The Norman Transcript is running a Thunder evaluation series, publishing one article a day on a different Oklahoma City player. We will start with the guards. Tuesday’s player is Alex Abrines.
Alex Abrines has higher aspirations than this.
The second-year guard has a case as the Thunder’s best shooter. He can get hot, like he did during a December game in Memphis, and knock down six 3-pointers on any given night. The problem, of course, is that those evenings haven’t been as abundant as anyone, even Abrines, anticipates.
“You expect to be at least in the 40s,” Abrines, who has made 38 percent of his 3-point attempts during each of his first two NBA seasons, said of his percentage. “I've been doing that in Europe before I came here, and I know here you shoot from a farther distance. But yeah, I think I can do a better job with that.”
Abrines means it, too. And he’s justified in feeling that way.
The Thunder have gone in and out of playing him over the past two years, though the 24-year-old stabilized as a member of coach Billy Donovan’s always inconsistent rotation during the postseason, when he hit some timely 3s and even competently guarded Utah star Donovan Mitchell during the Thunder’s first-round series loss.
Donovan has proven over his first three NBA seasons that almost no one receives constant playing time. He picks his five or six guys (this year, it was Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams, Corey Brewer and Jerami Grant), and the rest could earn any sort of time.
Abrines will receive 20 minutes for three straight games and then zero for the next two. Forward Josh Huestis will go through similar patterns, as will rookie wing Terrance Ferguson. Even Abrines admitted throughout this season that he found it difficult to find a rhythm when Donovan didn’t actually supply him with one.
“I couldn't find my rhythm during the regular season,” he said. “I had some really good games scoring five 3s, and then I'd have stretches not scoring a 3 in five, six games. So, I think I've got to work on that.”
But Abrines’ playoff performance should provide an encouraging start to the summer.
Donovan relied on him during the famous 25-point, Game 5 comeback against Utah. The Thunder coach went back to a lineup that included him in crucial moments of Game 6, which the Thunder eventually lost, ending their season.
Oklahoma City switched everything on defense with those lineups, and the Jazz hunted Abrines during said moments. Specifically, they found ways for the 25-year-old to defend Mitchell, who sliced OKC all series. But Abrines actually held his own.
After a season during which Abrines could not stay in the rotation because of his trouble with closeouts, because of his on-ball defense, because of a lack of physicality, he maintained against Mitchell. And maybe most eye-popping of it all, Donovan left him in the game.
“He followed the gameplan really well,” Adams said after Game 5. “Good on him. That’s expected of him.”
But Donovan never quite expected it this year. Maybe Abrines has forced his coach to change course.
“He’s made nice strides last year to this year defensively,” Donovan said. “I think that [is] evident.”
Abrines won’t ever become the Thunder’s top defender. He just needs to get to a place where Donovan doesn’t feel like he’s a detriment.
The Thunder’s starters with Abrines at shooting guard allowed a dreadful 113.7 points per 100 possessions this past season. And Oklahoma City’s defense was 2.3 points per 100 worse overall when he was on the floor. But Abrines’ shooting is particularly important on a team that struggled from beyond the arc all season.
Westbrook can excel most with 3-point threats around him. Yet, he played most of this year alongside at least two non-shooters, considering how many minutes Adams, Brewer and Andre Roberson received.
If the Thunder, however, can find a way to maximize Abrines’ playing time, driving lanes open up. More efficient shots sprout. Westbrook can improve, as can the Thunder offense. Abrines just has to give them reason to play him. And Donovan has to realize when that reason becomes too obvious to ignore.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.