OKC Thunder exit interviews: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander & Co. wrap up 2023-24 season

Nearly 12 hours after the Thunder's season ended in a 117-116 loss to the Mavericks in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, coach Mark Daigneault and players are back in OKC for exit interviews.

It was a banner season for the Thunder, which went 57-25 in the regular season to earn the top seed in the Western Conference. Mark Daigneault was voted NBA Coach of the Year, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was runner-up for NBA MVP and Chet Holmgren was second in Rookie of the Year voting.

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How it got ‘easier’ for Cason Wallace to become comfortable with OKC

Cason Wallace did more observing than talking when he arrived at OKC as a rookie last offseason.

The then-19-year-old guard was in a new city, surrounded by new teammates, and it took time for him to adjust to his surroundings.

“It wasn’t that I was afraid to talk to people,” Wallace said. “I just didn’t have much to talk about. I just got here, and everybody is talking about last year and the people they miss and all this. I was like, ‘I don’t really know them.’ I couldn’t just butt into the conversation.”

But Wallace became more comfortable as the season unfolded, and he also looked comfortable on the floor.

Wallace finished with averages of 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds in 20.6 minutes. It was a strong rookie season for the Kentucky alum, who has fully integrated himself into the team.

“Time went on, and we started making our own memories,” Wallace said. “It was easier to navigate that. … It was wonderful. I saw the whole team was really close with each other, and nobody got treated differently.”

More: Gordon Hayward describes stint with OKC Thunder as 'disappointing' and 'frustrating'

How Jaylin Williams managed to ‘be myself’ with OKC

When Jaylin Williams cracked the windshield of his car this season, his girlfriend called for someone to come repair it at his home.

Williams’ girlfriend put the request under her name, but the repairman saw Williams when he arrived and instantly reacted.

“He didn't say hello, didn't say anything,” Williams said. “He just started barking at me.”

Williams averaged four points and 3.4 rebounds in 13 minutes this season.

It was a modest role, but it wasn't the only way he impacted the team. Williams helped create a tight-knit culture in OKC with his light-hearted attitude. One where players and fans bark at each other before and after games.

“To me, I don't look at it as a role,” Williams said. “I'm just being myself. I think that a lot of it is because of my teammates, as well. They bring it out of me. They let me be free and be myself around them.

“It's just be out there and having fun. I try to lighten the situation a lot of times, yell at them, joke around.”

Ousmane Dieng made ‘leaps and bounds’ during G League title run

Ousmane Dieng got plenty of valuable experience this season.

The former No. 11 overall pick in 2022 only averaged four points in 11.1 minutes with the Thunder, but he maintained a lead role with the OKC Blue.

Dieng averaged 17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists in 31.8 minutes per game with the G League affiliate, and he led the Blue to its first-ever title. He even won G League Finals MVP.

“I think the whole process was a great experience,” Dieng said. “Obviously, the G-League was really fun, and the championship was a great experience for me. Especially the playoffs, playing a series, playing important games. That was really good.”

Dieng is still trying to carve out his role with the Thunder, which boasts one of the deepest benches in the league.

But with his second season in the books and more G League experience under his belt, Dieng can see the improvements he has made.

“I feel like I'm a way better player than at the beginning of the season,” Dieng said. “I've grown leaps and bounds. I think the G League playoffs really made me progress.”

Jalen Williams says OKC ‘stuck together’ this season

OKC received plenty of national recognition for its breakout season.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished second in the MVP race. Chet Holmgren finished second in the Rookie of the Year race. Mark Daigneault won Coach of the Year.

But none of those individual accolades distracted the team as it made its first Western Conference semifinals appearance since 2016, according to Jalen Williams.

“We’re really connected,” Williams said. “We have a lot of good dudes on the team that you can’t help but root for and hope for the best.”

Williams has managed to develop within the flow of OKC’s system.

The former No. 12 overall pick in 2022 averaged career highs of 19.1 points and 4.5 assists in his second season.

