By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
Every NBA coaching staff wants to see their players transfer lessons from the practice court to the games, and to carry forward last season’s experiences into the new year. For the returning players who saw action in the Thunder’s 2022 Summer League debut, it was an opportunity to carry over what they learned last season and tap into the continuity they’ve developed with one another.
Tuesday night’s 98-77 win in Salt Lake City against the host club, the Utah Jazz, was also a chance to integrate the Thunder’s newcomers into that on-court connection as well, and the Thunder did precisely that.
With a defensive effort in the first quarter that absolutely stifled the collection of Jazz players who are just getting used to playing for one another and ingrained into their system, the Thunder was able to hold the Jazz to just nine points in the first quarter, 34.7 percent shooting from the field and only 22 points in the paint.
“These guys really competed,” said Summer League Head Coach Kameron Woods. “Just playing physical, protecting the paint and doing it together. There's a lot of X's and O's in there, but big picture what we try to accomplish on the defensive end is playing physical, competing together and all the other stuff will fall in line. Everybody who touched the floor for us tonight did a great job of that.”
Rookies like Jalen Williams and Ousmane Dieng perfectly executed a weakside defensive rotation to get out and contest shooters, while second-year forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl started the fourth quarter with a steal out top that led to an easy transition dunk. At the rim, the Jazz were met by the Thunder’s second overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Chet Holmgren, who blocked shots and impacted many others with his length and quickness.
“It just kind of came down to a great gameplan that we had put in over our summer league training camp,” said Holmgren. “We’re still building chemistry but we've put a lot of work in and we've done a great job of learning each other on both ends of the floor and having each other's back.”
For the game, the Thunder racked up nine blocks and eight steals, utilizing height and length to swallow up time and space for Utah’s attacking guards or big men trying to finish in the lane. All those stops, accentuated by a plus-15 showing on the glass, led to in-rhythm offense for the Thunder and allowed for random, unprescribed attacks that kept the Jazz defense flat-footed. For the game the Thunder shot 49.3 percent from the field, including 67.5 percent in the paint, while racking up 23 assists on 36 made baskets.
“It felt great to be back out here, good to play with these new guys and get some games under our belt,” said guard Josh Giddey. “When we get stops and run we look really good.”
Tempo was the catalyst for the Thunder on offense, not only with its 15-3 edge in fast break points but within the halfcourt as well. Passes were whipped across court to shooters, around the perimeter to create advantages and through the middle of the lane to rollers, like when Aleksej Pokuševski picked out a drop off to Jalen Williams on a dive to the rim for a ferocious one-handed slam.
While the Thunder led for nearly the entire game, it showed the ability to self-correct in the third quarter when the Jazz made a run. After a timeout by Woods, Giddey helped pick up the pace for the Thunder, which ultimately led to a 10-0 run to close out the period, capped by a clever Pokuševski pass up the sideline to Robinson-Earl, who hit a runner as time expired.
Throughout the game, including in the fourth quarter, the Thunder relied on that offensive tempo to spread the scoring around to a variety of players, from second-year guard Aaron Wiggins to rookies Ousmane Dieng and Jaylin Williams as well as newly signed two-way guard Eugene Omoruyi. As the final buzzer sounded, Holmgren was asked to do a postgame walk-off interview with ESPN and brought Giddey over with him to deliver the message that the performance was all about the team.
Leaning into an approach of letting the ball do the scoring, these Thunder players are sublimating their individual games to fit into the team structure and fans are getting to watch it in real time during the small sample size of Summer League. It’s exhilarating to watch these young Thunder players back on the floor again, and for good reason fans in OKC love to watch each of them impact the team in their own unique ways. But the summer has barely begun, and the Thunder will lace them up again tomorrow and Thursday against the Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers respectively before playing five more games in Las Vegas.
There will be plenty more opportunities to hone the defensive rotations, amp up the communication and coordinate the offense, and there will also be a ton to learn from and utilize in July and August as lessons prior to training camp. The Thunder is taking things one day at a time, not overreacting to the good or the bad, and simply enjoying the moment then getting ready for the next one.
“I want to learn through every single experience, whether it's good or bad. The worst thing I could do is have a great Summer League and not learn anything from it,” said Holmgren. “Each film session, shootaround whatever it might be, trying to take that forward heading into this little next offseason part until training camp starts.”