The Thunder are in the midst of a rebuild with their eyes locked onto the future. As the college basketball season has finally rolled around, I’ve compiled a list of a few names that Oklahoma City fans should keep an eye on. I’ll jump around and pick out guys who aren’t all projected to go in the top ten so we can get some variety with OKC’s three potential first-round draft selections picks. Let’s dive in.
Paolo Banchero, Big: Duke
Arguably the top prospect from the 2022 draft class, Paolo Banchero is looking to stay at the top of boards on a Duke team loaded with talent. Banchero is a tank, coming in at 6’10, 250 lbs. with the perimeter game of a guard. He’s started to take a lot more threes in the past calendar year of AAU play, incorporating side steps, stepbacks, and pull-up threes into his arsenal. I expect him to be able to play the 3 through 5, a potential big man of the future for the Thunder who are so desperately lacking a young building block in the frontcourt. A player with his body type and perimeter skills is built to dominate the college game, and I expect Banchero to do exactly that.
“I love Paolo. The dude’s 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds and moves like a guard. It just makes things so much easier for me. It’s fun to watch – he’s fun to watch.”– Jeremy Roach
Chet Holmgren, Big: Gonzaga
Chet Holmgren is one of the most intriguing physical prospects in recent memory. At 7’1 tall with a 7’6 wingspan, but only weighing 195 lbs., Holmgren is a stick out there on the floor. He has some of the skinniest legs I have seen this side of Aleksej Pokusevski. Despite this frame and length, he iearned the FIBA U19 World Cup MVP this summer. Chet possesses legit guard skills out on the perimeter. A fantastic shooter with NBA range, he’s also one of the best shot blockers to come into college in quite some time. He’s definitely still susceptible to bigger and more physical players down low, but the combination of perimeter skills and rim protection at this size makes him a top of the draft talent. Gonzaga is looking to be one of the top teams in college again this season, so you’ll be seeing a lot of Holmgren throughout the season.
“He’s such a unique prospect,” Meyer told SB Nation. “You look at the numbers he’s putting up, his ability to stretch the defense, put the ball on the floor, his shot blocking. He does things other players can’t do.– SB Nation (Jerry Meyer)
Patrick Baldwin Jr., Big/Wing: Milwaukee
Playing under his dad at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pat Baldwin is set up to thrive in the Horizon League. As the highest-ranked recruit to play in this league, PBJ is assumed to be the lead man on this team and will have every opportunity to showcase his talents. Standing at 6’10, Baldwin is perhaps one of the best recent shooting prospects to enter the draft. Just in terms of the shot-making at this size, think of someone like Michael Porter Jr. (a ridiculous scorer in his own right). Whether it’s off of movement, catch-and-shoot, pull-ups, or any other shot you can think of, PBJ can pull it off at his size. He’s not much of an athlete nor as fluid of a mover as some of these other insanely talented 6’10 scorers being compared to Kevin Durant, but he doesn’t have to be that to be successful. If Baldwin’s ancillary skills look better in college, we might be looking at a top-three pick in next year’s draft.
“I think big scoring wings are guys that I kind of look after,” said Baldwin. “I think, in the NBA right now, Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton are good guys to look after.”– MediaMilwaukee
Ben Mathurin, Wing/Guard: Arizona
One of the top returning prospects in college basketball, Ben Mathurin is coming off a stellar FIBA U19 World Cup where he led Canada to a bronze medal. Last season at Arizona, Mathurin put up 10.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 25 minutes a contest. During these games, he shot a blistering 41.8 percent from three and 84.6 percent from the line as a 6’5.5 wing. Mathurin is a stellar shooter and that pairs well with the defensive ability and frame/athleticism that he possesses. He could have declared for the draft last year but decided to come back this season, a move that could potentially bite him in the future. If all goes according to plan, Mathurin will have another great season for the Wildcats and hear his name called in the lottery this upcoming summer.
“Well, Ben has a lot of talent and as I’ve explained numerous times in our time together, you can kind of see him developing almost week by week. Each week he’s a little bit more confident, more sure of himself. He has a beautiful looking shot and Ben deserves a lot of credit. He works on it constantly before practice, after practice. I don’t know if he’s missed a practice since he’s been here, but he’s starting to really develop into a special player.– Sean Miller
Jabari Walker, Forward: Colorado
The son of Samaki Walker, Jabari Walker has NBA bloodlines and is destined to be the next person in his family to play professional basketball. Another returning player, Walker played excellent in his limited playing time last year for Colorado, putting up 21.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per 40 minutes on 64.1 percent true shooting. The 6’8, 200 lbs. forward is built for the modern NBA, with the mobility to guard multiple positions and the ability to spread the floor and shoot from deep. Posting a 3.7 percent block rate and 2.0 percent steal rate as a freshman is nothing to sneeze at, and combined with the floor spacing and other ancillary skills, Walker could be a fast riser on boards this season.
“Jabari’s an aggressive player and he’s a guy who can score the ball and I think naturally he’s a scorer,” Tad Boyle said after the scrimmage. “I thought he made a great pass there at the end to Tristin (da Silva) in zone offense. When Jabari’s aggressive, under control (and) not turning the ball over, he’s going to be an effective scorer.”– Tad Boyle
Ousmane Dieng, Wing: New Zealand Breakers
Could the Thunder draft yet another player from the NBL next year? Ousmane Dieng is a French forward who recently joined the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL through their Next Stars program, the same program that Josh Giddey was a part of. Dieng is another big forward (a pattern in this class) coming in at 6’10 in shoes with some perimeter skills. He primarily played point guard a few years ago before he kept growing, so he has some passing chops to go along with a nice-looking shot from outside. He put up some really poor numbers for Centre Federal in France (33.7 percent shooting, 27.3 percent from three) so there is a lot of projection here given the size and (my) belief in the shot. We’ll see how he plays in the NBL, because there is a chance he’s more of a late first-rounder than top half.
