’s star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his career-long trajectory of improvement in his third season. Coming into this season, Gilgeous-Alexander prepared and trained extensively to take on a much larger responsibility offensively. The work paid off as the Canadian-native averaged a career-high 23.7 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from deep while attracting the full attention of opposing defenses before being sidelined due to injury. Even still, what he’s most proud of from his third season in the league, are the connections he and his teammates made throughout the course of the year.
“I think the amount of fun myself and my teammates had throughout the whole season from start to finish,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It was super fun no matter what, and all the guys that I was around this year was super fun. Even some of the 10-days. Guys mesh really well and we had a blast and I think that's the I'm most proud of.”
Competitive and dedicated to improvement, the Thunder’s point guard will focus on getting healthy during the offseason while also leaning into his opportunity to grow offensively in order to come back better next season.
“I'll continue to get stronger, trying to get more athletic, faster conditioning-wise, really just work on my body,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Then just in terms of skills, just getting better. The same way I did. You can always improve. I don't shoot 100% from the field, I don't shoot 100% from the free throw line, and I certainly don't shoot that from three so I got a lot of improvement I need to do, and I’ll continue to do so.”
Coming into the 2020-21 season, Lu Dort’s identity as a defensive ace was clear. By season’s end, he coupled that nightly role with scoring and playmaking, abilities that weren’t necessarily predictable even nine months ago.
In addition to drawing 57 offensive fouls on opponents in just 52 games played and taking on the opposing team’s best player each night, Dort also managed to more than double his scoring output from last season, racking up 14.0 points per game while shooting 34.3 percent from three-point range on 6.3 attempts. With the ball in his hands more often, particularly towards the end of the season, Dort showed he can be a dynamic weapon on both ends of the floor moving forward.
“I going to keep doing the same stuff, play the right way and be the same person that I am,” said Dort. “I feel like (the coaches) did a great job with me and I felt like I did a good job of handling that too. It’s not an easy position at this level. It took some time, but I feel like I can still improve.”
Dort also recognized that his leadership on the defensive end is not just limited to his own assignment, but setting an overall tone to the five-man defensive presence that is required to beat the best teams each night. That ability to change the game on defense is a focus of Dort’s as well.
“I gotta lead by example and be playing really hard and make it tough for anybody I’m guarding,” said Dort.
Midway through the season, Thunder sophomore Darius Bazley encountered a shoulder injury that kept him on the sidelines for 16 games. In the 20 games that followed, the Thunder saw a massive jump in offensive production from Bazley as he leapt from 11.9 points per game in his first 36 games, to 17.2 in his last 19. The 6-foot-8 forward showcased an increased aggressiveness on his attack to the basket, by hunting paint touches and demonstrating his ability to finish strongly through contact. Beyond the tangible stats, the biggest area of growth for Bazley was in the details of the game.
“I feel like I’ve just learned so much with a lot of things. Skill-wise and understanding the game more and more,” said Bazley. “The stuff that I strive for and the team strives for is found in the details. So just keep working on those little things.”
In exploring the roster, Coach Daigneault also used the opportunity to assign the versatile forward to challenging defensive matchups throughout the season. From defending larger forwards to checking the smaller point guards, Bazley’s range of defensive battles ranged extremely wide.
“The defensive experiences were great. I got to go up against and guard really good payers this year,” said Bazley. “It was necessary to be able to go through some of those things. I can see myself guarding bigger wings and smaller guards in the future so I’m glad I got to experience that.”
It was necessary to be able to go through some of those things. I can see myself guarding bigger wings and smaller guards in the future so I’m glad I got to experience that.”— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 19, 2021
End-of-Season Interview with @BazleyDarius
Despite being a member of the Thunder roster last season, the 2020-21 season was essentially Isaiah Roby’s rookie year. A nagging foot injury left him sidelined for the majority of the previous season which made his opportunity with the Thunder this year all the more valuable. While his role both on the floor and in the rotation fluctuated throughout the season, Roby took full advantage of the minutes he earned on the floor.
“I was definitely appreciative of the opportunity that I earned this year with the team,” said Roby. “There’s definitely a lot of learning experiences. A lot of invaluable experiences. It’s never going to be a ride so being able to have really good ups and some downs that really hurt ,that’s always a good thing in a season. To be able to bounce back from those things, that’s what makes a good player and a good team.”
The Thunder tapped into Roby’s versatility at 6-foot-8 playing him on both the perimeter in ball handling roles and in the paint as a small five. On the defensive end, Roby started at least one game with a defensive assignment from every position and with each experience came a new lesson to be carried over into the next game. By the end of the season, the Dixon, Illinois native averaged 8.9 points and 5.6 rebounds while leading the team in steals and blocks combined.
