Thunder’s best-case scenarios for 3 1st-round picks

CHICAGO — After tanking two years in a row (and winning only a combined 46 games), Oklahoma City Thunder fans finally have something to cheer about.

The Thunder landed the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, the highest pick in franchise history. To sweeten the pot, they also have the No. 12 pick from the Los Angeles Clippers (from the Paul George trade) and the 30th pick, rounding out three first-round picks in a draft that’s shaping up to be very deep.

General manager Sam Presti is credited for drafting OKC’s first big three — Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook in 2008 and James Harden in 2009 (the first two when the franchise was the Seattle SuperSonics). That young trio took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 and lost to a Miami Heat team with three established superstars of their own: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The following offseason, Harden wanted to get paid and the Thunder wouldn’t do it, so he left. The remaining future Hall of Fame duo’s long-term chemistry didn’t work out in the following years, and the team eventually imploded.

The Thunder made a last-ditch effort of building around Westbrook, with George and then Chris Paul, before Presti went into complete rebuild mode. They did not come out empty-handed. After executing 14 trades in the 2019-20 season and off-loading all of their star players, Presti amassed 38 draft picks for the next seven years.

Thunder fans knew they had to be patient. They’ve seen Presti bring in young, talented players before and build something special.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have three first-round picks in the 2022 NBA draft. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Even James praised Presti for what he’s doing in OKC, telling reporters at All-Star weekend, “The MVP over there is Sam Presti. He’s the MVP. I mean, Josh Giddey is great. But Sam Presti, I don’t understand this guy’s eye for talent. [Kevin Durant]Russ [Westbrook]James [Harden], Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Josh Giddey and the list goes on and on and on. This guy is pretty damn good.”

The Thunder acquired budding, young superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the 2019 George trade and picked up undrafted Lu Dort the same year. In 2021, the Thunder had their highest draft pick since 2009 and selected Giddey, an Australian guard, with the sixth overall pick. Giddey exceeded expectations this season and was named the Western Conference rookie of the month for the first three months before being sidelined with a hip injury in February.

The young core trio still needed to be surrounded by a few pieces, most notably size in post. And not only size, but versatility and skill. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder aggressively tried to move up in the 2021 draft to select Evan Mobley at No. 3. The Cavaliers held onto the pick and took Mobley.

“Last year, they tried to move up to three for Evan Mobley,” Wojnarowski said on his podcast. “I think if the Thunder had the No. 1 pick last year, they would have taken Mobley. And he was there at three, they could not pry him out of Cleveland.”

Again, Presti was patient. This year’s draft is top heavy with star-power potential in 6-foot-10 Jabari Smith, 7-foot Chet Holmgren and 6-foot-10 Paolo Banchero. All three fill a much-needed frontcourt void in OKC.

The No. 2 pick might actually be better than No. 1 this year with there being no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick like in years past. Whoever the Orlando Magic don’t take, the Thunder will pick up.

Jabari Smith is one of the top prospects in the 2022 NBA draft.  (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jabari Smith is one of the top prospects in the 2022 NBA draft. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Oklahoma City’s options at No. 2 and No. 12

There are essentially four players in play for the Thunder’s second pick: Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jaden Ivey. Smith and Holmgren are favored to go one and two, but there have been rumblings this week at the draft combine in Chicago that the Thunder really like Ivey and he could be Ja Morant 2.0.

Let’s break down the best-case scenarios for picks two and 12.

Scenario 1

no. 2 Jabari Smith, No. 12 Malachi Branham

Smith is the best shooting big in this draft class, hitting 42% from deep in his one year at Auburn, and he has a frame that will fill out nicely in the next couple of years. His natural feel for the game and grit mentality will bode well for any organization, and he definitely has All-Star potential.

Branham might be one of the biggest risers of the week at the combine after interviewing with teams. A lot of teams love his size at 6-foot-5, and he’s versatile enough to play on or off the ball.

Scenario 2

no. 2 Chet Holmgren, No. 12 Johnny Davis

Holmgren has been called a unicorn for reason. There has never been a prospect like him. Even though his slight frame at 195 pounds is cause for concern, it will be hard for teams to pass on his potential upside. He’s an elite shot-blocker and handles the ball like a guard, taking players off the dribble or bringing the ball up himself in transition.

Davis is a level-headed guard who just does a lot of little things really well. He’s not as great of a shooter as Ivey, but he might be the better passer in the lane and off screens.

Scenario 3

no. 2 Jaden Ivey, No. 12 Mark Williams

Ivey would be the most surprising pick at No. 2, but far from a bad option. History has shown (ahem, 2019 with Zion Williamson and Morant and 2018 with Marvin Bagley over Trae Young) that there is a ton of value in picking up a highly skilled guard over the apparent surefire forward superstar.

If the Thunder take Ivey here, there’s still room to get some size later in the lottery with 7-foot-1 Williams. He’s an excellent rim protector with his 7-foot-5 wingspan. Williams improved tremendously from his freshman to sophomore season at Duke, so there’s still room for growth. He would bring athleticism and size in the post next to 7-foot 190-pound Aleksej Pokusevski.

Scenario 4

no. 2 Paolo Banchero, No. 12 Ochai Agbaji

Out of the three projected at the top of the draft, Banchero passes the eye test and could contribute to any team in a major way with his physical presence and the way he moves with the ball.

Agbaji was a four-year player at Kansas and led the Jayhawks to a national title this past season. He’s a winner, and that experience matters during a rebuild process. The 6-foot-5 guard will likely be the oldest player in the lottery and can be plugged into any team right away with his size and experience.

Thunder’s strategy moving forward

This could be the draft class that breaks the Thunder’s tanking trend.

Yes, there’s French phenom Victor Wembanyama coming up next year along with G League Ignite star Scoot Henderson and Overtime Elite twins Amen and Ausar Thompson. But this year might be the piece that brings it all together for Oklahoma City.

Down the road, Presti still has options with 34 remaining draft picks in the next six years. Slowly, Presti has been rebuilding this team. Brick by brick. Draft pick by draft pick. It’s finally paying off and this could be the draft class that changes everything for the Thunder.

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