“He’s special,” Shamir told Stuff, labelling the youngster a potential NBA franchise player. “The skillset is very unique. He’s very fluid with the ball, has a great feel for the game, and he’s growing. With his body type it’s very obvious what everybody in the world likes. There are not a lot of players like that walking on planet earth.”– Dan Shamir
AJ Griffin, Forward/Wing: Duke
Another prospect with basketball bloodlines, AJ Griffin is the son of former NBA player and former OKC assistant coach Adrian Griffin (also the brother of Alan Griffin who plays in the G-League, and Aubrey Griffin who plays at UConn), now with the Toronto Raptors. Unfortunately for AJ, he has been plagued by injuries in recent years. He has now suffered injuries in three straight seasons, with a knee injury costing him most of his junior year, an ankle injury costing him his entire senior year, and now a knee sprain at Duke that could sideline him for the first few games of his freshman college season.
Health aside, Griffin is an immense talent. He’ll be one of the younger players to be drafted next summer and was on a tear in high school and AAU before he got injured. Griffin has a frame which perfect for the NBA (6’7, 222 lbs.) where these jumbo wings are so highly coveted. He is an exceptional shot maker with a bit of a funky-looking jumper (Griffin’s looks a little like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s early jumper with the slower release) and a great vertical athlete to boot who can play above the rim on offense and defense. He has the frame to add strength (he’s already fairly strong and bulky, a great point-of-attack defender) and his a nice handle for a player his size helps him get to his spots on the floor. If he returns to play and continues on his upward trajectory, we could be looking at the first pick in the draft.
“I would say unpredictable and really a special talent that’s willing to do anything to win. [I’m] a guy who just wants to win and whatever coach asks, he’ll do.”– AJ Griffin
Yannick Nzosa, Big: Unicaja Malaga
One of my personal favorite prospects in the draft, Yannick Nzosa is up there along with Chet Holmgren for the best defenders in this class. He started to garner attention after being named to the All-Tournament Team at the Kaunas Tournament in early 2019 and has been on a steady rise ever since. Nzosa is a complete freak athlete with insane defensive mobility and switchability; he covers ground extremely quickly for a 6’11 big with a 7’5-ish wingspan. His offense, on the other hand, is a complete disaster. He is 10/30 from the field this season and has absolutely zero passing ability. Nzosa’s offense is very far away from NBA ready as of right now, but I would bet on him becoming the best defender in this class given the fact he’s only played basketball for five years and is over a year younger than Chet.
His defensive potential is sky high; not many players can make defensive plays like him. He can make full court chase down blocks, no shot is left uncontested when he’s on the floor, and he has a really high motor. He can cover a good amount of space thanks to quickness and fluidity in his feet while switching on the perimeter or anticipating steals.– Marko Turk (Eurospects)
Kadary Richmond, Guard/Wing: Seton Hall
After freeing himself from the tyrannical reign of Jim Boeheim and his nepotism, Kadary Richmond has the chance to elevate his stock tremendously at Seton Hall. In his limited playing time at Syracuse, Richmond put up 12/5/5.8 per 40 minutes to go along with 3 steals and a block. He is a 6’6 guard with a 6’10 wingspan that is capable of being a stellar lead initiator in college. The passing is a major plus that, combined with his shiftiness/handle and length, can allow him to get anywhere on the floor and make a play. The defense is great as well: he finished last season with a 4.5 percent steal rate and 2.8 percent block rate, fantastic numbers for a freshman guard. The outside jumper is a work in progress, and he says he’s going to show that he can shoot it at Seton Hall, so we’ll see what happens. Either way, Kadary is a very intriguing player with a lot of translatable tools.
“I feel as if I can actually be myself, play my game freely and make the decisions [on the court],” Richmond said Thursday after practice in South Orange, N.J. “I felt as if it wouldn’t have made sense to stay at the end because I wasn’t really playing [as much as I wanted].– Kadary Richmond on transferring to Seton Hall
Peyton Watson, Forward/Wing: UCLA
Unlike most other potential NBA prospects, Peyton Watson–an incoming freshman at UCLA–was able to climb the ranks of recruiting by playing his high school career at a public school. Watson is a 6’8, 200-pound wing who is a tenacious defender with the size, length, and motor to disrupt penetration and shut down the other team’s number one perimeter option. He has grown a ton as a prospect in recent years, and he might still be on an upwards trajectory that can solidify him as an easy top-10 pick next summer.
The offense isn’t quite there yet. The jumper is a work and progress and he doesn’t have tremendous athleticism to blow past defenders despite a pretty good handle for his size. This summer in the FIBA U19 World Cup he struggled, shooting 11/32 from the field and 2/12 from three in 87 minutes. He’ll be playing for a UCLA team ranked second in the country at the start of the season, so hopefully we can see some more out of him in a deep tournament run.
There are obviously a lot more guys to watch and I could go on and on listing them, but these are some of the players I’ve settled on. I have included a lot of wings and bigs because those are the player types the Thunder need, but there’s always a chance a guard ends up being the best player available for the Thunder to take. Guys like Jean Montero, TyTy Washington, Kennedy Chandler, and Dyson Daniels are names to pay attention to in the backcourt. This is an exciting draft with some great talent at the very top, and it’s going to be exciting to see how it all shakes out this season.