As the 2021-22 NBA regular season approaches and training camp winds down across the league, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their potential. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, the focus turns to Aleksej Pokusevski.

The Thunder are unquestionably led by a budding star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with the rest of the roster largely consisting of question marks. That distinction certainly applies to Pokusevski, who was drafted with the No. 17 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The seven-foot forward was tabbed as one of the higher upside prospects in the 2020 class, with length and tools that cannot be taught. However, Pokusevski was one of the NBA’s worst players statistically as a rookie, leading to uncertainty for his sophomore campaign and beyond.

On one hand, Pokusevski scored at least 19 points on six separate occasions, flashing some of his considerable potential. On the other, he shot just 34.1 percent from the floor and 28.0 percent from three-point distance, posting an unsightly 41.2 percent effective field goal shooting mark. That kind of inefficiency is clearly untenable but, for the 19-year-old Pokusevski, there is still reason to believe in the upside.

For one, Pokusevski posted a 3.4 percent block rate and his length and defensive feel have been intriguing dating back to his pre-draft tape. He must add bulk in order to be effective, but Pokusevski does have the kind of reach and athleticism that could be devastating defensively if harnessed properly.

The other end of the floor is more of a mystery box, with Pokusevski able to handle the ball and deliver passes in a way that most players his height simply aren’t capable of doing. He struggled with ball security (18.8 percent turnover rate), though, and there isn’t a “go-to” move for Pokusevski on the offensive side of the floor right now. In addition, his jump shot simply hasn’t translated, and it is difficult to see him succeeding at the highest levels without more consistency from outside the painted area.

Oklahoma City added another highly intriguing, yet unproven, piece in drafting Josh Giddey with the No. 6 pick in 2021. Beyond that, the Thunder have a bevy of relatively interesting young players, ranging from Lu Dort and Darius Bazley to Theo Maledon, Ty Jerome, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Tre Mann. There is enough room to provide all of them with some level of playing time but, as the season wears on, Pokusevski must prove that he is worthy of further investment, potentially at the expense of fellow prospects in his age range.

In the grand scheme, the 2021-22 season projects to be yet another developmental campaign for the Thunder, with few wins and a lot of lopsided results. That isn’t necessarily the best working environment, but the situation is perhaps best-suited for Pokusevski’s development, as Oklahoma City can afford to provide him with a longer leash than one might expect, hoping his raw tools develop to the point of usefulness.


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