Rookie Trio Shows Tremendous Promise

Over the course of two weeks, the Oklahoma City Thunder played eight games split between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas as part of NBA Summer League. On a roster comprised of nearly 20 different players over this span, three of the most interesting included Chet Holmgren, Cason Wallace and Keyontae Johnson. This trio of players will make up the Thunder’s rookie class for the 2023-24 campaign.

What did we learn from each of Oklahoma City’s three incoming rookies during NBA Summer League?

Chet Holmgren (No. 2 Pick | 2022 NBA Draft)

Summer Stats: 4 GP | 16.5 PPG | 9.8 RPG | 2 APG | 3.5 BPG | 1.0 SPG | 48.9% FG | 9.1% 3PT

Key Takeaways

Holmgren was the only rookie in this class for the Thunder that participated in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Even then, he played in the fewest total games of the trio. In what was his first time playing since a devastating foot injury almost a year ago, Holmgren looked somewhat rusty and out of shape which was completely expected given the circumstances.

Even then, his overall performance in both summer circuits was extremely promising. Getting it done on both ends, the 7-footer was an absolute game changer and dominated for many stretches. Since he missed the entirety of last season, the 2023-24 campaign will technically be Holmgren’s rookie season.

Projected Rookie Role

It seems very likely that Holmgren will be the starting center for Oklahoma City on opening night. While he may struggle early in the season as he continues to get his feet back under him, the impact should also be pretty immediate. Given the minutes he played this summer, there doesn’t appear to be any injury management program or minutes restrictions for the incoming rookie.

Big Questions

One of the things that makes Holmgren so special is his ability to space the floor. Given he’s still getting back in game shape, his 3-point shots didn’t fall this summer as he converted on just one of his 13 attempts from deep.

“I’d say it’s just a little bit with my shot and stuff, just finding that rhythm within the game again, because you can’t really replace game rhythm without playing,” said Holmgren in Las Vegas when asked what he still needs to work on. “So it’s something I’m still getting used to again, but I feel like it’s moving along”

Once Holmgren is back in the swing of things from an in-game conditioning standpoint, he’ll likely shoot better than 35% from beyond the arc as a rookie overall. Another thing to keep an eye on will be his ability to stay out of foul trouble early in his career, especially against more physical centers.

Cason Wallace (No. 10 Pick | 2023 NBA Draft)

Summer Stats: 5 GP | 11.0 PPG | 2.6 APG | 2.6 RPG | 1.4 SPG | 34.6% FG | 38.7% 3PT

Key Takeaways

Wallace truly takes defense personally. It’s the element of his game that makes him who he is, which is key for the Thunder given the Kentucky product is arguably the best perimeter defender in this rookie class.

“You can’t teach dog. It has to be in you,” said Wallace in a recent interview.

There’s a mindset the best two-way players in the league must have. It’s something Wallace possesses which proved true in Las Vegas as he showcased that defensive upside and high motor. While holistically his offensive production wasn’t great this summer, it was mostly due to the variety of roles he had to play alongside unfamiliar teammates.

Projected Rookie Role

While he likely won’t regularly start early in his rookie season, Wallace is the type of player that can easily be plugged into a rotation. As such, he should see playing time even on opening night then will continue to fight for a larger role. Whether it’s running the second unit as a lead guard or playing off-ball as a shooting threat, he can be pretty flexible offensively. Furthermore, he’ll take on defending one of the opposing team’s best perimeter players every night.

Big Questions

The 3-point shot was inconsistent at the college level for Wallace, who was better than 40% from deep until late in the season when his percentages fell off. In his Thunder debut in Las Vegas, he went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc and made a huge impact as a floor spacer. From there he went 6-of-21 in the final four games, so it will be interesting to track his 3-point shooting as a rookie. Another big question surrounding Wallace will be whether or not he can be a self creator and generate his own shot, which he struggled with during his five games this summer.

Keyontae Johnson (No. 50 Pick | 2023 NBA Draft)

Summer Stats: 5 GP | 12.8 PPG | 4.6 RPG | 0.8 APG | 0.6 SPG | 57.8% FG | 27.3% 3PT

Key Takeaways

Before a tragic medical emergency in college several years ago, Johnson was a preseason SEC Player of the Year and projected first-round pick. Now that he’s worked his way back onto the court and found himself drafted in the second-round after a breakout season at Kansas State, he’s ready to compete at the NBA level.

“Just defending and rebounding,” said Johnson in Las Vegas when asked about what he brings to the game. “A lot of people have seen me score at K-State so just trying to show the other sides of my game. I can play without the ball in my hands.”

During his summer stint with the Thunder, Johnson really showcased his athleticism, strength and ability to make tough shots. He provided a spark off the bench for Oklahoma City and was arguably the team’s best player in multiple outings. Although he’s just a 6-foot-5 guard, Johnson has a 7-foot wingspan and can slide up to the forward spot when needed. This versatility was evident in Las Vegas.

Projected Rookie Role

Johnson will be on a two-way contract in Oklahoma City this season, giving him and opportunity to get minutes both at the NBA and G League level. With that in mind, the Thunder has a history of having success with two-way players and ultimately giving them big minutes and a converted contract over the course of the season. Don’t be surprised if Johnson gets spot minutes at the NBA level in key situations, as he boasts an NBA-ready frame and a translatable skillset.

Big Questions

For Johnson, it’s all about spending the upcoming season finding ways to contribute. While he’s not an elite prospect at any one thing, his game is well-rounded. If he can find ways to make an impact, even in the smallest of ways, he will earn minutes. Whether it’s being a smart cutter, versatile defender, lob threat in transition or quality connector, showcasing these traits in training camp will be key.

Each of Oklahoma City’s three incoming rookies have extremely different skillsets. With that in mind, they all have what it takes to play real minutes this season on a team that has a legitimate chance at pushing for the playoffs. Following a successful stint of games in NBA Summer League, the coaching staff and rookies themselves now have a better reference point on what to work on the rest of the offseason.

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