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Josh Giddey Is Right at Home in the NBA

The Thunder guard has been one of the most impressive rookies this season.

Josh Giddey may resemble a Harry Styles warmup act more than a highly touted rookie, but the No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft is no fish-out-of-water at the NBA level. In fact, the 19-year-old Australian looks right at home. After just 26 games in Australia's National Basketball League last season, Giddey has been one of the most impressive rookies in the NBA alongside Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes. The 6​​' 8" guard is one of only three teenagers in NBA history to tally 100 rebounds and 100 assists in his first 20 games, joining LeBron James and LaMelo Ball.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Giddey’s fast adjustment as a rookie. He credits the NBL as an important stepping stone to the NBA, both from a skill and toughness standpoint. “It’s a very physical league in Australia,” Giddey says. “Guys get whacked in the paint, and the refs let a lot of things go.” And Giddey spent a large portion of his childhood with a basketball in his hands. His father, Warrick, was a two-time NBL champion in 1993 and ’97—sporting an impressive mane in his own right—and his mother, Kim, played for the Melbourne Tigers in the WNBL. The calm Giddey exudes on an NBA floor isn’t necessarily a new development.

Such comfort at the professional level has allowed Giddey to zoom past the awkward stages of most rookie seasons. He’s often the engine keeping any semblance of rhythm to the Thunder’s offense, allergic to the type of ball-stopping that plagues many young guards. Giddey excels at keeping his dribble alive if his first route is closed off. He shifts gears with ease, often lulling opposing bigs to sleep before darting toward the rim. When Giddey ultimately gets a step on a defender, the real show begins. He adores the one-handed sling pass off the dribble, tossing dimes to the corner with either hand. Giddey rarely misses an open cutter, and the slightest overreaction from an interior defender often leads to a bullet pass for a layup. It’s no accident Giddey leads all rookies in assist percentage, potential assists and the ever-underrated hockey assists. He’s perhaps the most gifted facilitator from the 2021 draft class.

“He’s not one of those guys who is scared to make a crazy pass or scared to trust his teammates,” Oklahoma City forward Kenrich Williams says. “It’s a joy to play alongside him.”

Giddey’s promise as a rotational regular provides comfort for the Thunder. His ceiling provides far more intrigue. Giddey’s burst to the rim will never be confused with Jalen Green, and he isn’t putting anyone on a poster anytime soon. But the right night reveals a potential All-Star path for the Melbourne native. Giddey tallied 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in his third NBA game. He posted an 18-point, 10-assist effort against the Lakers three nights later. Giddey’s size and passing ability have already translated to the NBA. A future as a quality lead ballhandler is very much in play.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey dribbles the ball as Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes defends during the second quarter at Scotiabank Arena.

Giddey will need to pair his advanced playmaking with a stronger jumper to make the All-Star leap Oklahoma City believes is possible. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault notes Giddey is a “more aggressive shooter” than one may expect, though the efficiency hasn’t exactly caught up to the volume thus far. Giddey is shooting only 24% from the field on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He enters Friday just 20-for-60 from the field on pull-up jumpers, and his current shooting slash line reads an ugly 40/25/68. For now, judging Giddey by his jump shot is missing the forest for the trees. Tracking his triples will become of greater note in Year 2 and beyond.

“Even in games when Josh struggles he provides something for us,” Daigneault says. “He’s already becoming more than a one-end player.”

The Thunder aren’t necessarily surprised by Giddey’s advanced passing as a rookie, nor are they shocked as he struggles to find a rhythm from beyond the arc. The other end of the floor presents a different story.

Giddey has been a consistent target for opposing offenses throughout his rookie year, a fair choice considering both his youth and the personnel around him. Oklahoma City forward Luguentz Dort is among the most ferocious defenders in basketball. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sports a 7' 0" wingspan. Bypass the scouting report, and one may think Giddey is fresh meat as a defender. The reality doesn’t match the narrative.

Giddey’s intelligence gives Daigneault flexibility as he looks to vary defensive assignments on a given night. The young point guard is often paired with a more stationary shooter on the defensive end, allowing him to slide into help position or dart into passing lanes. Giddey is quick to close out on the perimeter, though unlike many youngsters, he doesn’t leave himself totally exposed to a pump fake and drive. The tenets of solid team defense aren’t lost on Giddey, even as a rookie.

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“The other team will try to attack [Giddey] and he takes it personal,” Dort says. “He moves his body, he’s quick with his hands. He can actually guard, and he’s already showing it.”

He’s still allowing a healthy 0.97 points per possession on isolation attempts, and there’s still a learning curve in containing speedier guards. But even the league’s sturdier wings find some difficulty as they attempt to bruise their way past Giddey.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey looks at the video board during a time out against the Utah Jazz in the second half.

Daigneault credits Giddey’s ability to “cut guys off and chest them,” highlighting his defense against Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate in late November. Giddey will only become a better individual defender as he fills out his frame.

But will Giddey's NBA growth coincide with another era of playoff basketball in Oklahoma City? That’s a more complicated question.

The Thunder are in no rush to hit the accelerator on their rebuild given their treasure trove of draft picks. Giddey will be handed the keys to the car often throughout this season, allowed to experiment through the turnovers and errant shots. Another tankathon is on the horizon after All-Star weekend.

But toss aside a 73-point shellacking in early December, and it’s been a largely competitive season for Giddey & Co. despite the diminished expectations. Oklahoma City ripped off four straight wins against Western Conference teams in November, and they enter Friday night following a pair of impressive road wins over the Pistons and Raptors. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the league’s most effective drivers. Dort’s improving jumper is quietly creating one of the league’s most destructive two-way forces. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s energy is infectious. Watch very closely and you still see doses of tantalizing potential from Aleksej Pokuševski.

The Thunder as currently constituted are frisky on a nightly basis. Add Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero (or Victor Wembanyama for you tank enthusiasts), and this roster could become legitimately dangerous. Such a possibility should sustain Thunder fans through the dregs of March.

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Giddey will save the long-term projections for a later date. For now, his focus remains fixed on the immediate task at hand, learning on the fly after being tossed into the NBA deep end. The Thunder’s half-court offense is still a work in progress—sporting the NBA’s worst offensive rating—with Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander spending most nights engaged in the league’s most polite tug-of-war. But doses of two-man action (Giddey sports a 1.72 points per possession mark in dribble handoffs) have spurred some solid interplay between the two guards, an encouraging sign early on despite the bouts of stagnation.

“Shai guy is a superstar. He draws a lot of attention,” Giddey says. “Being that secondary ballhandler, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

But through the first quarter of 2021–22, Giddey is flashing the potential to do much more. His size, vision and imagination make him among the most talented players in what’s shaping up to be an impressive rookie class. More than a decade after a historic draft trifecta from ’07 to ’09, the Thunder may have mined another gem. 

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