NBA rosters turn over every offseason, with some players moving on to new opportunities and newcomers added into the mix. internally, returning players are often slotted into different roles depending on the changing roster dynamics. In the condensed offseason of the fall of 2020, it became apparent that a young nucleus of Thunder players was destined for greater duty this season.
The quartet of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley and Lu Dort were four of six players who were a part of the Thunder’s 2019-20 campaign and by that season’s end, all four were consistent rotation players. This year, however, they each been thrust into even larger roles, counted on for not just production, but to set a bar of professionalism for everyone who walks into the Thunder ION to match.
“They're hungry for opportunity. They're hungry for responsibility. They're hungry to develop and expand their games,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. “They're hungry to lead and learn to lead.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, Bazley and Dort are all starters this season, while Diallo has been the burst of energy allowing the second unit to not just equal but at times elevate the performance of the first five. So far this year, all four players are averaging career-highs in points.
Commanding the offense with bruising yet acrobatic drives to the paint, Gilgeous-Alexander scores at the rim and dishes to others for open shots. At the age of 22, he leads the team in scoring for the second straight year. Bazley has shouldered the rebounding load and has taken on top-shelf defensive assignments every night, adding those gritty responsibilities to his plate as he adjusts to defenses game-planning against him.
Dort, a defensive whiz who uses his Tonka Truck frame and ballerina’s feet to stymie opponents, relentlessly attacked six-day-a-week offseason workouts. He is currently setting nets on fire by shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line. Diallo has been a sparkplug in every facet – using the ballhandling skills he tightened with his relentless work ethic to attack the rim in transition and the half court while also pestering opponents defensively and keeping loose balls alive on the boards.
Their skillsets are all different, but they complement one another and what those four players have in common is their approach. None of them rely on an excuse of youth when they fall short of their desired performance, and each demand more from themselves. With the opportunity to shine comes the responsibility to perform; not to be perfect by any stretch, but to maintain the standards that have helped Oklahoma City become one of the best NBA organizations over the past dozen years.
“We're not going to look at their age when we evaluate their approach and to their credit, neither do they,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault.
Off the court, these young men and their personalities intersect in dynamic ways. Bazley and Gilgeous-Alexander waltz into arenas with dazzling, daring outfits to show off their fashion focus. That duo is outgoing and exuberant, with Gilgeous-Alexander extra chatty in basketball situations as he hypes up his teammates and even himself. A lottery pick and the son of an Olympic athlete, Gilgeous-Alexander is savvy and was prepared for professional sports and knows how to connect with those around him.
“Shai’s very outgoing. He’s very generous. He has a giving heart,” said Bazley. “Shai likes to see others around him be happy. Shai could walk into a room and put a smile on someone’s face.”
Bazley in particular loves to engage on social media, where his Instagram account quickly became a destination for Thunder fans. When he came to Oklahoma City at age 19, the youngster was full of intrigue and mystery – the kid who skipped college to train with professionals and do an internship at New Balance. He wasn’t just wildly trying a different path to gain attention. He was boldly, confidently staking out his lane to becoming a pro on his own terms.
“Funny every day, always joking around,” Diallo said of Bazley. “He’s just a happy person, a joyful person. Always knows how to put a smile on somebody’s face.”
“If you want to have a good time, you hang out with Baze,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
Diallo and Dort are more reserved, laser focused as they stroll into arenas with sweats on, carrying that no-frills approach with them. Both youngsters had to fight for everything they’ve gotten so far in life, with Diallo emerging from the crucible of Queens’ LeFrak City neighborhood.
There’s a toughness to Diallo earned as a child by being one of the smallest on the court as he tried to take on the older kids, who gave him no quarter. He carries that edge in his shoulders. It slips out through the cadence of his New York City accent. It unfurls with the way he winds up for a high-five. Since his rookie year, he has clambered up the depth chart, his innate competitiveness hurtling obstacles and injuries until he saw rotation minutes.
“If you’re not comfortable with him, he can be taken as a little intimidating and quiet,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s a super-cool, genuine guy, and really funny once you get to know him.”
“It’s kind of like tough love, but you know it’s really genuine,” Bazley added. “Hami is funny, and he likes to make sure others around him are happy and likes to see them doing well.”
“We're not going to look at their age when we evaluate their approach and to their credit, neither do they.”
Dort leaned on learned values in the borough of Montréal-Nord, where Haitian immigrant families like his are a prominent segment of the population. Stout and muscular, Dort gives the appearance of someone who you most certainly do not want to mess with. The funny thing is, his teammates poke and tease him all the time, even when the native French speaker doesn’t quite get the punch line.
“It’s kind of funny being around Lu, and him not knowing certain lingos and stuff like that,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
“We’ll just like crack jokes, like ‘his shirt needs to breathe’ and stuff like that,” Bazley chuckled.
Dort grew up with not just French but with Creole in his arsenal and has only been learning English since he moved to the United States five years ago. To bridge the slight language gap, Gilgeous-Alexander revealed he’s been trying to learn some French. Even with a few jokes tossed here and there, Dort fits in with the other three youngsters perfectly because of the depth of his character and the trust he’s earned by his actions.
“The only words that come to my head are just like, Lu’s so big and strong but he wouldn’t hurt anybody,” said Bazley. “Lu is just a good guy.”
With a charismatic group, the four players’ diverse personality traits will each be valuable in different settings, each with their place within the Thunder’s ecosystem. While there will be bumps in the road for the team and the players individually, this group of emerging players can lean on one another for support. Also in their corner will be the Thunder’s coaches, front office and staff, who help clear the pathway for these gifted human beings to be their best selves in their newfound opportunity to play, learn and lead.
“As far as us four, all of our personalities are perfect for it,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We’re all super competitive. We all want to win. We all work super hard individually and try to get better ourselves. If you work hard, have the right mindset, right intentions, things will fall into place. Then the organization around us just allows us to be ourselves.”