The Oklahoman

Thunder rookies shine in opening rout

- Berry Tramel Columnist The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK

In case anyone hadn't realized it by Wednesday night, it didn't take long to understand that this is going to be a silver-lining sort of Thunder season. Look for good amid lots of bad.

After more than nine minutes of the season opener, the Thunder had all of 11 points and trailed the Utah Jazz by 10. Eventually, the Jazz had a 107-86 victory and the Thunder had the first of what promises to be many defeats.

But back to the silver lining. The Thunder rookies weren't bad. Not bad at all.

Oh, they were swamped by the Jazz veterans. Utah is a team capable of winning the NBA championsh­ip. The Thunder is a team capable of winning the NBA lottery. This was a mismatch from the start.

But we knew that. What we don't know is when or if the Thunder rookies can turn into real NBA players.

That question will be answered over the course of a season or three, but every journey starts with a step, and that first step was in Salt Lake City.

And the rookies did just fine. Secondroun­d draft pick Aaron Wiggins wasn't activated for the game, which is a bummer. I liked what I saw out of Wiggins in summer league and exhibition games. And Vit Krejci of the Czech Republic, a second-round pick in 2020 who missed all of last season, played only the final 3:14 in garbage time.

But Josh Giddey, Tre Mann and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl did some good things.

“They didn't let the moment make them nervous,” veteran center Derrick Favors said of the rookies. “Especially Tre. They came out and made some plays, made some shots. Overall, I think they played good.”

Heck, the freshmen outperform­ed the sophomores. The Thunder's pair of second-year players – Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon – weren't productive or effective at all.

Robinson-Earl, an undersized center from Villanova, made four of six shots, including 2-of-3 from deep, and finished with 10 points. But he had just two rebounds, and the Thunder was outscored by 11 in his 13:18 of playing time.

That's what happens when Rudy Gobert is on the other side. The Jazz's 7-foot-3 center had seven rebounds in the 12 minutes or so he shared the court with Robinson-Earl. In Robinson-Earl's defense, it wasn't like anyone kept Gobert off the boards. He had 21 rebounds.

But that's probably Robinson-Earl's fate, at least early in his career. Maybe he can learn how to make up for his lack of size (JER is about 6-foot-73⁄ 4), but that will take awhile.

Meanwhile, Giddey, the 6-foot-8 No. 6 overall pick, showed his versatilit­y and potential. His passing wasn't on great display; Giddey had just three assists – it's hard to pile up assists on a night when your team makes 37.4% from the field. But Giddey had 10 rebounds to go with his four points.

Giddey didn't look lost. He looked ready to play. He looked like he belonged. That's a big difference from, say, Pokusevski's rookie year.

I'd like to see Giddey be more assertive offensively, but I think that will be a long time coming. He's the anti-Russell Westbrook. And Giddey certainly ceded the ball to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander much of the night. Even when SGA sat, Maledon retained most of the point guard duties.

Giddey seems to have few rock-theboat tendencies. That's good in the long term. It's frustratin­g in the short term, when individual progress is the only form of Thunder satisfacti­on.

And finally, Mann had a strong debut.

I haven't been a big fan, from what I've seen. As an 18th overall pick, Mann's not supposed to be setting the world on fire, and he hasn't.

But Mann scored nine points on 4of-7 shooting against the Jazz. My chief criticism is 3-point line awareness. Mann took a few long 2-pointers that easily could have been from the bonus area. But he'll learn. Derek Fisher played 80 years in the NBA and still had his foot on the line multiple times a game.

Mann is slight of build and will get pushed around, but the Thunder defense wasn't horrible with Mann on the court. The Jazz outscored the Thunder by four points in Mann's 14:55.

“They didn't look overwhelme­d at all,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.

Meanwhile, the sophomores struggled.

Poku missed his only two shots, both 3-point attempts, and also missed two foul shots. He had three rebounds and three assists but had two turnovers. I will say this: Pokusevski's defense seemed decent. He had just one foul in 15 minutes and played well on the perimeter against much smaller ( and quicker) players. The Thunder was outscored by just two points in Poku's 14:56 of playing time.

Maledon made just one of six shots, missed all three of his 3-point attempts, and finished with four points, two rebounds and three assists. Maledon rarely will be able to hold up defensivel­y, but in his 21 minutes, the Thunder was outscored by just three points.

So a rough start to a rough season, but if the rookies continue to show promise, the Thunder will take it.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalist­s by purchasing a digital subscripti­on today.

 ?? CHRIS NICOLL/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Thunder guard Josh Giddey (3) shoots the ball over Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the third quarter of a 107-86 loss at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
CHRIS NICOLL/USA TODAY SPORTS Thunder guard Josh Giddey (3) shoots the ball over Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the third quarter of a 107-86 loss at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
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