Heading into the 2022-23 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were seen as one of the many rebuilding teams in the league, still in the process of shaping their core and collection of first-round picks into a contender.
They even got hit with tough luck when their prized rookie, 2022 second overall pick Chet Holmgren, got hurt in the Pro-Am league and was sidelined for the rest of this season. It appeared to be the Philadelphia 76ers’ ‘Trust the Process’ phase all over again.
But then, the season rolled along and everyone just stepped up to somehow raise the Thunder’s status, from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who became a first-time All-Star, down to the role players within the second unit. Currently, it has the team 12th in the Western Conference with a 32-35 record – normally, it doesn’t look good, but in the West’s volatile standings, it’s in striking distance for a play-in spot.
Rookie Jalen Williams, not to be confused with his teammate and co-rookie, Jaylin Williams, is among that young talent, and he has been a welcomed surprise. Though a lottery pick (12th), he was expected to take a backseat and be a reliever for Gilgeous-Alexander and second-year point guard Josh Giddey. It appeared as such for a while, but a variety of absences opened up opportunities, and when you’re worthy of minutes, coaches will notice it soon enough, so off he went. He climb the depth chart and went on to become a full-time starter.
There’s little chance he wins Rookie of the Year over Paolo Banchero of the Orlando Magic, the 2022 first overall pick and runaway R.O.Y leader, but he’s definitely a tight second-placer.
Here’s how Jalen’s production progressed on the season:
- First nine games (two starts): 21.4 MPG, 7.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 53.4 FG%
- Next 13 games (seven starts): 28.7 MPG, 12.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 51.6 FG%
- Next 39 games (all starts): 31.8 MPG, 14.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 52.4 FG%
It gets better if we look closer. The 21-year-old is simply gaining confidence as he goes along, both offensively and defensively, evidently seen his increase in shot-creation, playmaking, and overall engagement on defense.
Check out his career-high 32 points this past week against the Utah Jazz. In a 129-119 victory, he rattled off 32 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals, and two blocks on a smooth 12-for-15 shooting, including a perfect 7-for-7 for 16 points in the tightly-battled fourth quarter.
Over his last 12 games, he’s at 19.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.5 steals per game, all while boasting a superb 58.2% / 50% / 86% shooting split. That’s a clean line, especially for a rookie, so if we base it on how much he’s improving in just about every step of the way, it’s quite exciting. While still raw at this point, he’s establishing an effective three-guard attack alongside SGA and Giddey, a fitting scheme for today’s style.
Can he eclipse Josh Giddey in the offense’s pecking order? What about Chet Holmgren?
We should see it soon enough, maybe by next season. Josh Giddey is the official No. 2 as of the moment, and he too is improving his game, most notably his accuracy, going from 41.9% last year to 48.5% this year. Just going by styles, however, Williams appears to lean towards being a scorer more than anything, while Giddey is more of a do-it-all, stat-stuffing guard, with scoring coming in mostly second.
The same goes with regards to Holmgren. It’s also still tough to tell as it will depend on how his game will respond being surrounded by guys who have a greener light and played together for a season, others longer. What we know, though, is Williams is building his case, and he’ll come in with a bigger role in Holmgren’s return.