Thunder: How starting Theo Maledon has unlocked new options for OKC's offense
Theo Maledon drained a clutch 3-pointer and converted a key layup in the Thunder’s win against the Suns on Wednesday night, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander challenged Maledon to be even more aggressive.
“I feel like at times he’s a little bit timid,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the game. “That’s one of the things that comes with a rookie. I remember myself being in that position and feeling the same way.”
Maledon scored a career-high 24 points Friday night against the Nets — matching Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie high from two seasons ago with the Clippers.
Maledon made eight of his nine shots and was a perfect 6-of-6 from 3-point range. He tied an all-time rookie record for most 3-pointers without a miss. Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (2017-18 season) was the last to do it.
“I think he’s capable of that more often,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Works hard. Does the right things. The basketball gods are just rewarding him.”
The Thunder’s future has been put into focus these last three games with the 19-year-old Maledon starting alongside Gilgeous-Alexander (22) and Luguentz Dort (21) in the backcourt.
Maledon, elevated for the injured George Hill (right thumb sprain), has averaged 14 points, four rebounds and three assists per game in a small sample as a starter. He’s committed just four turnovers in 85 minutes.
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Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said he didn’t want to corner himself into an answer when asked if Hill will be reinserted into the starting lineup when healthy.
“Right now George is out and we have the opportunity to take a look at something different,” Daigneault said.
Maledon is a natural point guard — a position he plays with the second unit — but he’s primarily played off the ball as a starter with Gilgeous-Alexander.
Daigneault said Maledon’s open looks from 3-point range Friday were a byproduct of him playing a different position.
“He was a recipient of a lot of ball movement plays that he would normally be initiating when he’s in the second unit on the ball,” Daigneault said, “so he obviously can bring both to the table and he delivered well tonight for us.”
Maledon is shooting 38% from 3-point range through 18 games. Among rookies attempting at least three 3-pointers per game, Maledon has the sixth-best percentage.
The second-round pick from France is averaging 7.3 points per game. Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate, who’s 25, is the only non first-round rookie who’s scored more points than Maledon.
Daigneault has chosen to start Maledon in place of Hill as an experiment. The first-year coach wanted to see what a Gilgeous-Alexander/Maledon pairing looked like.
And not just offensively. As a starter, Maledon has been exposed to guarding higher-level players.
“We’re trying to develop these young players, and one of the things you can do is you can change environments and you can change circumstances and change variables,” Daigneault said. “If you keep them in a very restrictive box they’re only going to develop inside of that lane.”
Daigneault mentioned Gilgeous-Alexander as a recent example.
Last season Gilgeous-Alexander rarely played point guard on a roster that featured Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. Now Gilgeous-Alexander has moved back to his preferred position, but with the off-ball skills and knowledge he added a season ago.
Maledon, listed at 6-foot-5, said he similarly alternated between point guard and shooting guard when he played professionally in France.
“It’s just something that I’m seeing again,” Maledon said. “It’s no problem adjusting to it.”
But just as Billy Donovan always said Gilgeous-Alexander was a long-term point guard, Daigneault feels the same about Maledon.
“He is a point guard,” Daigneault said, “but that doesn’t mean he can’t play on the court with another one.”