“For me personally, I want to see everybody else on the team do well, too,” Williams said. “It's just being able to give myself up for them, and hopefully that gets reciprocated. I think it did. Everybody had a really good year through the ups and downs of the season. Regardless I think we all kind of stuck together."

Why the future is ‘pretty exciting’ for Chet Holmgren

Chet Holmgren’s rookie season went as well as anyone could’ve hoped for.

After missing all of last season due to a foot injury, the former No. 2 overall pick in 2022 played all 92 games this time around. He averaged 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds, and he finished second in voting for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

There’s plenty to be excited about. But as Holmgren talked to the media on Sunday, less than 24 hours removed from OKC’s season-ending loss to Dallas, it was too soon to reflect on his individual play.

"It's too early," Holmgren said. "I haven't even thought about it."

It wasn’t too soon for head coach Mark Daigneault, though, who spoke highly of Holmgren and his future on Sunday.

“Right now this is, in my opinion, the lowest level of Chet Holmgren we're going to see, which is pretty exciting,” Daigneault said. “And the reason I'm so confident saying that is because of his appetite for improvement. He's a guy that is incredibly focused.

“Basketball is his number one priority. He sleeps in his sneakers. He will have a great summer physically and skill-wise.”

Why Lindy Waters III, OKC carries themselves 'with class'

Lindy Waters III has only been with OKC for three seasons, and yet it feels much longer than that.

The former Norman North and Oklahoma State standout has been around basketball in Oklahoma his whole life. He was around when OKC moved from Seattle in 2008. He was around when Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State in 2016. And he was around as a player when the team went through its rebuild.

Now, Waters is around for the resurgence of Thunder basketball. And his ties to the state only make it more meaningful.

“The pride of Oklahoma, it’s something that we try to express to each other,” Waters said. “We're seeing Oklahoma grow enormously over the past decade. … Now, being a part of this whole organization, it’s just so professional, and we carry ourselves with class.

“I think that speaks to how Oklahoma is in general. We're a very proud community, and we're going to keep encouraging each other.”

Aaron Wiggins says OKC’s youth didn’t play ‘any part’ in playoff exit

OKC’s youth got talked about a ton this season.

The Thunder entered the season as the second-youngest team in the NBA. It became the youngest No. 1 seed in NBA history. It became the youngest team to win a playoff series.

But the only place OKC’s youth wasn’t talked about was in the locker room, according to Aaron Wiggins.

“I don’t think our youth played any part in our success or our playoff play,” Wiggins said. “I think our connectedness, togetherness and understanding of what it takes to be a team that gets better and to be a team that can win games helped us get to where we were.”

OKC has grown up as a team over the years, but individuals have also made strides.

That includes Wiggins. Despite averaging 6.9 points in a career-low 15.7 minutes this season, the 25-year-old guard shot a career-high 49.2% from deep and provided a spark off the bench.

“I’m just kind of learning the ways of the NBA,” Wiggins said. “I’m learning individual players, how guys play and how teams play. … And then with our team, chemistry, just continuing to grow with all of it. I think I grew a lot in those facets of the game.”

How Josh Giddey became the ‘best teammate’ possible after getting benched in the playoffs

OKC had plenty to celebrate following its Game 1 win over Dallas.

The Thunder earned a dominant 117-95 win in front of a packed home crowd, which created an electric environment from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

But one person who didn’t celebrate as much was Josh Giddey, who only played 17 minutes and struggled to stay on the floor.

“I was probably in my own head, and I wasn’t being a good teammate,” Giddey said. “I just felt bad. ... I was trying to be happy, but I was also so worried internally. I couldn’t fully get around the guys the way I wanted to.

“From that point on, I made a promise to myself that whether I play five minutes or 40 minutes, I’m going to be the best teammate I can be.”

Giddey continued to struggle on the court throughout the series.

The third-year guard ultimately got benched for the first time of his career in Game 5, and he finished with series averages of 6.2 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12.7 minutes.

Still, Giddey put his own interests aside for the good of the team.

