In the final weeks of the 2020-21 season, forward Jaylen Hoard, who had recently signed a two-way contract with the Thunder, was working through the timing of a play during practice.
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneualt was explaining the proper cadence when rookie Théo Maledon stepped in and started speaking French to his teammate. The quick note from Maledon helped Hoard, who also hails from France, to understand how to get the job done, and practice moved right along.
During the 2020-21 season the Thunder had seven different countries besides the United States represented on the roster, with players originating from Canada, the Caribbean, South America and Europe. Before coming to the NBA, many of those players played professionally overseas or represented their countries in international competition. By the time they came to the Thunder, there was some familiarity with one another and some shared experiences that helped get everyone feeling free to be themselves.
“I really got comfortable coming in here thanks to the organization, the teammates, the coaches, they all made sure that I felt as comfortable as possible here, and I embraced it,” said Maledon. “So that transition was made a lot easier thanks to them.”
In one particular case, the international basketball world proved to be even smaller. Hoard and Maledon are not only both French speakers but had a professional and personal relationship well before ever arriving in Oklahoma City. Hoard grew up in Le Havre, France while Maledon lived about an hour away in Rouen. Both of their mothers played basketball for the French national team, so the two had met each other even before joining INSEP, a basketball training program in Paris.
Hoard arrived stateside just before his senior year of high school, which he played at Wesleyan Christian Academy in North Carolina, just a 30-minute drive from where he’d suit up in college at Wake Forest University. After one year with the Demon Deacons and one season with the Portland Trail Blazers, Hoard joined the Oklahoma City Blue where he reunited with Maledon, who was freshly selected with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“We've been really close for a long time now so just finally be able to play with him at this next level is just amazing,” said Hoard.
Since joining the Thunder back in the summer of 2019, Lu Dort has often been the one trying to play catch up to all the zingers that flew around the locker room from the likes of Darius Bazley and Dort's fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Dort, whose primary languages are French and Creole, has made incredible strides in his English, but when Hoard and Maledon joined the team, it was an opportunity for the Montreal-native to turn the tables on his Thunder pals with some inside jokes of their own.
“It's just good to see people from a lot of countries just coming in together and just playing the game of basketball,” said Dort.
The Thunder is focused on helping players holistically, not just as basketball players. As a result, there’s tons of resources and programming available to newcomers to get themselves acclimated. There are processes in place at the Thunder for both international and domestic players with putting people first as its guiding ethos.
"It really widens your lens, and that's one of the great things about uniting around the game.”
For Aleksej Pokuševski, who left his native Serbia at age 13 to play for Olympiacos in Greece and getting drafted at age 18, coming to the Thunder has been a smooth transition because of the positivity and gratitude he maintained. Pokuševski’s common refrain last season when asked how he was doing by passersby in the Thunder ION was always the same: “perfect.”
“This is a huge cultural shift for him. He's playing in America for the first time,” said Daigneault. “It’s a different style of play. It's a different culture. Oklahoma City is much different than places where he's lived. We're just trying to remain very open.”
“Just learning the place, OKC is a nice city, great for players and just generally professional guys so you can focus,” said Pokuševski. “I know great restaurants, great people. It feels much better now after a whole season.”
Maledon, a 19-year-old who played professionally for the Tony Parker-owned AVSEL club in Lyon before being drafted by the Thunder last fall, has managed to help others with their transitions to Oklahoma City. Take for example, Gabriel Deck, a 26-year-old Argentinian from the tiny town of Añatuya who burst onto the world basketball scene by representing his country in international competition and with his competitiveness and grit with Real Madrid in the Euroleague. Those performances caught the attention of the Thunder, who brought Deck over for the final few weeks of the season. Deck doesn’t speak English, yet teammates like Maledon, Ty Jerome and Mike Muscala, an American who played professionally in Spain to start his career, were there to try to bridge the language barrier.
“I think it helps, because I think he can see familiar faces since there's a lot of European players and he played in the Euroleague,” said Maledon. “I feel like it's something that is that is easier for him and for the whole team in general.”
“You just make them feel as welcome as possible,” said Jerome. “We do a good job of that naturally here, and that's going to help them on a court just make them feel like they're at home.”
While COVID protocols and immigration hurdles kept Deck from joining the team fully until the final 10 games of the season, he was ready to hit the ground running thanks to the support of the organization and his teammates. Even after the season ended, Deck stayed in Oklahoma City to continue working out at the Thunder ION and to maintain connections with his coaches and the support staff, along with the diverse group of players on the roster.
“It is a joy that there are so many countries on this team and to be able to gather so many players is very nice,” Deck said through a translator, Eleno Ornelas, who is the Thunder’s Spanish radio broadcaster. “This isn't a common occurrence. I try to enjoy the experience and learn something.”
As Deck and Dort both represent their home countries in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, both will be sharing locker rooms with a homogenous group of fellow countrymen. When they re-join the Thunder in the fall, they’ll be back with a different brand of brotherhood – one that leaned on one another to navigate a strange season, learned from one another in the brief moments they could and delighted in each other’s unique backgrounds. In one shortened season, these players from all corners of the Earth embraced the Thunder way.
“We have a lot of guys from a lot of different places around the world that's the great thing about teams is it widens your perspective and it gets you around people with a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different perspectives and from different cultures,” said Daigneault. ‘It really widens your lens, and that's one of the great things about uniting around the game.”