25-under-25: Josh Giddey is already one of the best passers in the game

25-under-25, Oklahoma City Thunder

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As a rookie, Josh Giddey proved himself to be one of the best passers in the entire NBA. How good can he be as the Thunder roster around him improves?

Few teams in modern NBA history have been as transparently focused on losing basketball games as the Oklahoma City Thunder. After four seasons of spinning their wheels in the middle of the Western Conference, the Thunder stripped a playoff team down to the studs by selling off veterans and absorbing bad contracts for future draft picks, then using those picks to take high-upside swings in the draft.

As a result, Oklahoma City’s 108 losses over the last two seasons trail only the Rockets, Pistons and Magic (who haven’t been quite as intentional in their taking). That has complicated the task of evaluating anyone on OKC’s roster or coaching staff; it’s hard to judge how someone might contribute to winning games when the team has actively prevented them from doing so.

It’s this context that makes Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City’s precocious 19-year-old point forward with almost equally strong selling points and red flags, such a fascinating figure. A cursory glance at Giddey’s first-year efforts paints a fairly uninspiring picture: he averaged just over 12 points per game on miserable efficiency while playing poor defense before a hip injury cut his season short.

Even for someone widely expected to struggle with NBA pace and athleticism, Giddey looked shockingly out of sorts at times. At other moments, however, he flashed shades of genuine offensive brilliance, especially as a distributor, and a closer look at his rookie season reveals a more promising future than some of his numbers suggest.

Even as one of the NBA’s youngest players last season, Giddey quickly established himself as one of its best passers — a rare combination that evinces advanced instincts and feel for the game. Players that age aren’t supposed to see the game the way Giddey does, to create opportunity the way he can, to manipulate opposing defenses as easily as he did.

It’s not hyperbole to say that, in time, Giddey could grow into one of the very best passers in the NBA. With preternatural court vision and an advanced sense of how the pieces on the court move, he has both the size and creativity to pass over, around and through defenses with varied release angles and adaptable mechanics:

Even as a nascent primary ball-handler, Giddey set up more points via assist last season than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, among others, and ranked in the 100th percentile among NBA wings in assist percentage (though that did come with a fairly high turnover rate). Those numbers would stand out in any context, but they’re even more impressive given the environment in which Giddey worked.

The Thunder ranked dead last in 3-point percentage last season, costing Giddey not only gaudier assist marks, but even more valuable space in which to operate. Even so, it’s hard not to see how his offensive creativity could transform a more capable supporting cast. If NBA defenders are already making false steps at the threat of Giddey passing to some of the worst marksmen in the league, what fear might he instill when surrounded by multiple deadeye shooters? How much easier could Giddey’s own scoring chances become when driving lanes aren’t constantly clogged by sagging help defenders?

Josh Giddey has to be able to shoot to maximize his potential for the Thunder

Of course, Giddey himself was a key reason why Oklahoma City was such a poor shooting team. His 26 percent mark from deep was the worst among Thunder rotation players and he shot a downright miserable 24.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. That not only drove down Giddey’s overall efficiency, but forced him and the Thunder to work within extremely tight confines.

Because the threat of his jumper doesn’t scare defenders, they could go under ball screens and dare Giddey to shoot — the same tactic other supersized, shooting-challenged playmakers like LeBron James and Luka Doncic have faced at various points in their careers. Giddey, however, isn’t currently even on those player’s levels as a shooter, let alone as an athlete, finisher or passer. Doncic and (especially) James compensated for subpar shooting by putting pressure on the rim, which Giddey simply can’t do right now.

It would be unreasonable to expect Giddey to approach Luka- or LeBron-level upside, but those extreme examples still illustrate how a primary creator’s scoring ability can influence his playmaking. If Giddey develops a reliable pull-up 3-pointer or a cagey off-the-dribble game that allows him to get downhill consistently, he’ll become much more difficult to guard because defenses will have to account for his passing and his scoring. Giddey does have good size for a primary ball-handler, and flashed a nifty floater last season when he got into the paint:

If he never becomes a passable shooter, Giddey will likely need a Doncic-esque driving game that uses strength and guile to get by defenders. Last season offered some promising indicators: Giddey took almost a third of his shots within four feet of the basket and averaged 12 drives per game (his teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the league with almost 24), though he shot an uninspiring 57 percent at the rim while posting a miniscule free throw rate.

He would also do well to rein in some of his wilder impulses on offense. The same confidence that makes him such a precocious playmaker also resulted in some cringeworthy shot selection, though some of that was the result of Giddey being given such immense leeway on a mostly rudderless team.

What role Giddey plays on the next great Thunder team — whenever it forms — will depend on his capability as a lead ball-handler and development as a spot-up shooter. If he can’t drive efficient team offense as a primary creator, it will become crucial for him to improve his spot-up shooting so that he can become a devastating secondary playmaker. Giddey will always provide some amount of offensive value as a passer and decision-maker, but in order to fulfill his full potential, he and the Thunder must find out what kind of player he really is and how he can become the best version of himself.

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