Theo Maledon got more than he could have ever guessed out of his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Drafted with the No. 34-overall pick, the French playmaker was expected to be the floor general for the Thunder bench unit, occasionally getting run as the third guard alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort.
Instead, injuries threw Maledon straight into the mix. Seeing action in 65 of OKC’s 72 games this year, Maledon started 49 times.
Thrust into the spotlight, Maledon didn’t take long to adjust. Led by a high basketball IQ and a knack for playmaking, Maledon ended the year averaging 10.1 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting, adding another 3.5 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 steals per contest.
Maledon made history in the process, as his 105 3-pointers made set the new rookie record for Oklahoma City.
Not only dealing with the rigors of the NBA season for the first time, Maledon had to adjust to life off the court, but he said a good support system around him helped him acclimate amidst a pandemic.
“I feel like I really got comfortable coming in here thanks to the organization, the teammates and the coaches,” Maledon said during his end of the season exit interview. “They all made sure that I felt as comfortable as possible here and I embraced it.”
Standing out amongst his peers, Maledon’s points per game ranked 12th amongst fellow rookies, his assists per game ranked seventh, while playing the sixth most minutes in the entire rookie class.
But what got Mark Daigneault excited about the rookie was his ability to tackle the challenges of the season and progress.
“A lot of the season has been about trying to create advantages for him so he can play-make,” Daigneault said after OKC’s 129-109 loss to the Washington Wizards on April 23. “We’ve talked a lot of times about his aggressiveness and pace, him looking to hit gaps and get into the paint with the ball. And he certainly ticked up in that.”
On that particular night, Maledon had poured in 20 points on 5-of-11 shooting going up against Russell Westbrook.
And as he grows, he’ll have to continue to grow more comfortable with his shot selection.
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Maledon finished the year with a true shooting percentage, a statistic measuring shooting efficiency that weights for 2-point shots, 3-point shots and free throws, of 48.9 percent.
While it’s not a spectacular mark, it’s on par with other guards across the league who fall into he category of players the Thunder wish Maledon would develop into (guards who are either good ball handlers but not primary scorers for their team, or a secondary ball handler who can fit in with the starters).
Former Thunder star Dennis Schroder’s true shooting percentage his rookie year was just 44.2 percent, but after maturing in the league, he’s steadily gotten more efficient as a scorer, culminating in a career best 57.5 percent true shooting mark playing alongside mid-range maestro Chris Paul for OKC last year.
Often maligned New Orleans point guard Lonzo Ball also had a lackluster shooting debut, posting a true shooting percentage of 44.4 percent his rookie year, but he’s improved on that mark every year in his four seasons in the league, finishing 2020-21 with an average of 55.1 percent.
As he works this offseason, Maledon could be primed to take a leap from beyond the arc. Despite setting the new rookie record, Maledon still only shot 36.8 percent from deep this year, and singled it out as a focus of his offseason training regimen.
“I definitely want to still improve in that area,” he said. “I felt like I was a little bit too inconsistent throughout the year and I felt like working on my consistency is one of the goals of the work I’m going to put in this offseason. I want to still be able to improve in every aspect of the game and be more consistent.”
One thing that was a staple of Maledon’s game all year long was his defensive prowess.
The rookie added 1.1 defensive win shares this season, a much better baseline measure than Schroder’s 0.4 defensive win shares during his rookie season in Atlanta. While Maledon got much more run last year than Schroder did in his rookie season, it’s still an area of the German’s game he’s improved on throughout his eight-year NBA career.
In his two seasons in Oklahoma City, Schroder was a sneaky All-Defensive team candidate, adding 2.4 defensive win shares and 1.8 defensive win shares during his stint with the Thunder.
As he continues to grow in the league and adds to his physical frame, Maledon has the feel for the game to continue to grow on the defensive end of the floor. Ball contributed 2.5 defensive win shares in a much different role during his rookie season in Los Angeles, but it goes to show the defensive impact an intelligent guard can have.
Another hard-nosed guard who is painted as undersized by some is Miami second-year player Kendrick Nunn. Standing just 6-foot-2, Nunn added 1.6 defensive win shares in Miami’s NBA Finals run last year, another player who’s role Maledon could aspire to fill in Oklahoma City.
Often matched up against the best guards in the league night-in and night-out, the Frenchman said he learned every night during his rookie year.
“I think I learned a lot from it and it was really great to be able to get the chance to compete against the best point guards in the world,” he said. “Obviously I learned a lot from it, and I’m really excited and looking forward to competing against them (next year).”
Maledon also said when watching back film, he was always looking to add to his game from the stars he faced every single night.
Thrown into the fire, Maledon always seemed to respond with great effort and an ever-growing recognition of the game before him in the NBA.
He laid the foundation for what could be a very productive career as a role player in OKC, now he just needs to continue to grow stronger and more consistent in the years to come to fulfill his potential.