Welcome to our offseason series “Immediate Impacts.” Most rookies don’t provide positive value to their teams right out of the gate. But as we saw last season with guys like Jalen Williams, Walker Kessler and Keegan Murray, some rookies can help their teams from Day 1. We’re breaking down ways that members of this incoming class can have that very impact.
If we were to give out an award for the best rookie in terms of immediate impact, last season’s winner would probably be Jalen Williams.
Arguably no rookie in 2022-23 contributed more to winning than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s late-lottery phenomenon.
Recently, the Thunder front office (under the guidance of general manager Sam Presti) has been highly lauded for its ability to appraise the value of young talent (remember that one time the team got a future All-NBA guard AND five first-round picks for Paul George).
Williams, our artificially awarded 2022-23 Immediate Impacter of the Year, is the most recent example of the franchise’s success in that area. And when a team with its track record trades up two spots to get someone, it should make your antenna sensors perk up.
What is the deal with this Cason Wallace fellow? What makes him so good that the Thunder would go into their treasure chest of assets to get their hands on him? Is he their next home run selection? And if he is, will his impact be felt in Year 1?
No matter what your roster construction is, every team could use someone who excels at keeping the ball in front of them. As a general rule, if the ball stays in front of the defender, the defense as a whole can stay flat. If the defense as a whole stays flat, no advantage has been created. And if there is no advantage created, then you don’t need to worry about all the complicated rotations that go into playing scramble defense at the NBA level.
So, in summary, great on-ball defenders help simplify things for your team on defense
As of right now, the main appeal behind Wallace as a prospect is his powers at the point of attack. It’s the reason he’s so often compared to Jrue Holiday. Like Holiday, Wallace has the physical tools necessary to be a premier perimeter stopper. He’s strong, long (his wingspan is nearly the same as Gradey Dick’s), and he’s got fluid hips and light feet.
(Sidebar: Along with his physical gifts, Wallace, like Holiday, is very good at “showing his hands” when he defends the ball. Coaches, at all levels, preach the importance of making one’s hands easily viewable when defending ball handlers. Not only does it make the defender appear longer, but it also eliminates any doubt in the mind of referees that the defender is using their hands to make illegal contact).
Last season, the Kentucky Wildcats leaned heavily on the freshman guard to be the tip of the spear of a defense that ranked 65th in defensive TRACR (82nd percentile), our Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster. According to AutoStats tracking data, Wallace ranked in the 96th percentile in screens defended, 98th percentile in handoffs, 97th percentile in isolations, and 95th percentile in handoffs.
His length and strength will also help him participate in Oklahoma City’s forward-thinking defensive scheme. The 2022-23 Thunder flashed a futuristic formation – one that compensated for a lack of traditional size by fielding a cavalcade of switchable guards, wings and forwards.
(Sidebar No. 2: To learn more about the Thunder’s revolutionary defense, check out this Twitter video created by @bowser2bowser.)
Wallace is a talented screen navigator. However, there were times last season when he would be instructed to switch or give late-switch screening actions involving himself and his former teammate (and current Indiana Pacer) Oscar Tshiebwe. Since Tshiebwe is 6-foot-9, that normally meant the person Wallace was switching onto was a lot bigger than him (Wallace is listed at 6-4).
And as you’ll see in the plays below, he held his ground pretty well in those scenarios.
Another hallmark of the Thunder’s defensive scheme is their emphasis on creating turnovers. Last season, the Thunder finished third in opponent turnover percentage.
As the owner of a 3.68 steal percentage (93rd percentile in the SEC), Wallace will be able to further add to their forced turnover rates – whether that be playing on or off the ball.
Focusing on the other side of the ball, the Thunder ran the most distinct offense in the NBA last season. For some background context, the Thunder’s three best offensive players were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and our guy Williams. All three are great drivers. So what did Oklahoma City decide to do? Drive the ball nearly 10 times more (9.3, to be exact) than any other team in the association.
Now, there is a little more nuance to how the offense runs than just spamming drives (for instance, they run a lot of guard-guard screens to set these drives up). But for the sake of this analysis, all you need to know is this offense is tailored toward great drivers.
From watching the tape, it appears that Wallace fits this taxonomy. He’s got a good first step, a knack for creating separation by luring his primary defender into an off-balance stance, and the ability to absorb contact (although it feels like he often opts to avoid it). And when he gets to the rim, he can adequately finish with either hand.
Kentucky’s spacing was god-awful last year (they were 330th out of 358 teams in 3-pointers attempted), so Wallace didn’t often have chances to get all the way to the rim. But when he did (73 times in 2022-23), he converted on 71.2% of his attempts (per Bart Torvik).
With all this said, these aren’t the asset-hoarding Thunder we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the last few seasons. In 2023-24, a playoff berth will be the team’s primary objective – not tanking for the highest pick possible. And with the aforementioned trio of drivers and rookie Chet Holmgren at the forefront of its quest, minutes for Wallace won’t be guaranteed. He’ll have to earn them.
But if he can masquerade as Holiday when guarding ball handlers, join the Thunder’s switch party, create some turnovers, and get downhill like he’s one of the big dogs, Wallace will definitely earn his keep. And maybe, he’ll do even more than that.
Maybe, the rookie does enough to make sure the award for best immediate impacter stays in Oklahoma.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out the other installments of “Immediate Impacts” on Jordan Hawkins, Brandin Podziemski, Dereck Lively II, Brandon Miller, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Gradey Dick, and Jarace Walker.