The NBA Draft was a controversial time for the Oklahoma City Thunder fanbase. After drafting Josh Giddey with the No. 6 pick, fans, journalists (including myself) wondered what Sam Presti was doing. “Why are you making this more complicated than it has to be?” we said.
Well, it turns out, outside of Cade Cunningham and maybe Evan Mobley, Giddey has been the best rookie in his class and well worth the sixth pick.
Another thing we didn’t forecast was the Thunder having the best rookie class in basketball. Yes, the Thunder have the best rookie class in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close. While all but Giddey spent time in the G-League this season, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Aaron Wiggins have turned into major contributors for the Thunder. All of which are bringing value to the team in their first season.
After Giddey, Tre Mann was the 16th pick, JRE, as we call him, was the 32nd pick, and Aaron Wiggins was chosen at the tail end of the draft with the 55th selection.
While Giddey and Tre Mann make sense, JRE and Wiggins are the welcomed surprises of this class. It was a foregone conclusion that the former Villanova Wildcat and Maryland Terrapin would spend this season primarily on the Blue, spending most of their time at the end of the Thunder bench. But now, the two are vital parts of OKC’s short-term plans while slowly solidifying themselves as building blocks for the franchise’s rebuild.
Oftentimes, when evaluating rookies, there’s a skill set that’s hard to put your finger on. There may be potential in their shooting ability, above-average defensive awareness, or an abundance of athleticism (which Sam Presti seems to prey on). In the case of these four players, their abilities are clearly defined, rarely polished for their age, and each guy has a sense of confidence and awareness that supersedes most other NBA rookies.
Everyone can agree that Josh Giddey is at the top of the Thunder rookie class. His ability has future star written all over it. He’s essentially a 6-foot-8 Steve Nash, so there’s no mystery there.
Depending on what you value in the NBA, Tre Mann may be considered the second-best rookie for the Thunder. He’s certainly had the most highlight-reel dunks, crossovers, and stepbacks. His handles are superb. He’s grown three inches in a year (6-foot-5) and has gotten much better from game one to game 32. While his defense has improved after Mark Daigneault challenged him to focus on that when he got recalled to the OKC Blue earlier in the season, but it still lacks at times. I’ve compared Mann to Jamal Crawford because they have nearly identical games, and size-wise, resemble each other.
Again, depending on what you value you may find more worth in Aaron Wiggins, who has emerged recently, long-term. His sample size is smaller, only playing 17 games with seven starts, but appeared to find something over the last three games where he’s gotten more playing time. Over the last three games, he’s averaging 20 points and 6.3 rebounds on 65 percent shooting. He’s more well-rounded and has shown flashes of being a two-way player in the league. He’s strong, finishes as the rim after contact surprisingly well for a rookie, shoots 53.8 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three, and is a very versatile defender.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl looks like a veteran in many ways already. Coming into the season, we knew what he had to offer: he could shoot, defend, play center in a small lineup, but he wasn’t overly athletic. All those things are true, but each of those things is a bit more polished than we expected this early in his career, though he’s still not the most athletic guy on the team. JRE is the stretch four that OKC’s been looking for. He’s such a reliable shooter, rebounder, and an underrated defender. He shoots 35.0 percent from three and is the type of player, like Wiggins, that does whatever the team needs him to do to be effective.
Giddey’s averaging 10.8 points, 7.1 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game in 30 minutes. Mann tallies 7.2 points and 2.0 rebounds on 37.1 percent shooting from three in 16 minutes per game. Wiggins averages 4.6 points, 2.1 rebounds on 53.8 percent shooting, and Robinson-Earl averages 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds on 35.0 percent shooting from three. Most of us wouldn’t have envisioned OKC’s four rookies combining for 30.1 points per game through the first 30 games of their NBA career.
We know what it is this season. The Thunder aren’t competing for anything except ping pong balls, but player development is dually as important for this franchise, and it appears as if they’re right on track in that department.