After meeting with coaches, staff and teammates on the final day of his rookie season, minutes before his first NBA offseason officially began, Aleksej Pokuševski made a point to publicly thank the people inside the Thunder ION who made sure the team could even be on the court during the season.
“We appreciate all the people that work behind the scenes with the club,” said Pokuševski. “The staff, the COVID testers and everyone who helps us.”
The grateful 19-year-old learned a ton about NBA life during his rookie year, one of the league’s most tumultuous in history. Amidst regimented COVID testing, the most condensed schedule ever, Pokuševski was also acclimating to the United States, and the first year of his life away from his home country of Serbian or Athens, Greece.
Before being selected 17th overall by the Thunder in the 2020 NBA Draft, Pokuševski played for the professional club Olympiacos in the Greek A2 League, where he played in 11 games in 2019-20. In March of 2020, he got called up to Olympiacos’ senior team but only played in one game, ironically against his eventual Thunder teammate Théo Maledon and the French club AVSEL, before the pandemic forced the Euroleague to shut down.
Limited basketball for his club team and a disrupted draft process, which would normally include workouts, spilled into a rookie season that had no Summer League, no voluntary Thunder workouts and a shortened training camp, meaning the NBA’s youngest player had a ton to learn in his first year. He downloaded as much information as possible, persevered through growing pains and came out the other side better.
“I grew as a player and as a professional on the court,” said Pokuševski. “The game slowed down and I can read the game better.”
“Our standards are high,” Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault said. “He has embraced it. He's done everything we've asked him to do.”
Pokuševski worked diligently on his game and his body through his rookie year as he adjusted to the pace, physicality, professionalism, size and skill level present on a night-to-night basis in the NBA. He began the year coming off the bench, playing 17 games at 17.4 minutes per game, solidly in the rotation but in a more limited role. A planned mid-season shakeup sent Pokuševski to the G-League bubble in Orlando with the Oklahoma City Blue, where he was able to see more extended minutes and most importantly, play with the ball in his hands with more frequency.
“The big change in his year was after he came back from the bubble,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. “We're prioritizing what is in the best interest of the long term so we can meet the goals that we have set forth for ourselves over time. Getting him to the bubble and being able to play with the ball a little bit more, getting more comfortable, he was able to play a ton of games without the travel and play with different people. He was just put in a totally new environment. We saw the benefits of that coming back.”
In Orlando, Pokuševski’s creativity and timing started to crystallize into fundamental passing. He kicked ahead on outlet passes with the ability to see over the defense, initiated the pick-and-roll at 7-feet tall and found teammates diving to the rim or on drop offs at the dunker spot. He scored with more frequency and showed an ability to put the ball on the deck and drive to the paint. The production began to tick up, as he averaged 7.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.1 blocks in 13 games, including 12 starts, at 25.4 minutes per contest. What stood out most was the playmaking, and his willingness and ability to provide teammates with straightforward scoring opportunities with his passing.
“You try to make your teammate better, put him in a closeout or find him an open shot,” said Pokuševski. “With an assist or pass, there's two guys happy.”
"At the end of the day it’s about learning and what you’re trying to achieve."
After the bubble ended and the NBA’s All-Star Break concluded, Pokuševski was inserted into the Thunder’s starting lineup for all 28 of the remaining games that he played. The comfort he showed as a point forward with the Blue sprung forth at the NBA level as he attacked with more fluidity and better rhythm and made a higher percentage of his shots. He averaged 11.1 points per game, including a few Thunder record-setting nights – like his 23 point, 10-rebound double-double to go with five made three-pointers against Memphis, a 25-point effort against Charlotte and a career-high 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting and 6-of-9 from the three-point line in a season-ending win against the LA Clippers.
“On the offensive end, it's just using my steps the right way and taking the space,” said Pokuševski, who worked as hard off the ball to get himself open as he did with the rock in his hands. “Just having great eye contact with the guy that has the ball.”
“I was pretty impressed with his ability to get us organized for someone that doesn't play the position,” noted Daigneault. “He’s getting simpler, and his game is getting tighter without sacrificing any of his playmaking and his creativity.”
Just like on the offensive end, Pokuševski showed flashes of what he can be as a defender as well. Long and agile, the tallest player on the court on many nights did a nice job of learning the Thunder’s defensive schemes and playing within them. His goal is to be a multi-positional defender, and one that can be disruptive too – like the stretch during March and April when he blocked 17 shots in an 11-game span, including a 6-block game. He shaded drivers towards the baseline, giving enough ground to allow his teammates to rotate over in helpside coverage, but not enough to get all the way to the rim. With his long arms, Pokuševski can still contest a shot even when he’s not close enough to potentially foul.
“I've learned that I can use my size pretty well on defense,” said Pokuševski, who ranked fourth among rookies all season in blocked shots with 42. “Just keeping the player in front of me. I don't have to be that close to him because I have long arms and can contest every shot pretty well.”
“It's pretty fun,” Pokuševski added. “It brings energy to the team and myself.”
Once he got starters minutes with the Thunder, about 28 per night, Pokuševski’s production in other categories like rebounding (5.4 per game) and assists (2.7 per game) jumped up on the same trajectory as they did from his first stint with the Thunder to his time with the Blue. Night-to-night, his development wasn’t always linear, but over the course of his first six months as an NBA player, the trends were all pointing the right direction.
This off-season, Pokuševski has been training at the Thunder ION in Oklahoma City, went out to Las Vegas to work out with Thunder veterans and support the Summer League squad and spent time on his own. Tightening his dribble, getting stronger and getting shots up over and over are all crucial ways in which every young player gets better in their first offseason, and Pokuševski is no different. He understands the long-term goals of the organization, and his consistent approach to his own development plays into that. As the 2021-22 season approaches, the 2nd-year wing has a wide runway in front of him.
“We know what we’re trying to do here, what we’re building,” said Pokuševski. “At the end of the day it’s about learning and what you’re trying to achieve.”
“(Last season) should be pretty good fuel,” said Daigneault. “There's a lot to be optimistic about.”