“I think that’s one of my big strengths is just being versatile like that,” said Roby. “Any given night, being able to have a different responsibility and perform well.”
This season was the first for the Thunder’s wing man Kenrich Williams where he was available to play for the entire year. Williams played the most games of anyone on the roster this year with 66 games under his belt and it’s an experience he counts himself extremely grateful for even if the season itself proved to be taxing and demanding on its players.
“That definitely meant a lot to me,” said Williams. “Definitely a blessing to just be able to play a full season. A lot of people take that for granted. Last year I had a back injury, so I sat out more than half the season, it just hurt me. Being able to bounce back this year and really play the full year, it really meant a a lot.”
Thunder fans soon learned why Williams earned the nickname Kenny Hustle. His high energy, humility and versatility made him playable in almost any situation and an extremely valuable asset to the team both on and off the floor. Diving on the floor for loose balls, swooping in under the basket for an offensive rebound or streaking backdoor for a layup, Kenrich’s impact could be felt in nearly every aspect of the game. Through the season, Kenny Hustle averaged eight points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point line.
“My first two years in the league I was kind of trying to figure it out. Where I have my strengths on the court as far as shooting but this year, I feel like I just figured it out,” said Williams on his shooting performance throughout his career. “In year three, I was able to just attack the paint more and not settle for threes,” said Williams. “I think that definitely helped a lot as far as my 3-point shooting percentage.”
When 7-foot rookie Aleksej Pokuševski entered into the Thunder practice facility to start the season, there was still much to uncover about his game. His unique set of skills, youth and size made him one of the most intriguing players to come out of the 2020 draft. As the season unfolded, the Thunder coaching staff determined that the best thing for Poku was to send him to the G-League bubble midway through the season and put him in an environment with ample playing time and opportunity where each of his unique skills could be sharpened.
“Just getting experience,” said Pokuševski. “I grew as a player and as a professional on the court. The game slowed down for me through the whole season.”
Coming out of the G-League bubble, Pokuševski was a different player. The game had slowed down, his decision-making sharpened and his all-around game expanded. After averaging 3.3 points before entering the bubble, Pokuševski averaged 11 points in his games since while also using his length on the defensive end and ranking fourth among NBA rookies in total blocks.
“I’ve learned that I can use my size pretty well on defense,” said Pokuševski. “Just got to get stronger and be able to take those punches from the strong players and get faster so I can defend guards. I think I can be a great defensive player so I’m just going to get to work on it.”
As a 19-year-old rookie, Théo Maledon lined up against some of the NBA’s best players on a nightly basis, both fending off their physicality while trying to initiate offense and also tracking them through hundreds of screens on defense. Yet all the while, Thunder fans never once saw Maledon crack. The stoic Frenchman played with poise and dignity all season long and brought a steadiness of attitude that is rare for a person his age, especially one who moved halfway across the world in the midst of a global pandemic.
“I didn’t take one day for granted, one game for granted,” said Maledon. “That’s something that I’m satisfied with.”
Maledon led the Thunder in total minutes played this season, capitalizing on something a player in his position needed the most – time on the floor. Through those minutes Maledon navigated through ups and downs with grace while putting up averages of 10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 37 percent on corner three-pointers and leading the team in steals. He also ranked in the top 10 among all NBA rookies in points, assists, steals and three-pointers made. He had veterans to lean on and a coaching staff to guide him, but Maledon’s successful rookie campaign should be a badge of honor for his own perseverance and mental toughness.
“I feel like I really got comfortable coming in here, thanks to the organization,” said Maledon. “The teammates and the coaches that made sure I felt as comfortable as possible here and I embraced it, so that transition was made a lot easier thanks to them.”
As a two-way player to start the season, Moses Brown also spent time inside of the NBA’s G-League bubble. There, he caught the attention of many onlookers with his 7-foot-1 frame and stat-stuffing performances averaging a double-double each night. When he returned to the Thunder lineup following the All-Star Break and became a concrete member of the rotation, OKC saw a large boost in its rebounding numbers because of it. During that 36-game stretch, Brown ranked in the league’s top-10 in offensive boards per night, averaged 10.2 points and 10.2 rebounds while also gaining the experiences of starting against the league’s biggest and best centers.
“I think I’ve grown tremendously on defense and it’s just been about the opportunity. Me being able to feel out and adjust to different coverages and defenders,” said Brown. “Going forward I would like to be able to just increase my awareness on defense sometimes and just being able to use my size more to my advantage.”
Brown was converted from a two-way player to a full-time contract midway through the year. After charting a path that saw him play in the G-League and then as a two-way player in Portland last season, having a full-time contract with the Thunder was a monumental moment for the Queens native.
“It's meant a lot,” said Brown. “I definitely appreciate the amount of opportunity that I have, even being able to play for so long and so many minutes. Being able to build confidence and develop here under such a great staff and great program has been amazing.”
