It is almost a year to the day when the Oklahoma City Thunder first took what, at least on the surface, appeared to be a gamble.
As Daily Thunder beat writer Brandon Rahbar told foxsports.com.au at the time: “Nobody saw them picking Josh Giddey”.
The same Josh Giddey whose weaknesses in one scouting report included ball handling, shot creation, assertiveness, outside shooting, on-ball defence and athleticism. That pre-draft graphic quickly became a meme, joking Giddey’s primary weakness was simply “basketball”.
Now all you can do is laugh. But it is important context in understanding just why Giddey’s selection with the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft left so many people shocked.
“I don’t think anyone predicted that,” Rahbar added.
“People thought maybe he [Presti] was go to draft [Jonathan] Kuminga or [James] Bouknight or trade up for [Scottie] Barnes or [Evan] Mobley. I don’t think anyone had him picking Josh Giddey. It was definitely a surprise.”
But it was a surprise that had Rahbar excited. He described Giddey as one of his “favourite prospects”, having sifted through hours of film study to keep landing back on the Australian.
That was all Thunder fans needed though — time to actually watch Giddey play, to see those crosscourt whip passes and the elite playmaking that made him a breakout success.
You see, having spent the year in the NBL, Giddey was still a relative unknown for some. It did not take long for that to change, as Locked On Thunder’sRyan Stiles explained.
“It looked at the time as if it was a reach and then the next day even, the narrative started to shift,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“The next day, it came out that had the Thunder taken Kuminga, Josh Giddey was the Warriors’ pick all the way and the Warriors were not letting him pass seven.”
Now instead of asking what the Thunder were thinking, Oklahoma City fans are asking just how good this kid from down under can be.
“The play on the floor this year was just jaw-dropping for Thunder fans who maybe didn’t watch him a lot in the NBL,” Stiles said.
“It’s just been a total 180.”
“Every Thunder fan is really, really excited about him now,” Rahbar added.
“Especially [with] what his upside could be, considering that his rookie year was so good and he’s still only 19 years old.”
A 19-year-old who plays with maturity beyond his years. But it is not just Giddey’s work on the court that makes him such an appealing centrepiece in Oklahoma City’s new era.
‘HE DOES IT ALL’: GIDDEY THE ‘MARKETABLE’ SENSATION
Building a brand is about than just social media followers but Giddey has a lot of them. Over one million (1,096,200) across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to be precise.
“I think that he is one of the more marketable guys in the NBA,” Stiles said.
“He does a lot more than any Thunder player since Russell Westbrook has done for himself. He’s on TikTok, he’s on Twitter. He’s making jokes. He’s interacting with fans and making them feel a part of it too.
“The jokes he makes are the same jokes that a normal high school or college kid are making on social media. He is so happy to be in the NBA so that makes him feel so much more relatable to Thunder fans and to basketball fans to where I do believe that he’ll be marketed very well.
“I think that his star power will really start to climb in the next two or three years as long as he keeps up his social media presence and keeps up his kind of attitude towards growing the game and also growing his own brand. He does it all.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo is proof that the size of the market does not necessarily dictate just how popular or marketable you can be.
Sure, he has a championship ring now but even before that, the ‘Greek Freak’ quickly emerged as one of the most likeable players in the game for two simple reasons.
He worked hard and was always his authentic self — on and off the court. Giddey is similar.
“I would say the reason I’m so confident is marketability is because he’s willing to do it,” Stiles said.
“A lot of players don’t want to be in the spotlight after the games over, they want to just kind of live their own life, it seems like Josh Giddey wants it all and that’s a great thing to have, especially in a small market, because it allows a small market to build their brand around Josh Giddey and show what we have to offer.
“We’re not LA, we’re not New York but we still have a lot to offer you and we’ll build a franchise around you, so to say.”
Giddey is more than just 10-second highlight reel plays and TikTok trends though and that is what gives him such wide appeal.
“He’s got this fun side that fans are drawn to and then he’s got this really intelligent high IQ side that basketball purists are drawn to,” Rahbar said, adding: “I’ve heard from the ladies that he’s good looking too”.
Even the fact that Giddey wanted to play at the Summer League was evidence of that willingness to always improve his game, dedication even in a small market team.
“All these young rookies are drawn to him,” Rahbar said.
