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Thunder rookie Aleksej Pokusevski's defense has been better than his offense, just as no one expected

Kyle Kuzma caught a pass at the top of the arc with only Aleksej Pokusevski standing between Kuzma and the rim.

The fourth-year Lakers forward didn’t hesitate to attack the Thunder rookie. Kuzma drove to the basket with Pokusevski ever so slightly trailing the play.

The hollow thud sound that followed was Pokusevski’s right hand rejecting Kuzma’s layup.

The Lakers crushed the Thunder 128-99 Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, but the lopsided score meant Pokusevski played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. His swat against Kuzma was one of three blocks Pokusevski recorded in the quarter.

He later swallowed up Talen Horton-Tucker’s reverse layup and chased down Quinn Cook to pin a shot against the backboard.

Pokusevski scored a career-high 10 points in the Thunder’s loss, but the three blocks were more impressive than his pair of 3-pointers.

“I think his defense is ahead of his offense right now,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, “and has been pretty good here for about a week.”

Let that sink in.

The 7-footer from Serbia was hyped for his ball handling, passing and shooting skills when the Thunder traded up to select him with the 17th pick in the draft. His thin frame and lack of foot speed were supposed to be detriments on defense.

Pokusevski won’t be challenging Rudy Gobert for a spot on the All-Defense team, but the 19-year-old has been a different player than he was billed as through his first nine NBA games.

There are 26 rookies who have attempted at least 25 shots this season. Pokusevski ranks last among them in field-goal percentage (26.7%). He’s shot just 5-of-27 (19%) from 3-point range.

Pokusevski has yet to get to the free-throw line, and he ranks ninth-worst among rookies with 3.4 turnovers per 36 minutes.

“Every minute out there he’s learning and figuring things out,” Daigneault said.

Quicker on defense than offense. Opponents have scored just 96.6 points per 100 possessions with Pokusevski on the floor.

He leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17.

“Blocks are just coming because I’m a big guy trying to use my tools,” said Pokusevski, who has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a 9-foot-1 standing reach.

Outstretching those arms and waving his hands is sometimes enough to cause havoc. He’s a walking tangle of limbs.

“His length shows up in a lot of different ways,” Daigneault said. “When the guy he’s guarding gets a step on him he can recover with his length, and then when he’s in help and they try to pass he’s pretty active in passing lanes.”

Pokusevski has also been effective on the glass. His defensive rebounding rate is second among all rookies, again behind Wiseman, whom the Warriors selected with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Not until a couple days ago did Pokusevski find out that he can’t grab the ball off the cylinder, which FIBA rules allow. He’s still learning the basics.

“As young as Poku is, he knows how to play on both ends of the floor,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.

But so far Pokusevski’s success has come on the end few expected.

“Yeah well, if you wanna help the team you’ve gotta play defense,” he said. “That’s my job.”

Related Photos
<strong>Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski (17) leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski (17) leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-343b3c5cb4de9a083c4db3ea7d6af836.jpg" alt="Photo - Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski (17) leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski (17) leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski (17) leads the Thunder with 1.2 blocks per game and his 11 blocks rank second among all rookies behind James Wiseman’s 17. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6ff1edc8368d43b3769a477ea5c6b885.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) and Moses Brown (9) defend Los Angeles' Talen Horton-Tucker (5) during the Lakers' 128-99 win Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) and Moses Brown (9) defend Los Angeles' Talen Horton-Tucker (5) during the Lakers' 128-99 win Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) and Moses Brown (9) defend Los Angeles' Talen Horton-Tucker (5) during the Lakers' 128-99 win Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4ba315de9e90436b8e5be5e1699485a2.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) blocks the shot of San Antonio's Jakob Poeltl (25) during the Spurs' 112-102 win Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) blocks the shot of San Antonio's Jakob Poeltl (25) during the Spurs' 112-102 win Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (17) blocks the shot of San Antonio's Jakob Poeltl (25) during the Spurs' 112-102 win Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Joe Mussatto

Joe Mussatto joined The Oklahoman in August 2018 to cover OU football, men’s basketball and softball. He previously covered University of Kentucky football and basketball for SEC Country. Mussatto is from Oklahoma City and lives in Norman. Read more ›

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