On the Thunder’s very first offensive possession following the All-Star Break, Aleksej Pokuševski caught the ball on the right wing in triple-threat position. Freezing both defenders who were rotating over with in anticipation of his shot or drive, Pokuševski flicked the ball from his hip – a simple extra pass – into the corner, setting up a teammate for a wide open 3-pointer.
Before that assist, the last time Pokuševski had played was down in the G-League bubble in Orlando with the Oklahoma City Blue. It was there that the 19-year-old rookie was able to earn more playing time and be responsible for initiating the offense within the flow of a formal NBA structure. Pokuševski got full starters minutes and Thunder fans scrolled social media and watched livestreams to catch glimpses of his time on the floor.
His natural instincts and creativity were given a platform to mesh with technique and strategy. Drives to the paint, kickouts and extra passes started connecting with more consistency. The teenager’s verve and competitiveness were being channeled with increasing productiveness, with blocked shots and assists and attacks that got the Thunder’s offensive wheel turning. Upon returning, Pokuševski has carried that momentum forward and become an energy source for the Thunder’s offense to keep the ball moving and get the opposing defense in motion.
“He’s playing with a lot of force. He’s staying simple but he’s finding the open man,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.
Pokuševski was taught the game by his father Sasha, who helped him with the early fundamentals of his shooting and served as his first coach. Aleksej’s older brother, Onjegin, was an influence on the mental side of the game – staying calm and playing defense.
“(Sasha) was a great basketball player,” said Pokuševski. “My father was always there to push me more.”
“My dad was always opening the game with 2s and my brother with 3s,” Pokuševski added. “My midrange game is from my father and my 3-point shot is from my brother.”
Pokuševski’s parents are originally from Kosovo, but fled to Montenegro in the late 1990s when war broke out and bombs barreled into the region. Onjegin was born in Montenegro, but the family quickly moved again to Belgrade, Serbia and on December, 26, 2001, Aleksej’s came into the world, though it was an uncertain place to arrive.
Working in a bank for 10 hours a day for 20 years, Pokuševski’s parents did what they could to support the family in the midst of post-war fallout in the Balkans. The family hung in there together, supported Aleksej’s burgeoning basketball dreams and emerged on the other side intact.
“They don’t talk about it,” Pokuševski said. “It was hard time and after that it was much harder with house, money and everything else.”
“They were trying to make money every month to live,” he added. “It was tough, but we made it.”
The family moved again, about an hour and 15 minutes north up the famous Danube River to the city of Novi Sad, which is where Aleksej spent most of his childhood. As a youth, before he even became a teenager, Pokuševski’s skills were being forged by the older, bigger, rougher kids in his area.
“Guys from Serbia are tough mentally,” said Pokuševski. “There were times when I wasn’t the toughest guy. I was usually the youngest, so they were always trying to push me around bully me, so I had to step up.”
As he sprouted up towards what is now 7-feet tall, Pokuševski garnered the attention of European scouts. The Greek club Olympiacos came calling and suddenly, at age 13, he was whisked away to one of the largest cities in the world – Athens. For five years he was cared for by the coaches, the older players on the club and by his parents who eventually followed him to Greece all while becoming a professional as a teenager. He saw action for the Olympiacos first team on March 19, 2019.
“I had to listen and learn, and I have to do the same thing (in Oklahoma City),” said Pokuševski. “You have to listen to everyone. You have to have patience and just keep working every day.”
The Thunder’s scouts are scouring the globe, so it wasn’t surprising that a 7-footer with point guard skills, a shooting stroke and a creative flair piqued the interest of General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti and his front office staff.
“He was a player that caught the attention of the group, just based on his mobility and his basketball IQ and overall skill level,” said Presti. “We tracked him from that point on.”
“He's showing us what his ceiling his. It's now about how consistently he can perform like that.”
Despite the challenge of COVID restricting access to players last offseason, particularly ones halfway around the world, the Thunder “stayed connected” to Pokuševski all the way until the 2020 NBA Draft. Presti and company traded up to the 17th spot to land the then-18-year-old, who was also the youngest player in the draft. Sitting around a round dining table with family, watching on a laptop screen, Pokuševski saw his name flash across the bottom of the screen.
“A perfect experience,” said Pokuševski, who often uses that adjective to describe his status each day with the Thunder.
With the experience of becoming a professional in a foreign country at such a young age already on his shoulders, the topsy-turvy 2020-21 NBA season has been less daunting to Pokuševski than it might have been for others. His rookie year began by playing rotation minutes in 17 games off the bench behind Thunder veterans before he joined an entirely new set of teammates on the OKC Blue.
After the G League bubble and the All-Star Break, he came back to the Thunder for more playing time. With that came the opportunity to be a primary option on offense and to hold more responsibility on defense. In 27.6 minutes per game, Pokuševski is averaging 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Highlights include a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double against Memphis where he became just the youngest player in OKC history to score 20 points in a game and a career-best 25-point, 9-rebound outburst on 9-for-14 shooting two weeks later against Charlotte.
“He's hit some impressive milestones that if you stack one on top of another, it's pretty impressive what he's done,” said Daigneault. “He's showing us what his ceiling his. It's now about how consistently he can perform like that.”
“He's taking what the defense gives him,” Daigneault added. “His pace has slowed down. He's more decisive with his moves and uncovers more layers and improves week by week.”
In 24 games, all starts, he’s nearly quadrupled the number of 3-pointers he made before the break and he’s gotten to the free throw line 34 times, something he didn’t do in those 17 games to start the season. He’s averaging 1.0 blocked shots per game and has been more consistently in the fray defensively as well.
The 19-year-old is using shot fakes to clear space for himself. He’s stepping into jumpers with a consistent, confident form. On defense he’s aware of his positioning and is getting better at using his length to contest shots while keeping clear of fouls. Through the effort he’s put in, the flexibility he’s shown and the intentionality of the organization’s plan for Poku from the beginning, it’s been about as clear an example of the Thunder’s player development program at work as any in recent memory.
“The work pays off,” said Pokuševski. “I just gotta keep practicing well and playing strong.”