NBA storyline: Thunder win with youth, Suns win with vets

Rookie Chet Holmgren (7) and sophomore forward Jalen Williams (8) are two young players who have made an impact for OKC.

Not surprisingly, there is a negative correlation between a team's winning percentage and how many first- or second-year players it plays. Young teams are usually not good teams.

But some teams are simultaneously winning games and developing players at a rate we haven't seen in (at least) the last 20 years.


1. The Thunder play young and win big

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the league's second-youngest roster, older than the San Antonio Spurs. Through Tuesday, the Thunder received 43% of their minutes from rookies or second-year players, the second-highest rate in the league, just behind the Portland Trail Blazers.

2023-24, maximum percentage of minutes played by freshmen or second-year players

group %Rookie ranking %2nd year ranking %Ror2ndYr PCT
Portland 30% 1 19% 6 49% .279
Oklahoma City 24% 2 19% 7 43% .698
Saint Anthony 10% 8 30% 1 41% .186
Utah 10% 9 25% 2 36% .489
Detroit 16% 4 20% 4 36% .093
Charlotte 18% 3 11% 12 29% .244
Orlando 8% 12 20% 5 27% .523
Houston 7% 13 18% 8 25% .476
Memphis 1% 23 23% 3 24% .372
Sacramento 6% 15 16% 10 21% .571

PCT = success percentage
Until January 23, 2024

The other teams in the top six are no better than the 22-23 Utah Jazz, and four of those other five teams have four of the five worst records in the league. (The other bottom-five team, the Washington Wizards, ranks 16th in the percentage of their minutes — 14% — coming from first- or second-year players.)

A lot of first- and second-year guys have to pay the playing line down. Below are the teams that ranked first, second, third, fifth and sixth in percentage of minutes played by rookies or second-year players last season:

  • Houston:1st (61%), +8.4 (1st)
  • Oklahoma City: 2nd (52%), +7.0 (2nd)
  • Orlando: 3rd (38%), +2.7 (9th)
  • New Orleans: 5th (34%), +3.3 (7th)
  • Indiana: 6th (34%), +4.8 (5th)
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Josh Gidde and Aaron Wiggins have graduated from the Thunder's roster of first- and second-year guys, but OKC is second on the roster for the second consecutive season and is now tied for the league's second-best record (30-13). A huge improvement from last season. Over the past 20 seasons, only the 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers have won at least 60% of their games while getting at least 40% of their minutes from rookies or second-year guys. Those sixes (41%, sixth-highest rate) finished 52-30, and the Thunder are on pace to win five more games than that.

Sixth-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder's Kia MVP candidate. However, three of the other five players who have played at least 900 minutes for the Thunder are rookies (Ched Holmgren and Cason Wallace) or second-year players (Jalen Williams). Meanwhile, Jaylin Williams (sophomore) and Vasilije Micic (rookie) also saw meaningful playing time. Further, Jalan Williams hit two jumpers in the final 30 seconds Tuesday to lead the Blazers to victory.

Over the last 20 years, only 12 of the 100 teams ranked in the top five in percentage of minutes played by starters or second-year players. Only three of those 12 have won a series, the last of which was the 2012-13 Warriors (Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson), the No. 6 seed in the West.

Rookie or 2nd year players' minutes vs. postseason win % ranking over the last 20 seasons

2003-04 to 2022-23

The only team to win in the last 20 years Two After ranking in the top five in percentage of minutes coming from first- or second-year players in the playoff series 2004-05 Miami Heat (28%, fifth), ranked No. 1 in the East with a second-year player. Players Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade each played more than 2,600 minutes. They also had a good 13th-year center in Shaquille O'Neal, but lost in the conference finals to the Detroit Pistons (7%, 25th).

The Thunder (who finished second in first- or second-year percentage last season) still have 39 games to play. Postseason success.

With a win against the only team ranked higher than them in freshman and sophomore percentage, the Thunder will now play the third-ranked team. They begin a three-game road trip Wednesday in San Antonio (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)


2. Suns are all inside

Of the last 20 teams to win a championship, 17 of them ranked in the bottom 10 in percentage of regular-season minutes received from rookies or second-year players. There were exceptions. …

  • 2003-04 Pistons: 22% (12th), 841 and 682 minutes by sophomores Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Ogur.
  • 2017-18 Warriors: 13% (20th), including 961 and 741 minutes from sophomores Patrick McCaw and Quinn Cook, and 809 minutes from freshman Jordan Bell.

The bottom of this season's roster is a reminder that the Phoenix Suns are all about the title. The Suns don't have a first- or second-year player on their roster, they've traded all of their recent draft picks (including Doumani Kamara to Portland in the Jusuf Nurkic trade in September), and they're using their two-year contracts with fourth-year players Udoka Azubuike, Saben Lee and Theo Maliton.

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As it stands, the Suns will be the first team since the championship-winning 2009-10 Lakers to get zero minutes from rookies or second-year players.

2023-24, minutes from freshmen or second-year players

group newcomer 2nd year Total %Ror2ndYr PCT
Phoenix 0 0 0 0% .581
New York 6 0 6 0% .614
Boston 6 6 12 0% .773
Philadelphia 15 5 20 0% .690
Minnesota 19 76 95 1% .698
Brooklyn 155 0 155 1% .395
Atlanta 57 129 186 2% .419
LA Clippers 267 58 325 3% .667
Chicago 113 292 405 4% .467
Toronto 295 176 471 4% .364

Until January 23, 2024

(The Brooklyn Nets don't have a draft pick this year. The Suns do have a pick, but …)

The Suns had a disappointing season given their star power, but all three of their stars were available in just four of their 35 games. They have played each of their last eight games together, and the Suns have won six straight to climb into the top six in the West.

They look to take that winning streak on the road, starting a seven-game road trip with a big game in Dallas on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

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John Schuhman is a senior statistical analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and Follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.

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