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Canada’s Gilgeous-Alexander giving Thunder hope with breakout season

Some Thunder fans consider tanking to get higher draft picks is the way back to contention.

Apparently, the team disagrees.

Oklahoma City was anticipated by experts to be one of the NBA’s worst teams this season — just like last season, when they shocked the league and made the playoffs. Once again, the Thunder are defying the odds.

Oklahoma City is off to a 6-7 start, despite five of its top seven scorers having been in the league three years or fewer and 35-year-old Mark Daigneault taking on his first NBA head coaching assignment.

Last year, the Thunder had veterans Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari to assist them through the tough times. This year, young holdovers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo carry more of the load.

And they clearly are out to win, even with losses offering a potentially greater return on the slew of draft picks general manager Sam Presti has collected through trades in recent years.

“We’re not trying to build a resilient culture, we’re trying to continue a resilient culture,” Daigneault said. “Resilient culture has existed here for a long period of time, ever since the team came here.”

Gilgeous-Alexander of Hamilton, Ont., is the budding star who leads the way.

He averages 21.0 points, 6.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds per match. He hit a game-winner in the season opener versus Charlotte.

“He’s taking on a different level of responsibility,” Daigneault stated. “He’s playing a different role on this team than he has so far in his career, and he’s not shying away from that.”

That approach was clear after he had four turnovers in a loss to Denver on January 19.

“For me, personally, I got a little careless with the ball at times,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They are a really good, active defensive team. They are always in the gaps, playing with length to get deflections and stuff like that. I just think I have to clean that up a little bit.”

Even with that rough outing, there have been plenty of reasons for hope. The Thunder already have victories over Brooklyn and New Orleans and are 5-2 on the road. They rallied from 22 down to defeat former coach Billy Donovan and the Chicago Bulls in overtime.

The Thunder have some rough losses, including a 29-point home loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. But the young core appears ready to dig in and compete. Montreal’s Dort went undrafted in 2019, but his defense got him into the starting lineup by the end of the season.

This year, the guard ranks second on the team with 13.4 points per game and he’s shooting 43.7 per cent from 3-point range. Diallo, the main man off the bench, averages 11.1 points per contest. Bazley, an explosive second-year forward, averages 10.5 points and a team-leading 7.2 rebounds.

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