The Oklahoma City Thunder took a big step forward in their rebuilding process a year ago, going from an early lottery team to the Play-In. A big part of that leap was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becoming a full-on superstar, but he also had plenty of help from his young teammates.
One of the most impressive of those teammates was Jalen Williams, who had a terrific rookie season, establishing himself as a strong two-way force on the wing. To start the 2023-24 campaign, Williams has taken on an even larger role, averaging 17.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game for the 4-3 Thunder as they are looking to take another step into playoff contention in the West.
On Tuesday, we got a chance to sit down with Williams over Zoom on behalf of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III ahead of the November 10 release of the game, as the 22-year-old has been waiting not so patiently since Summer League to get his hands on the full game. We talked about the Thunder learning to win, what makes them the rare young team to be a good defensive group, how Chet Holmgren’s elevated their play on both ends, and what Williams has done to raise his level coming into his second year. But we started with some CoD talk, about the hyper-competitive games the Thunder play, who has the best skills on the sticks, and he makes me feel bad by calling his teammates in their late 20s “oldheads.”
What’s going on, Jalen?
I’m good man. I just finished practice, chillin.
Awesome. I watched some of your appearance on JJ Redick’s pod and you were talking about how competitive practices get. I want to start with a little Call of Duty talk because I know y’all have a bunch of guys on the team that play it. How much does that competitiveness transfer from the court to when you hop on the sticks?
The sticks is definitely more competitive than on the court [laughs]. I don’t know it’s just like something about like, video games in general too, it’s just like a different level of competitiveness. Yeah. Yeah, online for us, usually we’re pretty teamed up but I mean, like you go to somebody’s crib and the game is on is definitely different. You know, there’s money on the line usually, so I feel like that’s a big incentive to be a little more competitive with it.
Y’all are younger team, is it more video games than like cards and stuff? I know veteran teams, it’s a lot of card games, that sort of thing. Is it more more video games for y’all or is it both?
I’d probably say — I’ll honestly say, yeah. Especially in the offseason. Because, you know, there are dog days where it’s really, like, boring and we’re in Oklahoma. So a lot of it, I wouldn’t even say is a younger team, it’s just only so much you do out here. So, with how close we are, too, like we just play. That’s just one of the things we kind of resort to, is like just playing.
Can I get the scouting report of the best and worst Call of Duty players on the Thunder?
Okay, J-Will’s [Jaylin Williams] probably up there. He’s probably the best on the team to keep it a stack. I feel like I’m in that like 3-4 range. Trying to think who else would be. I don’t know, Shai gettin’ older so I feel like he out of touch with a lot of stuff. J-Will’s definitely first, I feel like I’m like fourth in there. I know Tre Mann be playing a lot. Oh, Chet. Chet plays a lot. So Chet’s probably in that 1-2 range as well. I’ll probably put myself at three honestly. And then Tre, Wiggs [Aaron Wiggins] is probably in there. Then we got a couple oldheads that don’t play video games anymore. Like K-Rich [Kenrich Williams], which is what you’re just talking about, you know, like there’s some dudes that haven’t hopped on the sticks since they were early in the league.
That would be me. But yeah, I was gonna ask who do you not want to be teamed up with like, if y’all were squadding up?
Oh, K-Rich for sure. There’s a bunch of people I wouldn’t want to be teamed up with. Pokusevski, Davis Bertans. Yeah, there’s some oldheads on the team where I’m like, I’m good. I don’t even know if you know how to like, turn the system on.
I gotta be honest, it’s a little upsetting for you to highlight a bunch of guys who are like 27 and say that they’re the oldheads. I just want to say as a 32 year old like, that hurts.
Our team is young so it’s like it’s different. They’re like the closest thing to oldheads on our team. Our team is young. Oh, Vasilije [Micic]. There’s just no way he plays video games. There’s absolutely no way, so I wouldn’t want him on my team either.
Have you gotten the chance to play the new beta for Modern Warfare III?
Yeah, I did a little bit and then we ended up going to Cleveland and had to travel a little bit but I still like always able to find time. Today will probably be one of those days, we’ve kind of got the rest of the day off.
Early impressions of the new game? How excited are you to get a little more a little more time on that?
I’m super excited, and I think too it’s like when you get like the campaign, too, because that’s all that we can play right now. It like makes you want to play the rest of the game really bad just cause it’s like you know, you wait a whole year for the new one. So I’m excited for that and then I feel like getting a sneak peek at Summer League made it even worse, because it’s like, what are we supposed to do in the meantime? So, I went back and play the some of the old ones.
A KG in Uncut Gems, “Why would you show it to me if I can’t have it?” type moment.
Yeah, like, you know what I mean? Yeah. So just kind of playing that. Try not to beat the campaign too fast. Kind of just chillin, waiting for everybody else to kind of be able to play the game. Yeah.
I do want to talk a little basketball because you’re off to a nice start to the season, got a nice win last night against Atlanta. What would you say is the biggest difference between how you guys came into last year and how you guys came into this year now with some some more expectations coming off the Play-In appearance and just generally teams not being necessarily surprised when y’all come in the building and are as competitive as you are?
Yeah, I mean, you hit on the head. A lot of it has to do expectations and I mean — even for ourselves last year, you know, from Chet getting hurt early, not really knowing what we were gonna do with the season. I think we did a good job as a collective wanting to win as many games as possible and kind of buying into our team. I think we have a lot of dudes that are young and hungry and want to win and compete that play hard every night, which is kind of lost in the NBA, you know. And it obviously makes sense, you play so many games, it’s easy to kind of let one slip and stuff like that. So I think we’ve done a really good job of that, and, I don’t know, we just have to like, obviously everybody feels that way, but I think we just have a really competitive group. So we kind of are always able to push each other and we’re comfortable going at each other and find the time to do that. So I think we’re solid. But as far as expectations, I don’t think we really have any. I think that’s kind of the beauty in our team. Nobody’s really worried about three weeks from now, two months from now. You know, just kind of focus on next practice and then take it day by day from there — next game — and kind of doing that. I think we’ve done a good job of that so far this year.
