Navigating the NBA Restart Through the Eyes of the Thunder’s Young Players

There’s an old saying in basketball­: There will come a time where winter will ask what you’ve been doing all summer.

After four months off from game play and regularly mandated weightlifting and practice sessions, the season’s clock has shifted as the NBA restarts the 2019-20 season in Orlando later this month.

Summer is now asking players what they have been doing all spring.

Going without game play for four consecutive months had many coaches in the league asking the same question – what shape will the players be in?

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan was pleasantly surprised. Not only did his players return to practice in great physical condition, but his younger players in particular looked more muscular than usual. Players like Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo and Luguentz Dort all stood out to Coach Donovan for their new and improved physiques.

“You can see a physical difference I think when you're dealing with young players that are 19, 20, 21 years old,” said Donovan. “Their maturation and how much they can develop through four, five or six months can be really amazing.”

Even with an abridged weightlifting setup in their individual homes, the Thunder’s youth contingent managed to put on some added gains before returning to the Thunder Ion and back in the weight room. What they lacked in resources, they made up for in willpower and consistency.

“I mean, I definitely was putting in the work,” said Bazley who missed the Thunder’s last 11 games before the hiatus due to a bone bruise in his right knee. The four-month pause between games served as all the time he needed to get back into a position to play after averaging 17 minutes per contest in his 53 games.

“This whole epidemic has given me time to recover even more ... I'm 100% ready to go,” said Bazley.

“I think Darius has done a really good job with this time once he got healed and was able to get back out on the court and work out,” said Donovan. “I feel confident that he can come in and help our team.”

Young Thunder guards Diallo and Dort had the same idea. Although not recovering from injury, they both operate from the same mentality as most young NBA players­– being ready whenever their number is called.

Dort, the newest member to the Thunder’s full-time roster has quite literally made a career of being ready. This time last year, Dort was wrapping up Summer League with the Thunder as an undrafted, two-way player. When the season was put on pause on March 10, Dort started 21 games for the Thunder as its bona fide defensive stopper on the perimeter. Showing up every game sacrificing his body to dive for loose balls and locking in to wreak havoc on the offensive rhythm of the league’s premiere scorers earned him a full-time contract before the team set off for Orlando.

According to Coach Donovan, the rookie from Arizona State hasn’t skipped a beat.

“Lu's kept himself in good shape and I think for him he still has that same edge he still playing or he's still defending he's still doing the things that that he did for us at a high level back in February, March,” said Donovan.

Diallo and Ferguson had already made significant strides as young defensive perimeter defenders. The 21-year-old Ferguson started in 37 games for the Thunder this season with the tough defensive assignments of opponent’s leading ball handler. Diallo shared similar assignments to Ferguson and had been working to defend without fouling as he progressed through his sophomore season. With access to a couple of gyms at home, he was able to maintain some level of both on-court training and weightlifting to continue his progression as a dependable second-unit sparkplug.

“I (was) just trying to stay active during the hiatus. I was just home for most of the time doing strength and conditioning from coach,” said Diallo referencing the workouts the Thunder’s strength and conditioning coach sent him.

According to Coach Donovan, the likelihood of the young players’ numbers being called is virtually certain. In this unprecedented scenario, the Thunder will look to utilize as many bodies as possible and will need every player on the bench to be ready to go when the time comes.

“We've got to look at playing more people, because we don't know what the future is going to hold in terms of how everybody handles being inside the bubble, everybody's health, injuries, all those kinds of things. So I think these groups are important to keep everybody engaged,” said Donovan.

The Thunder’s first two days of practice were high-intensity and scrimmage heavy. After such a long break, a critical component to dusting off four months’ worth of cob webs is getting on the court and airing it out. Boxing out physical bodies, sparring for positioning on the block and maneuvering through actual ball screens are all actions that can’t be replicated in a one-on-zero setting. Those inter-squad matches gave the coaching staff and players a taste of what all of their hard work during the hiatus yielded in a setting that actually resembled an NBA game.

“I do feel it a little bit on the court as far as just like holding my ground,” said Bazley when talking about his strength. “I see the gains in the weight room with the different weights that I'm using in the different workouts.”

As the 22 teams make a residence out of the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, the Thunder’s young players are taking it all in stride. Some players like Dort, brought their favorite video game console, others like Bazley have found other ways to pass the time.

The 6-foot-8 rookie has tested the waters in a fishing excursion and also opted for a game of cornhole when the team was released from its mandatory 36-hour quarantine. Outside of the occasional outing, Bazley’s usual routine hasn’t changed much from what he would normally do in Oklahoma City: play video games, FaceTime family and friends and read his Bible.

“I mean that's what I do every single day,” said Bazley. “That stuff helps pass time and to me it's just kind of every day for me, I'm just in Orlando doing it.”

When it comes to navigating the strict protocols and the secluded life from the outside world, the exuberance for playing basketball took precedent over the fear of navigating the strange new environment.

“I think personally, it’s honestly a little more excitement. Just knowing where we were at when the season took a pause and us getting a chance to go back and play is a miracle,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I didn’t think personally, it would happen and the fact that we’re getting the opportunity, I’m completely ecstatic about it.”

There’s also a selfless aspect to their approach to the restart of the season. Recognizing that some teammates made the sacrifice to leave their wives and young children at home to participate in Orlando made Diallo all the more eager to make the most out of the time that they have together.

“I can't wait to get back playing the game that I love and the game that's been taken away from us for such a long time,” said Diallo. “We're gonna all go out there and fight like we left our families back at home because we didn't come out here and all this way and leave all our families back home to not go out here and not try to put up a fight for that one goal.”