One notable absentee from the Oklahoma City’s trip to this year’s Summer League was Serbian big man Aleksej Pokusevski.
The 7-foot-0 first-round draft pick from the 2020 draft had an up-and-down first season with the Thunder as he acclimated to the NBA, but he began to show real promise down the home stretch of his rookie year.
But instead of heading to Las Vegas like most rising NBA sophomores, OKC had very different offseason plans for Pokusevski.
“We wanted to make sure that he was focused on just physical training,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said during his pre-season Zoom press conference on Friday morning.
The decision to hold him out of Summer League action was one purely based on sports science as the Thunder put their young player on a physical program to help him transform his body, Presti said.
“When the players finish the season, especially young player like that to play a lot of minutes, you got to give them time to totally decompress mentally, physically, emotionally,” Presti said. “The ramp up to get back to be able to train takes a period of time. This is all based on you know sport science and a lot of the data that that every team uses nowadays. Once he got to an offseason level of training for his body, we want to be able to keep it there.
“In order to go to an offseason training to play in Summer League, that's like a month long periodization process that ramps up. You can't train at the same level, from, from a physical standpoint, in the areas we wanted him to focus on and also prepare for Summer League. So we want to consolidate all that effort physically for him, and I think he's done an excellent job.”
The rise of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo has given many visions of what a true transformation can look like, but Pokusevski can’t pack on a complete overhaul in just one summer.
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Antetokounmpo himself made modest gains over time, and Oklahoma City won’t want Pokusevski to rush his physique at the risk of losing any of his mobility, which makes him such a threat at his size on the perimeter.
It will be a multi-year process for Pokusevski to achieve his peak form, one in which he can withstand the battles in the paint but also continue to beat people off the dribble beyond the 3-point line, but Presti said the franchise is pleased with his work during the offseason.
“The journey for him is going to be continuous, just like every other player on our team,” Presti said. “It doesn't matter how old they are. But I think he maximized the time that he had in the summer, and now we'll see where that leaves us when he starts training camp.”
Missing out on the Summer League experience shouldn’t be that big of a deal to his development as a whole, as Presti said the most important aspect of Summer League is the camaraderie gained with teammates by going through the process. Presti said he believes that the team will learn just as much about each of their young pieces through the first six practices of training camp as they would learn through the entire Summer League process.
Though longer than last offseason, the 2021 NBA recess still stands as the second-shortest offseason in league history, so even a massive jump in levels of play shouldn’t be a major warning flag toward the development of any players this year.
But nevertheless, the Thunder will hope Pokusevski builds off his form from the close of last season.
“I think he has a unique set of skills and talent,” Presti said of Pokusevski. “But he's gonna have to fight, he's gonna have to compete. He's far from having established himself as a player in the NBA, but the steps he took this summer I think are going to give them the best opportunity to realize his talent.”
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