LAS VEGAS – Out of a first quarter timeout, the Thunder forced a turnover, then pushed the ball up floor and started to work through its offensive set. The only difference was, the New Orleans Pelicans defense wasn’t moving the way it had the previous five minutes. The Pelicans had tossed in a zone defense, one that the Thunder knew might come at them, but didn’t over-emphasize. It was a chance to see how players reacted on the fly.
On one possession, second-year guard Théo Maledon sliced into the paint and made a properly-angled cross-court pass into the far corner for an open three-point look. On another possession, rookie forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl cut sharply to the high post and presented himself as an open target, a core fundamental of zone-breaking. On other possessions the Thunder did turn the ball over as it worked to generate good looks, and with 14 giveaways overall and just 33.3 percent shooting, the Thunder’s Summer League squad fell 80-65 to New Orleans in Game 2 in Las Vegas.
“It had an impact on the game. It’s something we can look at going forward and execute better,” said Summer League head coach and OKC Blue head coach Grant Gibbs. “Every experience we’re having here at Summer League, whether it’s in training camp, whether it’s in the games, whether it’s in walkthroughs, these are all valuable things for our players and staff to learn and grow from.”
After falling behind in the third quarter, the Thunder ripped off a 13-2 burst to begin the second quarter thanks to nine points from rookie guard Aaron Wiggins. The University of Maryland product, and 55th pick in the 2021 Draft, showed his length and athleticism by getting out into the open floor for a massive dunk that forced a timeout, but he also capped the run with a 27-foot 3-pointer off a pass from fellow rookie Tre Mann. For the game Wiggins, in a bench role, scored a team-high 16 points to go with five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
“Wiggins has been really good,” said Gibbs. “He’s an aggressive player. He gets downhill. I’ve been really impressed with his attention to detail on defense.”
“As soon as he’s subbed into the game, you feel his energy, his physicality and the will that he plays with,” Gibbs continued.
While Wiggins did the scoring, Mann got his teammates in position to score. With seven assists, including four through just 13 minutes played in the first half, Mann assumed the responsibility of generating looks for those around him. The quick first step, dribbling skills and constant motion made the Pelicans defense keep an eye on the 6-foot-5 guard at all times. Even though Mann’s shots didn’t fall at their normal rate, he was able to stay in the game mentally and contribute with 12 points, six rebounds, a steal and a block to go with the seven assists.
“Tonight I felt a lot more confident after talking to my coaches and my teammates and them telling me what they needed me to do,” Mann said.
“He hasn’t shot it great yet, but you see his ability to create his own shot and create for others,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been impressed with his ability to playmake.”
All over the court there were opportunities to grow and improve, but also moments that put players in position to make the type of reads that they’ll have to make at the next level. On offense, for example, Mann took a hand-off on the right wing in a classic “Pistol” action, a set NBA teams use often. To prepare for this moment, Mann worked to learn some of those concepts ahead of time. The result was an advantage gained, an attack to the rim, a foul and two free throws. Efficient offense.
“It sets you up in a position to score at this level,” said Mann. “I’m going just to keep rolling with it.”
On defense, the welcome-to-the-pros moments came for Robinson-Earl, who thrice found himself between the rim and a charging defender angling for a dunk. He ensured that didn’t happen on all three occasions, making a block and saving an easy two points with good, physical fouls to protect the rim against taller and longer attackers. Those are the types of plays that earn respect for a rookie, and the ones that open the eyes of teammates, coaches and fans alike here at Summer League.
“Jeremiah has a lot of heart. He’s the one that’s willing to step up and contest everything. Regardless of the height, he has the heart,” Wiggins said of his rookie classmate. “That’s the mentality that you want.”