More Than Scoring Points – The Value of Small Advantages

WHEN IT COMES TO PLAYING in an arena with no crowd noise, Abdel Nader has had his fair share of experiences.

During his freshman and sophomore seasons in college at Northern Illinois University, Nader recalled only a small pocket of fans during several games. During the 2016-17 season for the Brooklyn Nets’ G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets, the team played in the 18,000-seat Barclays Center with little to no fans. That season, then rookie Abdel Nader experienced the hush of an empty NBA arena as a member of the visiting Maine Red Claws. “I definitely remember playing that game,” said Nader with a grin. “I played really well so hopefully with no fans I keep I keep playing that way.”

This is the same hope that all 22 teams have inside of the NBA’s bubble in Orlando. It’s one of many looming questions still up in the air for many teams including the Thunder. What will rotations look like? Where does the on-court chemistry stand? How different does each team look after four months off?

For the Thunder specifically, four months proved to be enough time for younger players to build up muscle, the team chemistry to flourish and to add even more ambiguity to a set player rotation due to an even playing field. All of which seem to play well in the Thunder’s favor as they march toward their first seeding game on August 1.

For one, translating that alchemical zeal and excitement to be around one another into tangible in-game energy will be critical in an environment with no fans. As Nader learned from his experience, it will be an adjustment just like everything else in this historic scenario.

The Thunder’s sideline energy has been well documented whether it’s footage of the whole bench jumping up and down in unison before the beginning of the second half or sixth man of the year candidate Dennis Schröder standing so far up the sideline, he resembles an assistant coach. In an arena with no crowd, scoring points is one thing, but maintaining some energy and momentum without a sellout crowd is another.

“I think it will be big,” said Gilgeous-Alexander about the value of the energy off the bench. “Obviously, basketball is a game of swings and change of pace and stuff like that…Honestly, it’s just us out there. We’ll work for each other and our energy will be big.”

Another boost in the Thunder’s arsenal is the new look of its younger players. Over the break, several members of the Thunder’s youth contingent focused intently on building up muscle which resulted in a physical difference in size upon their return to the team. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan found it impressive what the young players were able to accomplish with their condensed weightlifting resources.

“You can tell like Terrence Ferguson looks stronger, (Darius) Bazley looks stronger, (Hamidou Diallo) looks stronger, I'd even say Lu Dort looks stronger,” said Donovan. “You can see a physical difference. When you're dealing with young players that are 19, 20, and 21 years old their maturation and how much they can develop through four, five or six months can be really amazing.”

WATCH: Thunder Talk - In the Lab

Coach Donovan will look to utilize as many bodies as possible during the Thunder’s games to help keep players fresh after four months without play. However, when he’s looking to evaluate a player’s impact on the floor, he’s looking at more than just points on the board or the amount of times he can drop the ball through the hoop, he’s looking at who is making the group on the floor better both tangibly and intangibly.

“Just because somebody may be scoring points in practice, doesn't necessarily mean that they're playing well. There's so much more to the game,” said Donovan. “But if somebody is out there and making the group better that they're playing with, the four guys that are out there are better off for having that person floor, that's what we're looking at. We're a team that's got I think a lot of versatility in terms of the age, the experience. The chemistry has been good. But when you have four months off you're coming back, you've got to see how these different combinations at this point in time work together.”

While there are still several unanswered questions for the Thunder at this point in its mini-training camp, the result of its hard work during the break and its to play for each other with a high level of energy gives it the opportunity to toy with several different player combinations that it might not have had in March. The timing of defensive coverages and pick and rolls will come, but you can’t coach energy and effort.

“I’m looking at our identity, how we’re playing and how we’re playing with one another because there’s just too much time to sit there after the third day and start to look at rotations. I think we’ve got to be prepared to utilize the whole entire team,” said Donovan. “I think to get locked into something so early before our first game, I don’t know if that would be worthwhile or helpful to us. We need to keep everybody engaged.”