“They say that Josh reached out to them, they’re kind of already looking up to him, which is really funny because he’s younger than all of them and yet they’re kind of looking at him as a leader already. I think that speaks to his personality off the court as well.”
In Giddey, Oklahoma City fans have a genuine reason to be excited about where the Thunder is headed. The rest of the NBA is taking notice too.
GIDDEY THE ‘CHEAT CODE’ AS OKC’S REBUILD TAKES SHAPE
Stiles has been hosting the Locked on Thunder Podcast for just over two years but has not seen anything like the listener numbers since Giddey was drafted to Oklahoma City.
“The numbers since Josh Giddey arrived, it’s been like a cheat code,” he said.
“You just put Josh Giddey in the title and it gets dozens and dozens and dozens of hits and thousands of hits for every episode that you put him in the title.”
Adding Chet Holmgren with the second overall pick only heightened the interest, with “record-breaking months” since the Gonzaga product was drafted.
Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden were all traded away in the past decade as part of general manager Sam Presti’s long-term vision for the franchise.
But it is easy to lose sight of what the future could actually look like, whether the haul of draft picks would ever equate to something more tangible.
In Giddey, Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, that long-term vision seems to be getting a lot clearer.
“The excitement in Oklahoma City with Thunder fans is the highest it’s been since probably Russell Westbrook’s MVP season,” Rahbar said.
“There’s more excitement about Summer League than a lot of the regular season games this past season just because everybody wants to see Chet and Giddey play.
“It feels like SGA, Giddey and Chet are three kind of cornerstone franchise pieces that you can really build a playoff team around.”
The biggest question though is how those three pieces will fit together.
WHY NBA’S NEXT UNICORN IS THE ‘PERFECT PARTNER’ FOR GIDDEY
You could not scroll through your Twitter feed during Summer League without seeing the latest highlight to come from Oklahoma City’s new dynamic duo ‘Chetmate’.
Whether it was Giddey sneaking a pass through a tight window for a Holmgren two-handed dunk or his new teammate setting a screen at the top of the key, their connection was instant.
It was instant off the court too. Giddey had been forthright in telling media that he “secretly hoped” the Thunder took Holmgren with the second overall pick.
The pair had struck up a friendship online before Holmgren was even locked in at OKC and it is easy to see that off-court chemistry translating to buckets on it.
“Chet needs a guy to set him up, he needs space,” Rahbar said.
“He’s a perfect pick and roll guy. He’s a perfect lob threat. He’s a perfect pick-and-pop shooter. To play with a guy like Josh Giddey, whose number one talent is playmaking and passing and setting up others and he’s already at 19 years old one of the best in the league at doing that — Chet Holmgren is kind of a perfect partner for him.
“They make a great duo and it’s really exciting to add SGA into the mix because then you’ve got scoring threats all eyes are on and then you’ve got Chetmate, Giddey and Chet, with their one-two punch they’ve already got, the chemistry building.”
The connection with Gilgeous-Alexander, of course, remains a work in progress. Although, if you take Giddey’s word for it, it seemed like the two took a big leap towards working out how to play together just before the Australian got injured.
“He’s been very open about the conversations he’s having behind the scenes and what he feels in his game he has to work on,” Stiles said.
“And I bring that up to say, he said after the season is over: ‘You know, me and SGA, we had our best ever game as a duo, where we both felt very good about the out come. We both felt very good about the flow of the game against Phoenix and then I got hurt and we never played another game together’.
“So if that meeting truly did snap everything together, I think they’re heading in the right direction. I think they can really hit the ground running as a duo but now you’ve got to incorporate Chet into that as well.”
But Rahbar reckons just having Holmgren on the floor could open up Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander’s game more.
“I think Chet helps things because he takes some gravity with him,” Rahbar said.
“All of a sudden you’ve got three guys you’ve got to pay attention to, you’ve got to pay attention to an elite score, an elite passer and now this elite defender that can also shoot. I think they’ll figure it out.
“It may be funky. It may take some time to figure it out but I think they’ll figure it out.”
The key to figuring that out may be in Giddey himself answering what ex-NBA player JJ Redick called the “big question mark” in his game right now.
