What Jalen Williams’ rapid rise means for the Oklahoma City Thunder

Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

When it was announced that Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, the number two overall pick in last year’s draft, would miss the entirety of his rookie season on account of a right foot injury, most thought his absence would condemn the Thunder to another season in the league’s cellar. Instead, rookie guard Jalen Williams has emerged as a two-way Swiss army knife, another budding star in the Thunder’s young core, and is making a real run at Rookie of the Year.

Note: The Thunder also drafted Jaylin Williams, aka Jay Will, in last year’s draft. This article covers Jalen Williams, the 12th pick out of Santa Clara, aka JDub.

On Tuesday night, the Thunder beat the Clippers in Los Angeles, rising to seventh in the Western Conference. Perhaps more importantly, the win secured Oklahoma City the tiebreaker over the Clippers, with whom they are now only a game and a half back ahead of another matchup on Thursday night.

While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 31 points and Lu Dort’s stifling Kawhi at the buzzer rightfully drew the headlines, Jalen Williams put up 20 points, eight rebounds, three assists, a block, and a steal to fill in the cracks on a night when the team shot under thirty percent from three.

Williams flashed his full offensive arsenal against the Clips with a couple of threes, great touch at the rim, and even a little mid-range stepback late in the first quarter.

A two-way swiss army knife

His offensive fluidity is key given the personnel that surrounds him. When Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are on the court dominating the ball, Williams is a great cutter and a solid spot-up shooter. Plus, at six-foot-six and 200 pounds, he’s big enough to set effective screens for those two.

When one or both of those players are off the floor, Jalen Williams can be a primary or secondary ball handler, effectively creating pick-and-rolls or attacking closeouts. A great athlete, he is arguably the Thunder’s second-most important defender already, behind only Lu Dort. When he wasn’t matched up against one of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, he was battling down low with whichever of Ivica Zubac or Miles Plumlee was in the game at center for the Clippers.

It’s on this end of the floor where the Thunder have carved their identity in the new year. They are 21-15 since January and have a top-10 defense.

Another budding star in OKC

As the Thunder set out on their rebuild, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s inevitable rise to stardom was never in doubt. The question was always would the Thunder be able to surround him with talent fast enough to keep up with his rapid development.

When the news about Chet’s injury emerged, there were fears that this would be another tanking season for the Thunder– with Shai sitting out 20+ games and the Thunder potentially creating a twin towers core with Chet and top prospect Victor Wembanyama.

Instead, Shai made his first All-Star Game appearance this year and is likely to earn All-NBA honors as well. His team is in the thick of the Western Conference with as good a chance as any to escape the play-in.

Josh Giddey is having a steady sophomore season, building upon a second-team All-Rookie campaign in his first year. Isaiah Joe might have the best minimum contract in the league. Lu Dort and Kenrich Williams are both solid two-way wings, but the credit for the Thunder’s strong showing this year belongs to Shai, who achieved new heights, and to Jalen Williams, who emerged as a star in his rookie year.

If Shai (24), Giddey (20), and Williams (21) are a good enough young core to merit a playoff spot by themselves, imagine how good this team could be when they add all seven-foot-two inches of Chet Holmgren this year.

Will Jalen Williams play Rookie of the Year spoiler?

For much of the season to date, the Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero has been the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. His per-game counting stats- 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists- greatly outpace the field including OKC’s Jalen Williams. Throw in the fact that he carries the load of being the Magic’s number-one option and his case becomes tough to beat.

If anyone could make a late-season charge for the prize, it would be JDub. His numbers won’t surpass Paolo’s but his efficiency is head and shoulders above his Magic counterparts’ (Williams’ eFG% = 56.6, Bancheros’ eFG% 46.2).

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Given that Williams is making meaningful contributions to winning basketball for a team contending for a top-six spot, it’s not hyperbole to say that Paolo Banchero needs to finish strong to end the season or else he might open up a window for Williams to claim the highest prize for Rookies.