10 Things to Watch During 2021 Thunder Training Camp
All summer long, Thunder fans have anxiously awaited this first week of training camp. The workout videos on social media, the handful of summer league games and media day interviews are all just an appetizer for the chance to see the team in action for the first time during the preseason.
After a few days of training camp and a slate of four preseason games beginning Monday, here are some of the best stories from camp and what to look for moving forward...
1. “Sweating into the floor”
For the first week of training camp, the Thunder has been learning about its roots by practicing at the Blue ION, the gym where the Oklahoma City Blue normally practices. The weight room there is out in the open, attached to the court behind one of the baselines. The black padded floor of the weight room is a squishy material, and when players push themselves and sweat drips down, it doesn’t just sit on the surface to be wiped up, it seeps into the fibers like water into soil. Just like that sweat, the Thunder work during training camp will be the fertilizing agent to its success in the future. Each day is an opportunity to get better along the journey.
2. Shai’s Leadership
After signing a contract extension with the Thunder in the offseason, fourth-year point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been every bit of what NBA fans want out of their team’s leader. Coming off of a remarkably productive and efficient third season where he averaged 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three, Gilgeous-Alexander has worked diligently every day, led his teammates and re-directed most questions posted about him personally to center the attention on team as a whole. He’s taking his responsibility seriously.
“That's a privilege, not a lot of guys get to do that, really start something and have their hands and their footprints on something like that,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I'm going to try to take full advantage of it, but it's a privilege and honor to be in this position.”
There’s a certain air in this building... We build things from the ground up. This is where it all started, so it was cool to start our season back here.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) September 28, 2021
Today's media session with @shaiglalex pic.twitter.com/51PDOUee10
3. Lu Dort: Everywhere on defense, making good decisions on offense
During one game last season, an opposing coach told Thunder General Manager Sam Presti that his best player came to the bench and said that the only thing he could see out there on the floor was Lu Dort. He couldn’t see past him, Lu was deep in a defensive posture, stretched wide and quick on his feet. Dort was everywhere his man went.
Dort said early in camp that he hopes to take that mastery up a notch this season but to pair that with continued growth with the ball in his hands. Head Coach Mark Daigneault shared an anecdote from an early practice about Dort driving left out of a pick and roll. It was the type of play that rushing into the lane could result in a turnover, but Dort maintained control, got the defense to react and fired a pass to Mike Muscala in the corner for a three.
“One of the things I’m trying to do most is going to the rim and making good reads,” said Dort. “The main thing is to be patient, read the defense, go up and be confident.”
Going against Shai every day, it makes me better and it makes him better. pic.twitter.com/Z5N7NKxSNv— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) September 29, 2021
4. Bazley’s Excitement and Force
On Monday at Media Day, third-year forward Darius Bazley was about to jump out of his shoes with excitement. A smile plastered across his face, Bazley, who has experienced the two shortest off-seasons in NBA history said he feels like it’s been forever since he’s gotten to play in a real game. Clearly restless with his time off this summer, Bazley continued the strength and conditioning work he utilized during the second half of last season to continue to bulk up. That’s allowed him to play with more force and physicality so far in training camp. Those attributes show up in rebounding, finishing through contact and holding ground on defense, among many other areas of the game.
“It definitely translates,” said Bazley. “I can feel it. I can see it. Whether it's film or maybe a move I make, I can just tell I'm stronger with certain things that I do.”
5. Music to my ears
Footage coming out of practices this week may have a bit of a soundtrack to it. At the Blue ION there’s a platform that hosts a bit of a DJ booth, which controls much of the electronics throughout the building. This week at practice, each staff member has been allowed to submit two “foundational” songs from their life and the players have submitted three such songs each that have comprised the playlist for practice. Rap and hip-hop have dominated the airwaves for most of the time, but Daigneault submitted “Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen as his change-of-pace picks.
6. Discovering Vít Krejčí
All last season, a Thunder 2020 draft selection named Vít Krejčí was as close to the team as you can be without getting down to Event Level in the Paycom Center. Rehabbing from an ACL tear, Krejčí spent all last season with Thunder staffers, but not in the Thunder locker room or in practices. The Czech Republic native last played for Zaragoza in Spain and collected a small catalogue of Youtube highlights. Daigneault gave his review of where Krejčí is now as he returns to performance levels.
“He's an end-to-end player. He's got a motor defensively. He takes pride in his defense,” said Daigneault. “He really shows up on that end of the floor and offensively knows how to play – another multi-dimensional, ball-handling, skilled player.”
“He sticks his nose in the fray,” Daigneault continued. “He wants to play defense and he wants to get dirty.”
7. Giddey on defense
The Thunder’s top draft pick in 2021, 18-year-old Josh Giddey, comes in heralded as a passer, creator and facilitator who makes his teammates better with his passing, vision and instincts. At 6-foot-8, however, he’s also got the size and quickness to be a versatile team defender. Looking across the Thunder roster, Giddey fits the profile of a number of the wing players the team has, giving Daigneault the option to switch at least point guard through power forward and even point guard through center in some lineups.
“We've got so many young, athletic guys that can guard multiple positions and that's a luxury to have with us,” Giddey said. “I'm sure we're gonna see some of that this year and you know it's something I'm more than happy to do.”
8. Poku in the paint
In watching the Thunder’s four rookies get a full summer league experience, a build-up in the offseason, voluntary workouts and a true training camp experience, Daigneault reflected on the opposite experience that Aleksej Pokuševski and Théo Maledon had last season. Coming straight from overseas, living in a hotel and barreling straight into a condensed NBA schedule, Pokuševski had some clear growth points to work on and one of them was attacking the paint in straight lines. So far in training camp, the 19-year-old has been able to get to the lane with more frequency and efficacy.
“He’s added some balance to his game offensively,” Daigneault says. “He definitely looks, on the court, more comfortable out there.”
9. Rookies in the flow
Getting thrown into the mix with grown men is a rite of passage for NBA rookies, and the quartet the Thunder drafted back in late August has jumped right into that fire with vigor. Giddey, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and two-way forward Aaron Wiggins, who has caught Dort’s eye early as a potential mentee, have all shown themselves ready to compete at this level. Robinson-Earl, a physical pick-and-pop threat, has been one of third-year forward Isaiah Roby’s favorite matchups early in camp, and all four have shined in their own way.
“They don't seem behind, which is a testament to, number one, their basketball IQ and number two, the summer league program in terms of preparing them for this,” said Daigneault. “They're just kind of competing and playing in the flow.”
10. Practice Matters
Once the season starts, practice time will be at a minimum, and most development and growth will have to happen in the games. That’s why the Thunder has been running two-a-days at training camp so far and getting young players as many reps as possible. Mann, a shifty rookie guard, has impressed with his hot shooting, slipperiness and ability to create separation, but like any player at 20 years old, he’s adjusting to the NBA level.
At the first practice, Mann passed up a potential three and then was blocked by Roby on another one. As he gets used to the distance of the three-point line, the length and quickness of NBA players and his own timing on his shot, Mann will get better on those pass-shoot-drive decisions. The best way to do that is through practice – a precious and rare resource by the time mid-October rolls around. As a result, the Thunder is getting guys like man as many chances to react and build muscle memory now, so he’ll be ready for opening night.
For more coverage of Thunder training camp, stay locked onto okcthunder.com, all of the @okcthunder social channels and the Thunder Basketball Universe podcast.