ANSWERING ‘BIG QUESTION’ COULD UNLOCK ‘SUPERSTAR’ POTENTIAL
For all Giddey’s strengths, shooting still remains a key point of concern and he knows it too.
Speaking at his end-of-season exit interview, Giddey acknowledging shooting is a “swing factor”, having only shot 26.3 per cent from 3-point land in his rookie season.
He also mentioned the need to find ways to impact the game off the ball, so as to a better fit alongside Gilgeous-Alexander when his teammate is running the offence.
“Whether it is cutting, screening, whatever it may be,” he said at the time.
Shooting may be another way Giddey can do just that and Redick said it could be the key to Giddey “unlocking a superstar level potential” in his game.
“There is so much to like about his game — his passing, his rebounding, his toughness, his competitiveness — but for him to reach max status, he’s got to become a better shooter,” Redick said.
But he is “not worried” at this point and that seems to be the general consensus when it comes to Giddey’s shooting.
Sure, it is a work in progress but what 19-year-old does not have at least one hole in their game? And what about all the other things he does so well?
“I’m not too worried, it’s so early in his development,” Rahbar said.
“Now is he ever going to be an elite shooter? I don’t know if he’s ever going to be an elite shooter. But if he can even become a league-average to good shooter slightly above average shooter, I think he can do that.
“That’s his swing skill. Honestly that’s probably what is going to determine whether he’s a really good player or whether he can become like a true star, whether or not he can shoot it from the outside. If he can shoot from the outside that opens everything up.”
It is not like Giddey has shied away from it either, telling reporters during his exit interview that he planned on tweaking his jump shot during the summer.
It is the kind of promise the media will hold a talented player like Giddey too and you can guarantee he will put in the work and already has, even if it is not showing just yet.
“I’m actually not worried about it, especially not the clip that it feels like most fans are because to me Josh Giddey is a hard-working kid and Josh is a self-aware kid,” Stiles said.
“Since December he’s been telling us I have to change my jump shot, I have to get better shooting. He’s kept that messaging up since the second month of his rookie season.
“A lot of times in the NBA whenever there’s guys who need to improve on something, they have such confidence in themselves, such confidence in their games that they just never get around to fixing it because they think that they’re perfect or they think that they don’t need to improve it.
“You have to remember that there’s only been four months to work on this stuff and he was hurt and rehabbing for some of that obviously from his hip injury.
“He provides so many things that as long as he can just shoot the ball average from beyond the arc and you have to respect him and you can’t sag off him on defence. If you have to respect him, that opens up his game in a huge way and opens his ability to facilitate in a huge way.”
It is a frightening prospect — the idea that at 19 years old, Giddey is already this good and can only get so much better if he can even take small steps in developing his shot.
It is what makes Oklahoma City’s young core one of the best in the league and now the entire NBA world is paying attention.
THUNDER TRANSFORMED: A REASON FOR HOPE
The playoffs may still be at least a few seasons away while next year will be one dedicated to developing more than anything else, but something is building in Oklahoma City.
Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Darius Bazley, Aaron Wiggins, Ousmane Diang and Aleksej Pokuševski are all improving but still important pieces of the puzzle.
Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander formed one of the most dynamic young backcourts in the league last year and now they have Holmgren — a draft prospect who Jonathan Givony described as “one-of-a-kind”.
“National media is talking about the Thunder again,” Rahbar said.
“The Thunder were one of the premier teams in the NBA for a long, long time when they had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and even the year they had Chris Paul there was a lot of interest. That died down for a couple years and now it’s spiking again now that the Thunder have Chet to go along with Giddey and SGA.”
Not everything will go to plan. As Stiles said, “there’s going to be growing pains” as three of the league’s most promising young players try to co-exist but even that in itself will be worth watching.
“I’m just so excited to see how they work that out amongst themselves in this next season,” Stiles said.
But once they do work it out, once they find that formula to get the most out of each other’s games, forget tanking — this is a team of endless possibilities.
“The plan is that it’s Chet, it’s Giddey, it’s Shai and that’s your big three heading into this next wave of hopefully playoff contention, which hopefully leads to title contention,” Stiles said.
“As far as this season in October, I think that they’re gonna be more focused on getting everybody on the same page and developing their talents. I truly believe that this time next year, the Thunder will have made a move that signals to the world that they’re really going to try to win basketball games now.”