Oklahoma City Thunder: 5 Players Who Must Step Up in 2013-14

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Oklahoma City Thunder: 5 Players Who Must Step Up in 2013-2014

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Mark-D.-Smith-USA TODAY Sports

How well can the Oklahoma City Thunder play without Russell Westbrook? That’s the question for them heading into the season as it is unclear when Westbrook will come back. The Thunder are locks to make the playoffs of course, but in the grueling western conference, slipping early and only nabbing a four seed would be disastrous. Fighting to get to the finals from the four seed means playing the one seed and giving up homecourt for almost the entire playoffs. For the Thunder’s regular season to be a success they have to get a least a two or three seed.

The way they will accomplish that is by having certain players step up to fill Westbrook’s void. Westbrook brought scoring and passing to a team that does not actually have much of either. Outside of Kevin Durant, this team will struggle to get points, as the Thunder also lost Kevin Martin. In fact, Durant may also be the best passer on the team without Westbrook there. Durant will do a lot for this team, but he cannot do it alone. Reggie Jackson will need to put up big assist numbers and almost everyone on the team will have to improve their scoring. Once Westbrook returns the Thunder should cruse, but if they dig themselves into a hole in the first month or so they could be in trouble.

The Thunder’s goal for this year is simple, win a championship. But with Westbrook out early and Martin gone, that is not an easy task at all. The only way it happens is if most players on the team improve. Luckily for OKC their team is full of young, up-and-coming players.

Jay Cullen is a New York Giants and NBA writer for Rantsports.com

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5. Perry Jones III

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Perry Jones III was a pick that everyone loved when the Thunder took him. He was thought to be raw, but immensely talented. Many saw him starting for the Thunder a few years down the road. That will not happen, but he should start to see minutes this year and hopefully make an impact. He is only in his second year, so there is no real rush. If he is to become a solid player, he needs to start showing that potential soon. If he does not play much at all this year, it could signal that he has not panned out. Jones’ play does not really matter for this year, but if he does nothing it could spell trouble for the Thunder going forward.

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4. Kevin Durant

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Durant already does so much for OKC that it is hard to expect him to do more. Regrettably, that is exactly what they will ask him to do. With Westbrook out, Durant simply has to score a ton. He should be averaging over 30 points a game early in the season to make up for the lost production from Westbrook. Durant is such an incredible scorer that this should be the least of his issues. Where Durant really must improve is with his defense and passing. Defensively, Durant is good, but not quite great. He must continue to get better if he has any hope of getting MVP. His passing must also must improve if he has those high aspirations. He has gotten a lot better in that area and may be able to have over five assists a game this year. Durant can be an MVP-level player this year. For the Thunder to win it all, he probably has to.

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3. Serge Ibaka

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Serge Ibaka simply has to play better to justify his contract. Ibaka is being paid like a top flight defender. While he gets lots of blocks, he is not dominant, yet. Ibaka often gets blocked because people blow by him and he recovers with a block. Top defenders like Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert do not have as many blocks, but affect a lot more shots. Ibaka is still very good, but at over $14 million this year, he has got to be better.

On offense, Ibaka is improving, but still has room to grow. He has a nice midrange shot, but if he could score more often in the paint he would be a lot more of a factor. Without Westbrook’s scoring, now is his chance to really make a leap. He really should aim to be a 17 or 18 points a game player. Ibaka has a of potential, but now it is time for it to come to fruition.

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2. Thabo Sefolosha

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Thabo Sefolosha was the starter last year, but in many ways, he was second fiddle to Martin. Sefolosha is a stout defender who can hit an open three, but he did not of the offense to compete with Martin. With Martin gone, Sefolosha has to pick up some of the slack. He should continue to do what he was always done, but the Thunder need to see him do a little more slashing and be a bigger threat for the Thunder especially until Westbrook gets back. Sefolosha is vastly underrated (as are most good defenders), so giving him more time will not be a problem for OKC. But if he could become more of a force on offense, it could really help out Durant and Westbrook.

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1. Reggie Jackson

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson would seem to have the most pressure on him coming into the season. Without Westbrook, he will be the starter and will have to both score and distribute well for the Thunder. He has a lot of talent, and expect him to get a lot of minutes even when Westbrook returns. Surely the Thunder will try him at point guard with Westbrook at the two sometimes. While Jackson is talented, he can turn the ball over and his smaller size makes his defense problematic at times. However, if Jackson can have a big year, the Thunder will feel a lot better about their chances. The 23-year-old has a lot to live up to this year, but has the ability to surprise many. If he can, the Thunder should get a second crack at winning the Finals.

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