“When it comes to the playoffs, it becomes sort of that chess match,” Giddey said when asked about getting benched. “It’s just part of the game, and I took it on the chin. I kept moving forward and tried to be the best teammate I could be from the role I was playing on the bench.”

Why it was a ‘huge honor’ for Isaiah Joe to get playoff starts

Isaiah Joe got inserted into the starting lineup for the final two games of the Western Conference semifinals.

The fourth-year pro only made one start in the regular season, but he welcomed the opportunity. Joe averaged 8.5 points and shot 41.7% from deep during his two playoff starts.

“It’s an opportunity that I’ll never take for granted,” Joe said. “It’s really intense out there. The fan reactions on both sides are always amazing. … It’s just a huge honor to be able to be in those positions.”

Joe continues to carve out a role in the NBA after he got selected by Philadelphia in the second round (No. 49 overall) of the 2020 draft.

The 24-year-old guard averaged 8.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 18.5 minutes this season. And he hasn’t forgotten how far he has come.

“You can never forget where you came from,” Joe said. “The journey. The grind. That’s what it’s about, just knocking down barriers everywhere you go."

Lu Dort looks to ‘sharpen my game’ this offseason

Lu Dort says his game hasn’t changed since he got into the NBA in 2019.

He’s still a hard-nosed guard who prides himself on his defense. He’s still a hustle guy who’s the first one to dive on the floor for a loose ball. None of that changed as he went from an undrafted player to a key contributor for OKC.

"I've been having the same game for the past five seasons," Dort said. "It's going to be the same. I won't turn to Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) in one offseason."

Dort is still the same player at his core, but he did add to his game this season.

The fifth-year pro solidified himself as a 3-and-D threat by shooting a career-high 39.4% from deep. And even though he won't become Gilgeous-Alexander this offseason, he does hope to become a more polished player.

“Everything,” “Dort said when asked what he wants to improve. “When I'm going in the offseason, I’m just working on everything and just trying to sharpen my game.”

Kenrich Williams is 'grateful' for his journey with OKC

Kenrich Williams still remembers the early years of OKC’s rebuild.

He was on the team in 2020 when it went 22-50. It marked the fewest wins ever for the franchise, which had grown accustomed to being competitive during the days of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Those were tough times. But they made Williams appreciate OKC’s recent success even more.

“It’s been a journey that I’m extremely grateful for,” Williams said. “Being here in (2020) and going through that, it kind of makes you grateful for where you were. It does make you grateful for where you’re at.”

Williams is also grateful for his role with OKC, no matter how much it varies on a day-to-day basis.

The sixth-year pro only averaged 4.7 points and three rebounds in a career-low 14.9 minutes this season. But he never got discouraged.

“That’s my job as a professional,” Williams said. “You just have to be ready. Your number could be called at any minute.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander says OKC will ‘learn and get better’ from playoff exit

As Shai Gilgeous-Alexander walked off the floor of American Airlines Center on Saturday, fresh off OKC’s season-ending loss to Dallas, he felt a rush of emotions.

Some of that was pain from a heartbreaking defeat. Some of that was frustration with himself for a late foul on P.J. Washington, who then sank the game-winning free throws.

But some of it was clarity.

“I felt like, ‘Wow, we’re here,’” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ve lost. We’ve lost for a reason. All you can do is learn and get better from that. That’s how you ultimately get to where you want to go.”

It’s no secret where OKC wants to go.

The Thunder is still searching for its first championship in franchise history. And even though it fell short of that goal this season, Gilgeous-Alexander and company are dedicated to playing the long game.

“More often than not, you don’t get (your goals) when you want them,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “You get them when you deserve them. … You just have to put the work in. And if you put the work in and deserve it, you’ll get it."

How OKC reminded Bismack Biyombo to ‘enjoy life’

Bismack Biyombo is a seasoned veteran.

The 31-year-old center has played for six different teams throughout his 14 seasons in the NBA. He has gone through the grind of an 82-game campaign. He has weathered slumps, losing streaks and injuries.

That can take a toll. But when Biyombo signed with OKC on February 10, the young and energetic team reminded him why he plays the game.

