Mavericks vs. Thunder: 5 Oklahoma City Players Showing Preseason Improvements

Eric PennellCorrespondent IIDecember 21, 2011

Mavericks vs. Thunder: 5 Oklahoma City Players Showing Preseason Improvements

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    After outrunning their expectations by miles, going from 23-win doormats to 55-win contenders in just two years, many questioned whether the Thunder's youngsters could stay focused and not let their rapid success get to their heads.

    Their quick recovery was built on hard work, intensity and a team-first attitude that is difficult to find in a league stocked with overpaid prima donnas. But would they be able to improve on their winning ways in the face of growing expectations and media attention?

    We have all seen enough episodes of VH1's Behind the Music to know what fame and success can to do a group.

    While the sample size is admittedly small (two preseason games), the Thunder seemed to have not wavered one bit, showing big improvements up and down the roster.

    Which players have shown the biggest improvements so far?

Kevin Durant

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    Areas Needing Improvement: Get stronger, create own shot, defense

    Kevin Durant, the NBA's two-time scoring champ, rolled out even more wrinkles to his game.

    After watching his team get burned by Dirk Nowitzki's patented one-footed fadeaway in last season's Western Conference finals, Durant worked on the same move over the summer and successfully debuted it against the Mavericks in the first preseason game. This move will have to replace his "rip" move from last season after having been banned this year.

    KD improved his on-the-ball abilities as well, bulking up a bit while working on protecting the ball and creating his own shot. In both games he passed up outside shots several times, deciding instead to drive to the hoop and use his length to his advantage.

    This will increase his free-throw attempts, as well. Durant scored 21 points on only five shots Sunday night, going 13-for-14 from the line.

    His length helps him on defense, but he still seems to be lacking in technique and/or effort. He got caught several times with his hands at his side, allowing Shawn Marion to put up that awkward, waist-level jumper. This will need to be the next big area of improvement for Durant if he wants to compete for MVPs in the future.

Russell Westbrook

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    Areas Needing Improvement: Control, pull-up jumper

    The ongoing issue for Russell Westbrook in his career thus far is how to control all of that athleticism. Sure, he can blow by literally anyone in the league, but knowing when to push and when to involve his team and run the offense has been his struggle as a point guard.

    In the early going, it seems Westbrook has made considerable improvements here. When he had an opportunity he bull-rushed the rim and scored. If it wasn't there, he looked very comfortable moving the ball around.

    He has greatly improved his court vision on fast breaks as well, something the Thunder crushed the Mavericks with, outscoring them 39 to 26 in both games.

    Russ' other major gripe was that leaning pull-up jumper that always seemed to hit off the back iron last year. In these first two games, however, he showed perfect posture on his jump shots, looking very comfortable while going 3-for-5 from 10 to 17 feet.

Thabo Sefolosha

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    Areas Needing Improvement: Stop being an offensive liability

    After not really being involved in the offense during the first preseason game, Thabo showed a bit more of his scoring ability in the second.

    Thabo too often settled for long-range shots last year as teams wouldn't even bother covering him. The Swiss Mister had an eight-point third quarter against the Mavericks Tuesday night, three of those buckets coming at the rim showing off his slasher mentality.

    Sefolosha only took three three-pointers in the two games (making one!), a good sign that he is listening to his coach. If Thabo can keep his shot attempts near the basket—layups, putbacks, post work—instead of the 20-plus-foot range, the offense will run much more smoothly this year.

Kendrick Perkins

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    Areas Needing Improvement: Fitness, Scoring

    Kendrick Perkins showed up to training camp a full 30 pounds lighter, benefiting from healthy knees and rigorous summer workouts. Some worried that he might have lost too much weight, possibly losing some of his enforcer ability.

    After two games, it is apparent that Big Perk (or should we call him Medium Perk now?) is still the scowling bully he was last year. Kendrick racked up 17 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks in the two preseason games against Dallas while notching a patented Perkins technical foul, staring down Brendan Haywood like he was about to start a bar brawl (too soon?).

    His fitness has improved tremendously from last year. The lighter Perkins was involved in fast breaks and even skied for a reverse slam, thankfully adding to his nonexistent vertical jump from last season.

Cole Aldrich

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    Areas Needing Improvement: Get better at... everything.

    A day after releasing failed-project Byron Mullens, general manager Sam Presti's other work in process, second-year man Cole Aldrich, seemed to finally be making some strides.

    The former Kansas Jayhawk logged a full 20 minutes Tuesday night and, despite some occasional sloppy play, had an overall positive impact on the game with six points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three steals. 

    Polished-veteran Nazr Mohammed will still be the second option at center to begin the season, but if Aldrich continues to improve he will see much more floor time as the season progresses, especially in the condensed version we are getting this year.