By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Mark Daigneault has quite a task ahead of him in Oklahoma City.
He is heading into his first NBA head coaching gig at age 35, and he was hired to replace Billy Donovan a week before the draft and a month before the start of the preseason.
There’s more. The key veterans who helped Oklahoma City reach the playoffs last season — Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder — are gone.
And then, there is the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic has added.
Daigneault doesn’t want to hear excuses.
“It’s a challenge for everybody, and it’s not limited to the NBA,” he said. “It’s important for us to remember that and be grateful that we’re in a league that is solving problems in real time and that we are in an organization that is able to be highly adaptive. So it’s a challenge for everyone. It’s a challenge for the world right now.”
Oklahoma City’s centerpiece will be third-year swingman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He averaged a team-best 19 points per game last season.
“I think he’s ready for a lot of the opportunity he’s going to get this year and he’s ready for the responsibility he’s going to get,” Daigneault said. “I think opportunity and responsibility are two sides to the same coin. He’s really going to get challenged, and he’s going to be able to show where he is in his career and how he’s going to handle all the different experiences that come with being the high-level young player that he is.”
Gilgeous-Alexander will get support from Lu Dort and Darius Bazley, who both gained starting experience as rookies.
The Thunder added veterans Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza in the offseason. Hill, a point guard, has a career average of 11.1 points. Horford, a center, has career averages of 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. Ariza, a forward, has career marks of 10.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
With so many new faces and so little time to figure things out, Daigneault will not rush deciding how players will be used.
“When you have a summer league or maybe a fall, there’s an opinion of the team or the players that we’re not able to form right now,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is have the discipline to remain open for longer and to allow things to unfold naturally and allow the players and the team to tell us what we need to do next and where we need to go.”
Aleksej Pokusevski, the 17th overall pick in the 2020 draft, scored 14 points in 23 minutes in the preseason opener against San Antonio. The 18-year-old Serbian is a 7-foot center who made 4 of 8 3-pointers in his preseason debut.
Pokusevski played in Greece’s second division last year and averaged 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals for Olympiacos B. At the 2019 U18 European Championships, he averaged 10.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and led all players with 4.0 blocks per game.
Rookie Theo Maledon was the 34th overall pick in the 2020 draft. The 19-year-old point guard from France scored 20 points in 29 minutes in the preseason opener, a win at San Antonio.
Maledon played the previous three years in France’s top league. He earned an All-Star Game selection there and was given the Rising Star Award for the 2018-19 season as the league’s top young player.
Thunder center Steven Adams was a rock for the Thunder for seven seasons before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. The 7-footer averaged 9.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in his Thunder career and started 466 games for the franchise.
“Steven Adams will hold a special place in our organizational legacy,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “On and off the floor, Steven contributed to our team and community in unique ways, and his place in Thunder history is secured.”
Dort, who started last season as a two-way player before eventually earning a full NBA deal, averaged 6.8 points per game and started 28 of the 36 regular-season NBA games he played in. He scored 30 points in Game 7 against the Rockets. Bazley started nine games last season and was especially good in the regular-season bubble games.
Guard Hamidou Diallo has a chance to earn a bigger role for the Thunder after averaging 6.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 46 games with three starts last season. He started the preseason opener and had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
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