“It was great,” Biyombo said. “As a player, you’ve played for so long in the league that you lose sight of things like being kids. I think it was a good reminder to always be kids, be curious and enjoy life a little bit.”

From barking like a dog with fans to celebrating as a group during postgame interviews with Bally Sports Oklahoma’s Nick Gallo, OKC knows how to have fun.

But the young group also knows how to focus on the task at hand, and that level of maturity wasn’t lost on Biyombo.

“Just from watching them and competing against them, I knew they were mature enough,” Biyombo said. “I think the maturity level of each and every one of them in the locker room helps the coach to coach them. Helps the front office to keep adding.”

Gordon Hayward says time, role with OKC was ‘disappointing’

When Gordon Hayward got traded from Charlotte to OKC on February 8, he was viewed as a potential game changer.

The 14-year-pro was expected to provide a veteran presence, especially in the postseason, for a team that was the youngest No. 1 seed in NBA history. But things didn’t go as planned.

Hayward didn’t score in the playoffs, and he only averaged 6.6 minutes in seven appearances.

“Obviously, disappointing with kind of how it all worked out,” Hayward said. “It’s not what I thought it would be, and it’s certainly frustrating. I feel like as a player I have a lot to offer, and I just wasn’t given much of an opportunity to do that.

"I think the minutes were certainly down and sporadic to a point where they were nonexistent. Just when I was out there, it was limited touches, I would say."

Hayward will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

When asked what his future holds, the 34-year-old forward didn’t look too far ahead.

“I feel like it’s kind of been one long road trip for me here,” Hayward said. “I’m excited to get back to my family. … I’ll take a deep breath and figure out what’ll be next.”

Why it ‘meant a lot’ for Mike Muscala to return to OKC

Mike Muscala never stopped watching Thunder games.

He kept tabs on OKC even after it traded him to Boston in February 2023, ending a four-year stretch with the franchise. Muscala then bounced around the league, making stops at Washington and Detroit in the span of about 13 months.

But when Muscala signed with OKC on March 2, he returned just in time to be a part of a historic season.

“It was awesome,” Muscala said. “I obviously have a lot of memories here and years spent here. To just be able to come back and be a part of the team, it meant a lot to me.”

Muscala says he was meditating in a park in Detroit when he heard from his agent, who told him a mid-season return to OKC could be in the cards.

It was too good of an opportunity to pass up on. And while Muscala will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, he won’t stop supporting OKC even if he ends up signing with a different team.

“I'll always be a Thunder fan no matter what happens in my life,” Muscala said.

Head coach Mark Daigneault speaks to reporters at the Oklahoma City Thunder training facility on Feb. 21.
Head coach Mark Daigneault speaks to reporters at the Oklahoma City Thunder training facility on Feb. 21.

Mark Daigneault says OKC constructed ‘deliberate build over four years’

For those outside the organization, OKC could appear as an overnight success.

It went 57-25, and it became the youngest No. 1 seed in NBA history for either conference. The Thunder took the league by storm, but its whirlwind of a season has been brewing for quite some time.

“This has been a deliberate build over four years,” head coach Mark Daigneault said. “It’s been incremental. I would say we’ve had a very consistent environment. We’ve had very high standards that our players have met and exceeded. That has put us in positions to grow and continue to progress.”

Daigneault has been around for the entire process.

OKC hired him as his head coach in November 2020, less than a year after the team traded away Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

The Thunder went 46-108 throughout Daigneault’s first two seasons, but it made strides last season when it reached the play-in tournament. OKC then followed that up with a trip to the Western Conference semifinals.

And while the Thunder ultimately fell two wins short of advancing, the playoff run is just one more step in its ongoing build.

“You’ve got to use every single experience for forward momentum,” Daigneault said. “Our team should use being the No. 1 seed in a tough Western Conference, winning however many games we won, as motivation to understand what we’re capable of.”

—Justin Martinez, Staff writer

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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder exit interviews after season ends in NBA playoffs vs Mavs