The Oklahoma City Thunder came into this season as the second youngest team in the NBA, but that has not stopped them from emerging as contenders in the Western Conference.
Among the 10 teams with the lowest average age this year, only Oklahoma City and the Orlando Magic currently hold a top-six seed in their respective conference. The Magic are fifth in the East as of this writing while the Thunder are chugging along as the second place team in the West.
A group as young as this Oklahoma City team typically vies for a spot in the NBA Draft Lottery, yet they have kicked off the year with an impressive 20-9 win-loss record. The Thunder are slowly establishing themselves as a bona fide contender and their successful run against their recent gauntlet of opponents over the second half of December backs up their case.
Oklahoma City has won five of its last six games, including a 4-1 showing in their just-concluded five-game homestand. During this stretch, they beat the other three teams who are in the top four in the West–the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a member of last season’s All-NBA First Team, has been at the forefront of their attack once again, though he has been more than a one-man show this year.
One player in particular who has made an indelible impact on this team is their rookie center Chet Holmgren. He is arguably the biggest reason why they have made a significant leap this year from a season ago through his ability to score from anywhere on the floor on one end and defend the rim at an elite level on the other.
Holmgren, the second overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, missed all of last season due to a foot injury which inevitably made him fly under the radar. The immense hype surrounding this year’s first overall pick Victor Wembanyama only compounded matters and drew even more attention away from him.
However, Holmgren has proven all season long that he is as good a prospect as Wembanyama and these two are now neck-and-neck in the race for the 2024 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
The 21-year-old Holmgren is averaging 17.3 points on 53% field goal shooting, 1.6 three-pointers, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, and 2.7 blocks through the first 28 games of his NBA career. What makes his numbers even more outstanding is that he is putting them up for a winning team like the Thunder unlike Wembanyama whose San Antonio Spurs are toiling at the bottom of the standings.
The sky’s the limit for Holmgren and it is difficult to comprehend that he is only in his rookie season given how well he has played. He should only continue to get better with time though as he fills up his frame and grows even more comfortable with his teammates. Gilgeous-Alexander may be the marquee player for this team at the moment, but it is Holmgren who is ultimately their ceiling-raiser.
The future is now for Oklahoma City and it will be exciting to see how the rest of their breakout season plays out in the coming months.