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Five Questions for Grizzlies vs. Thunder

The opponent chimes in ahead of tonight’s matchup.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping two straight road games, the Grizzlies head back to Memphis to host the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Memphis Grizzlies are without Desmond Bane again after he was ruled out for 2-3 weeks with a toe injury on Tuesday. On the bright side, Jaren Jackson Jr. will make his second start of the year for Memphis after tallying seven points, six rebounds and five blocks against New Orleans in his debut.

The Thunder sit at 7-8 after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a buzzer beater to defeat the Wizards. Gilgeous-Alexander, now in his fifth season, has taken a massive leap — going from borderline All-Star a year ago, to bonafide superstar in 2022. SGA is averaging 31.5 points on 53.9/37.8/94% shooting splits, along with 5.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks. Gilgeous-Alexander tied his career high on Wednesday with 42 points to go along with six rebounds and seven assists.

Ja Morant and Gilgeous-Alexander are not only two of the league’s best young guards, they are two of the league’s best players, period. Tonight should be a thrilling matchup, and without Bane to provide scoring assistance, Morant will have to carry the Grizzlies offensively. To prepare for tonight’s exciting matchup, I chatted with Jayden Rule, a writer for Welcome To Loud City — the Thunder’s SBNation blog.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest early-season storylines has been the leap Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken. After only playing 91 games in the past two seasons, fans were rightfully curious if Gilgeous-Alexander was a legitimate star. This season, he has proven he is a superstar. What are the biggest steps he has taken to reach that next level?

Coming off an extremely successful season in 2020-21, Shai was primed for an even bigger year in 2021-22 but to be frank, it didn’t happen. His efficiency dropped for a large portion of the season and whilst some may be wary of admitting it, Thunder fans were worried that the 2021 season was an outlier.

This season, SGA has taken that next step and is better and more efficient than he’s ever been before. Why? I’d attribute a large part of that to his vastly improved shot selection from three. Shai fell in love with attempting the sidestep three last year, but unfortunately, he had a very complicated relationship with making it and it was not a pretty sight. This year he has been far more selective with his three-point attempts, averaging only 2.9 a game (the lowest number since his rookie year). The improved shot selection has been a relief and he’s even hitting the ones he does take as well! 40% on the season so far.

Gilgeous-Alexander and Ja Morant are two of the most lethal paint-scoring guards the league has ever seen. What similarities do you notice in their games and what makes them stand apart?

Both Shai and Morant have very long arms for someone of their height which allows them to finish at ridiculous angles over taller defenders. They can be falling to the ground, away from the basket, and still get it to go in off the glass. It’s freakish stuff. But that’s about where the similarities in their paint scoring end.

Morant is such a high-level athletic talent that when his feet leave the floor you let out an audible “now that’s just stupid!”. He uses his extraordinary burst and vertical leaping ability to blow past defenders and get off the ground in an instant before finishing above the rim. Defender in his path or not, he’s going straight over the top of you.

Shai is far more methodical with his drives. Not many players in the league can change pace, accelerate and decelerate and change directions in the way Shai can. He’ll be going full speed one moment and the next he’s stopped and is going a different direction if he hasn’t already pulled up and sunk a midrange in your face already. He also has the softest of touch off the glass, he can target any part of the backboard and still get it to deflect off it and into the hoop.

Who’s a name Grizzlies fans should watch out for tonight?

The Thunder’s 12th overall pick Jalen Williams is a 6’6” wing with freakishly long arms that has Thunder fans excited about his distinct lack of weaknesses. He’s a fantastic passer, especially in the pick-and-roll, already recording an 11-assist game in his short NBA career. He was the best catch-and-shoot shooter in college basketball last year and has a deep bag of tricks that gives him potential as a shot-creator. His long wingspan makes him a disrupting force for the opposing ball handler. He’s been a consistently solid eight-points on-great-efficiency-guy so far, but it feels like he’s due to have a big-time performance scoring performance any game now.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaren Jackson Jr. made his season debut on Tuesday. In six career games against Oklahoma City, JJJ has averaged 19.3 points on 51.8/46.9/92.9 shooting splits, as well as 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 stocks. How will Oklahoma City limit Jackson’s offensive impact tonight?

If I were to have said this as recently as last season, I’d be ridiculed. I still may receive backlash for this now, but Aleksej Pokusevski has genuinely been playing some great basketball this season and a large portion of that comes on the defensive end. He’s averaging just under two blocks a game and has had three or more blocks in three of his last four games. After losing Chet Holmgren to a foot injury, it’s been fantastic for us to have someone that can protect the rim whilst also being mobile enough to step out on quicker bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr.

Pokusevski will likely receive the assignment of shutting down Jackson. The hope is that his length and impressive lateral quickness for a 7-footer will be disruptive for Jackson, who has only played one game this season since returning from injury and will likely need more time to get accustomed to the NBA game again.

Oklahoma City is in an interesting spot in the Western Conference. The Thunder have the talent, especially with a star like SGA, to compete for a Play-in Tournament spot. However, I am sure Sam Presti has his eye on Victor Wembanyama. How do you think the Thunder’s season plays out?

Presti has made it clear that he is going to let the team decide how this season goes. If they show they can be competing for something of value deeper into the season, he plans on letting them run with it and take it as far as it can go. But if they can’t, it’ll be straight back down to the bottom with all eyes on the man from France.

So far, the Thunder have exceeded expectations and sit at 7-8, tied for the 10th seed in the West. Shai is playing out of his mind right now and it’s not impossible that the Thunder can push for a play-in spot. My take on the whole situation is that whilst the rebuild is still not complete in Oklahoma City, the years of tanking to the bottom are over.

Thank you, Jayden, for participating in today’s Five Questions with the Opponent. Make sure to follow Jayden on Twitter (@jaydenrule78), along with Welcome To Loud City (@WTLC), for the best Thunder coverage.

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