Back in November, when Thunder training camp commenced and players began to find themselves and their roles in the new-look squad, Ty Jerome was relegated to a lonely role. He had to rehab an ankle injury, and it kept him away from the Thunder for nearly half of the season. Still, Jerome kept the faith. As a point guard and as a leader, his head never hangs. That was what got him through an unprecedented bounce-back season at the University of Virginia when he led the same Cavaliers team that lost to a 16-seed the year before to a national championship.
Even during his rookie year in Phoenix when he couldn’t crack the rotation and even during his rehab in the winter of 2020, Jerome kept a positive mindset about his ability to impact games later in the year.
“I definitely envisioned it,” said Jerome. “You just never know how it’s going to happen so you just try to stay ready.”
It was after joining the OKC Blue down in the G League bubble that Jerome was able to join the Thunder and he did so by piling up 7 assists in his very first game, a home win over Atlanta. From there on out, Jerome was a consistent fixture in the Thunder rotation, compiling season averages of 10.7 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.3 percent from three-point range.
“What I’m most proud of wasn’t one game here, one game there. I think it was a pretty consistent effort,” said Jerome. “I’m not even close to where I want to be and where I think I can be in this league. I took a step in the right direction.”
On-boarding new players in the midst of perhaps the most challenging season in NBA history was something the Thunder became proficient at by relying on its core principles and an intentional effort to be empathetic to newcomers joining the organization. One example of such a player was Tony Bradley, who came to the Thunder at the trade deadline and was able to integrate smoothly in with the rest of the group.
“The first day I walked into this team and organization, it’s been first class and I’ve been treated really well,” Bradley said. “From day one I just knew it was a great organization.”
On the floor, Bradley increased his production from the first half of the season that he spent in Philadelphia – compiling averages of 8.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 65.6 percent from the field. Bradley was utilized at the top of the key on most offensive possessions, working as a facilitator to get the ball from one side of the floor to the other, then waiting for the moment to dive towards the rim as a teammate attacked the lane.
“Getting the opportunity to play is always good,” said Bradley, who saw 18 minutes per night over the course of 22 games in Oklahoma City. “It felt good having the ball in my hands and making decisions with it.”
Oklahoma City has always been an NBA destination for players to hone in with laser focus on basketball, on improving their games between the lines and reinventing themselves as players. The Thunder’s tabula rasa approach means that players come in with no preconceived notions placed on them. Instead, a baseline reading is taken over the first few days and weeks of what players are capable of and where they can grow. For newcomer Svi Mykhailiuk, who joined the Thunder mid-season, this open-minded environment helped breathe new life into his career.
“I showed I can do a lot of different things other than just shoot the ball,” said Mykhailiuk. “I can shoot the ball and make plays for other people, making the right plays, play hard and guard my position.”
Once thought of as a stand-still jump shooter, Mykhailiuk showed he can attack off the bounce, run offense with the ball in his hands and compete, hard, against tough defensive assignments. In 30 games with Oklahoma City, he racked up 14 dunks compared to 0 in the first 36 games he played with Detroit. Since joining the Thunder, Mykhailiuk averaged 10.3 points per game thanks to a supportive staff and teammates who helped set him up in positions to succeed.
“Everybody made it easier. The organization, the coaching staff, the players, everybody around us, everybody around me made it a lot easier for me to adjust and just come in and play basketball,” said Mykhailiuk. “Being a part of this team helped me a lot.”
Thunder big man Al Horford played 28 games this season for OKC before the mutual agreement between the organization and Horford that the 14-year veteran would step aside to allow young players to garner precious minutes on the floor. However, as evidenced by the time he spent on the sidelines, Horford’s value extended beyond just his play on the floor. In a true picture of professionalism, the big man stayed engaged with the group, offering his leadership and years of experience to help younger players not only grow but also navigate a demanding NBA season.
“Very proud of our group,” said Horford. “With this unusual season that we've had with all the COVID concerns and all the rules that we had to adhere to, just the consistency all year and the competitiveness and just that engagement. Being engaged all year. So that's what I'm most proud about for the group to overcome that adversity and for us to finish out the season.”
Horford’s leadership both on and off the floor made him an integral member of the roster throughout the season and is an experience both he and his teammates cherished and learned from.
“Those moments, the building up to the practice, the practices, and just the learning,” said Horford. “I feel like I learned a lot here and the younger guys, they're learning they're figuring things out, but myself, I feel like I'm doing the same. For me it's been a very positive experience.”
From the very first days of training camp, Thunder center Mike Muscala delivered a message about how he’d be approaching the season with one word: gratitude. All year long that’s been a defining characteristic of the team and it has trickled down from leaders like Muscala to youngsters like Aleksej Pokuševski, who after Saturday’s final practice of the season took the time to recognize the behind-the-scenes staffers and COVID testers who helped the Thunder all season long. Muscala has helped set that tone throughout the past 6 months all the way through the final days of the year.
