It was the 2023 NBA draft. The OKC Thunder went from three eventual lottery picks (Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng, Jalen Williams) to one measly choice in the back of the lottery.
That didn’t temper OKC Thunder fan’s expectations, though. The franchise got Jalen Williams at the same spot in the previous draft, after all. Plus, the Thunder possess a mountain of draft picks hitherto undreamt of.
So, they could either find a steal with the 12th selection or, the more popular choice, trade up. Names like Ausar Thompson, Jarace Walker, Bilal Coulibaly, Taylor Hendricks, and Anthony Black were all discussed as possible trade-up targets. And as the 2023 NBA draft began, each of those names were taken off the board.
Ausar Ausar went 5th, Anthony Black went 6th, Bilal Coulibaly went 7th, Jarace Walker went 8th, and Taylor Hendricks went 9th.
With two picks to go, the thought of trading up wasn’t as appealing as it had previously been. There were many talented players around 12, so we could stay put and select our favorite.
The OKC Thunder hit on another top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft as Cason Wallace makes a huge impact.
Then something surprising happened. Not only did Sam Presti trade to the 10th pick to make his selection, but it was Cason Wallace, a guard out of the University of Kentucky that caught his eye.
Many (including this Kentucky resident) were intrigued (and excited) by Presti’s decision to trade up for Wallace. Many others, well, weren’t.
“Why trade up for him?”
“Why are we taking another guard?”
“We should have taken *insert player name here*!”
There was so much confusion, frustration, and anger before the fanbase even got to see the Wildcat in so much as an OKC Thunder hat.
But after his summer league debut, everything changed.
OKC Thunder fans were already buzzing after an impressive showing in Salt Lake. Jalen Williams dominated in one half of basketball, Ousmane Dieng and Jaylin Williams looked like young vets for the SL team, Tre Mann was shooting out of his mind, and Chet Holmgren had shaken off the rust and cobwebs. He showed what kind of a threat he could be on both sides of the ball.
But the team still had an air of mystery, Cason Wallace had yet to participate in the Salt Lake festivities. Next came the Las Vegas summer league. That is when Cason first showed the world what he was capable of.
Within the first 1:07 of the game, Wallace gave us a taste of the effort and energy he would inject into this team. He collected three rebounds (two offensive) in that span.
For all you mathematicians, that’s about one rebound every 22 seconds. Offensively, it took him a bit to get going. His first miss came on his first offensive rebound, right under the rim. His next miss was an errant 3-point attempt.
But then, the floodgates opened, and Wallace made it rain manna from Heaven. His following three buckets were catch-and-shoot three-pointers, each shot more pure and innocent than the last.
Thenm he showed off some wiggle. Cason Wallace entered the draft with a “PG” designation, but many questioned his ability to create with the ball in his hands, for his teammates or himself.
Doubt begins to cloud the mind of his haters and naysayers as he hits a nasty step-back midrange pull-up jumper.
He would drain one more three before halftime, causing Thunder fans to fantasize about the team’s already seemingly vaulted ceiling.
Coming out of halftime, things came crashing to a reality check. He missed shots at the rim, wide right from deep, turnovers, and cheap fouls. The sudden disappearing act had OKC Thunder fans everywhere singing, “Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?” (or just me).
But Cason Wallace had one final act in his play, as he corralled a loose ball that was deflected into the backcourt, and time ticked down; Wallace loaded up and let it rip from 45 feet from the basket to sink the half-court buzzer-beating three-pointer.
It was a moment so genuine and wholesome that it would make the Mona Lisa smile. All that we saw from Wallace in summer league (and even now) is on the offensive side of the ball, but that’s not his biggest strength.
From night one, Cason Wallace has provided this squad with a bright and energetic defense.
The OKC Thunder are not even attempting to protect him, having had to guard the likes of Zach Levine, Demar Derozan, Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray, Cade Cunningham, CJ McCollum, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Trae Young, and Dejounte Murray through eight (8) games.
He has stepped up to the plate no matter the challenge and has done a more than admirable job. He’s had some wins and losses in terms of his defensive assignment, but for a rookie who has played only eight games, Cason Wallace is seemingly finding a new way to make an impact every night he is out there.
He did it with laser-focused efficiency in game one against the Bulls, shooting 5-5 from the field in his NBA debut and 3-3 from the 3-point line.
Game two against the Cavs was his recognition of space. He only knocked down one three-pointer in this game, but was consistently opening up driving lanes by relocating to the area on the floor to create a shot for himself, create a new passing lane, or create a distraction for the driver.
Game three against the Nuggets, he provided a spark. The offense needed to be more active; Cason checked in and nailed off seven quick points when they were scarce and hard to come by.
Game four against the Pistons, he got to see his positional defense proficiency. His matchups against Cade Cunningham ring out in my mind. Cunningham, much larger than Wallace, didn’t cause Cason Wallace to back down or be bullied around.
Game five against the Pelicans was the physical force that OKC lacked. With no Kenrich Williams or Jaylin Williams for the beginning of the season, the OKC Thunder needed an enforcer alongside Lu Dort.
Enter Cason Wallace who had four fouls, but none were cheap. They were solid and necessary.
In game six against the Warriors, with no Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Josh Giddey struggling early on, the OKC Thunder lacked rim pressure.
In addition to his hot shooting, Cason Wallace attacked the basket repeatedly, helping to set the tone for the evening and playing admirable defense on Steph Curry and company.
In game seven against the Hawks, Wallace showed he is everything, everywhere, all at once. He was racking up four steals and flummoxing Trae Young on multiple possessions.
Game eight he faced off against the Cavs, again. Wallace continued to show what kind of a weapon he is offensive, lighting the Cavs up for 14 points (career high) while joining Dort in, making sure Donovan Mitchell didn’t sniff 40 again.
Yes, there was a lot of debate over why the Thunder drafted Cason Wallace. A team with Tre Mann, Isaiah Joe, and Vasilije Micic on the bench admittedly felt odd that OKC would take a guard.
Yet, aside from the starters, it is none other than Cason Wallace who leads the team in minutes per game (23).
Indeed, it wasn’t his offense. His time at Kentucky was reflected by the season the team had (*sigh*), which was disappointing. Yet, as of this writing, Cason Wallace is 3rd in Field Goal percentage (69.2%) [1st amongst guards], 2nd in three point percentage (57.1), and tied for 1st in free throw percentage with a perfect record at the charity stripe.
You can point to several reasons why it made sense for the Thunder to draft him: his defense, his character, his intellect, his length, and his demeanor.
What’s funny is it’s all the things people were worried about and nothing they were hopeful about. While simultaneously being none of the things that people were concerned about and all the things that people were optimistic about.
The Thunder drafted Cason Wallace because he always finds a way.
If his shot isn’t falling, he’s going much more complicated in defense.
If he’s getting cooked on defense, he will work to move the ball and himself more diligently to get a good shot.
If the Thunder are getting bullied, he’s going to be the aggressor.
If the OKC Thunder need shooting, he’s going to let it fly.
If the Bricktown boys need a bucket at the end of the shot clock, he will whip out a dribble combo that will make you think, “Wait… was that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?”
He will come out clapping his hands to fire his guys up if they lack energy. If he needs to be in the closing lineup of the eighth game of his young NBA career, he will step up and do whatever he needs to do.
Yes, Cason Wallace will always find a way. Wallace will always find a way to make an IMPACT.