You talk about how you’re such a young team and something that doesn’t usually happen with young teams is being as good defensively as a team as you guys have been. What is it about this group, about what Coach Daigneault asks you guys to do on that end, that allows you guys to not only show like flashes, but to have a solid team defense where it doesn’t seem like people are on different pages or anything like that? Like y’all seem really cohesive despite not having a ton of time together.
I think just everybody on the court is versatile, and I think everybody wants to cover up for one another. I think what kind of gets lost from the outside world is just like people don’t really understand like, how much rotation is involved in playing the game, and I think we have a lot of guys that are willing to do that. I think are obviously the elephant in the room is Chet being back in the rotation which cleans up a lot at the rim for us. And I think just how well he does in rotations as well. You know, he’s kind of willing to step out on the perimeter and guard, so that that makes our defense unique as well. And then you know, players like me, Lu [Dort], Cason [Wallace], when K- Rich gets back, Shai, we have a lot of guys that want to defend and kind of guard multiple positions. I think that makes it easier for us to rotate, and like I said, I think guys are just competing at the end of the day, which is probably the biggest part to any defense.
What are things you’re able to learn from guys like Lu, Kenrich, and the veteran wing defenders you guys have on the roster about the approach that you need to take and learning how to pick the scouting report — kind of who to attack, who that kind of let come to you — and what are the things you’ve been able to pick up from them to be a really good defender in the NBA?
I mean, it helps because our coaching staff puts me on usually the first or second scorer on the other team so it’s always something to where you’re kind of on edge. So I feel like that’s really helped me out just the past year, and then going into now I feel like you’re just able to learn so much more when your guarding like you know, for example, I was guarding Trae Young and Dejounte Murray last night. Like when you’re constantly seeing guys like that, I think it helps. Lu’s been a big part of that just kind of going over guys tendencies with me and same thing with K-Rich. Just trying to figure out what guys like to do. Obviously there’s a lot of guys that have different things they like to do and different things that they’d like to get to and different actions. But I think overall we can kind of group them into different categories and kind of pick it apart from there. So they both been really big on that side of development for defense for me and then, I think yeah, just from there on it’s just kind of a lot of my instincts. And like I said, I’m learning on the fly as well. I haven’t been able to guard everybody yet, but just getting a lot of the experiences in now helps me later down the road for sure.
Offensively, what do you feel have been, from when you came in the league to now, the things that you feel like you’ve developed or grown more comfortable in to be able to show on the floor and have the impact you have on that end as well?
Just picking our spots. Having Chet back actually makes it a lot easier just because he’s able to stretch the floor so we have more space. Obviously with more space you get to do a lot more stuff. But I think just figuring out where I’m really comfortable from on the court and just kind of moving from there. I think a lot of this summer was just kind of predicated on me figuring that part out. And a big part of my game last year was cutting, you know, kind of trying to stay out the way. So incorporating that into coming off ball screens and just figuring out where I want to be on the court and how I can get to those spots efficiently and kind of generate their best looks for our team. So I think I’ve done a good job of that so far.
You mentioned Chet what he kind of brings on both ends. What’s impressed you the most about the way he’s kind of hit the ground running? He had, you know, a year to kind of watch but it’s a different thing when you get thrown in the fire and he’s been asked to play the five immediately and he’s been asked to kind of do a lot for you guys. What’s impressed you about the way that he’s been able to come out and have the start he has?
I think just waiting a whole year to play has been the most impressive thing. That’s really hard to do. Especially when you’re probably as competitive as he is, it’s just hard to watch. But I think he really took advantage of the year of just understanding the role and being able to see what he can bring to the team and kind of where he can plug in. I think he’s done a really good job of figuring that out and doing that. You can kind of see that he’s really efficient. He doesn’t really force anything. He’s kind of playing inside the offense, willing to make the one mores and the extras for us and defend so you know, salute to him. I don’t think there’s a lot of guys in the league that can sit out a year and just come straight into being able to plug in with the team and kind of understand what’s asked of them. So he’s done a great job of that.
We hear a lot about young teams learning to win and that sort of thing from coaches. What was last year like in that regard, and what would you say are the lessons as a young team you learned about handling those fourth quarter situations when you’re in a close game and in that environment that you’ve been able to kind of carry over to this year? It seems like you guys are comfortable in that situation when you have a lead and holding a lead or coming back, and what are the things that you see from on the floor that are the building blocks for that?
We’re still young, but I think even last year, we had a good maturity and a sense about the team handling those situations, not panicking. You know, like the average point differential and point swing in the NBA is 12 points. So you’re never in or out of a game. I think understanding that has been really big for us. And then, yeah, I think we’ve just been in so many tight games over the past year and then, even you look at now, we’ve had all our games are decided by a couple points kind of towards the end. The Warriors game is you know, a tip in away from going to OT. The Cleveland game, we’re down 10 with a minute left. So I think being in those positions early on through the season helped us last year and it’s something that we’re kind of finding out this year as well that I think will kind of push us towards that later on in the season. And, you know, being in those positions, I think we’re just kind of learning from them. You don’t want to be a team that gets stagnant through the experiences and that’s a big thing for us. So I think we’ve been able to kind of improve on every experience whether it’s a win or loss.