Muscala played in 35 of the Thunder’s 72 games this season and put up some of the best numbers of his career. He scored a career-high 9.7 points while attempting a career-high 5.3 three-point attempts per game. He knocked down 37 percent of those looks – a strong mark for an NBA center. Upon completing his second season with the Thunder, Muscala reflected on how the experience in Oklahoma City has shaped him as a human being as much as it has a player.
“Coming to OKC, I’m grateful for it,” said Muscala, who got a bit emotional as he spoke. “It helped me a lot as a man and as a player, just even this year. My family, watching from home, I just feel like the organization’s values and the fans here and everything, it aligns with what I feel. It made it just really gratifying to come in every day and go to work and even this season, to have that to do when so many people were struggling with COVID and all that. Just the opportunity to play basketball meant a lot to me.”
It made it just really gratifying to come in every day and go to work.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 17, 2021
End-of-Season Interview with Mike Muscala pic.twitter.com/BHdTPTvXK2
With each and every game, Thunder newcomer Gabriel Deck uncovered more and more to his game and played with increased comfort on the floor. In just 10 games with the Thunder, the Argentinian averaged 8.4 points, four rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Whether he was backing down his defenders for a turnaround jumper or finding his new teammates on behind the back passes, Deck proved to be able to integrate quickly with his new team.
“I feel good about where I am,” said Deck. “Big thank you to my teammates and the coaching staff for helping to integrate me and get acclimated to the squad. The first 10 games or so went well, big thanks to them.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect to Deck’s arrival was his ability to plug into the group so quickly after moving to a new country, having not played any NBA basketball and navigating a language barrier. Deck’s understanding of the game added with a little help from his teammates made the transition much easier in a short amount a time.
“The adjustment was a challenge, especially joining this late in the season,” said Deck. “I just tried to take advantage of the opportunity and do the best I can every day. Try to get to know my teammates as best as I can in the limited time I’ve been here. Overall I do feel good and made the most of the short time.”
In the most uncertain of years, Josh Hall took a big chance and bet on himself. After taking a post-grad year, he skipped college and signed as a two-way player with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When injuries struck, it could have been easy to lose heart and feel precarious in his career. Instead, Hall invested in every resource the Thunder had to offer, rehabbed his knee injuries and was rewarded with heavy minutes towards the end of the season.
“It was countless minutes and hours of rehab, watching what I eat, watching what I do, then doing little things like getting into the cold tubs and hot tubs here at the practice facility and just taking care of my body,” Hall said.
The capper was the Thunder’s season finale, when Hall got 41 minutes of playing time and racked up career-highs with 25 points and 10 rebounds while showing an ability to attack the rim and finish through contact. The 2020-21 season was one of learning and resilience for Hall and he’ll now take those experiences into a summer of work and skill development for the Thunder.
“It was just learning how to be a professional and how to carry myself like one,” Hall said of year one. “I definitely know I’m going to get in the gym and work hard.”
When it comes to player development, the Thunder organization understands that total minutes on the floor doesn’t necessarily equate to valuable experience. That’s why through the course of the 2020-21 season, the Thunder set out to intentionally invest in its players by exploring the roster during crucial minutes of games, in first quarters and halves and within the rotation.
One player who benefitted from that philosophy was Jaylen Hoard, who started the year with the Oklahoma City Blue and played down in the bubble, but ended the season on a two-way contract with the team, where he saw action in 19 games with 16.8 minutes per contest. Hoard chipped in with 6.1 points per game on 50 percent shooting, showing that he can attack the rim off the dribble and be the first man to the ball on rebounds and broken plays.
“I feel like this year, if I compare it to last year, I got a lot more game experience and not just playing at the end of games when the score is decided, but meaningful minutes against good teams and good players.”
“The strong parts of my game I feel like I was able to transfer over here, so that’s something I’m proud of,” Hoard added.
Charlie Brown Jr.
As a late-addition to the roster on a 10-day contract, second-year player Charlie Brown Jr. made solid first impressions with the Thunder coaching staff with his respectfulness and readiness to compete. On the floor, however there was still much to learn about his game and the Thunder ensured that they would get the chance to explore as much of that as possible. After signing two 10-day contracts with the Thunder, 6-foot-6 guard Charlie Brown Jr. signed a multi-year contract with the team. The Philadelphia native played nine games with the Thunder and in the season finale, logged seven points in a career-high 31 minutes of game action.
“To be honest [the transition to the team] was so comfortable and easy going for me,” said Brown. “I’ve got great teammates and they were just amazing with helping me understand the culture here and understanding the things that OKC as a whole is used to.”