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Tank Diaries: Anything Is Possible in Pokuland

Aleksej Pokusevski exploded for a career-high 23 points to lead the Thunder to a win they didn’t need. Then he had four points in consecutive losses. Neither feels quite right in the midst of a tank.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve never ridden a comet. I’m not a big traveler and my time in outer space has been limited. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, though. Seems like it would be an incredible experience. I’ve got a bit of a daredevil streak in me and space is supposed to be breathtaking, but I just can’t envision a way in which I’ll be able to make it happen.

I can’t join the Space Force. I have a family, friends, responsibilities. The local Chipotle is counting on me to keep showing up, eating them tacos. Now more than ever they need me.

And I was furious for years. Furious I wouldn’t get to feel that feeling—space rock under my saddle, riding ice and dust past the sun at 2,000 mph, stardust in my hair, a desperado galloping through the cosmos. But that’s all changed now. I can have that feeling whenever I want, because Aleksej Pokusevski is a professional basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder and he is here to make sure everybody has a good time.

I honestly believe, even if I wasn’t a Thunder fan, I would pay like $5 a month for some NBA equivalent of NFL RedZone that just sends a notification anytime Poku checks into the game. I’d sign up for that service yesterday. Just send me a little notice and maybe a text for good measure, cover multiple bases. Doesn’t need to be WUPHF level. Just a nice nudge. Because I want to watch Poku. Look at this man.

I want to watch this man as much as I can.

His 23-point coming-out party this past Sunday in a surprise win over the Grizzlies was a complete and total blast. The flamethrower, the length, the uniquely smooth footwork for his size, all of it was in full effect. I don’t know that 23 points constitutes an “outburst” in the normal basketball world, but out here in Pokuland, after a rough start to his rookie season, 23 points goes beyond an outburst and stretches into eruption territory. This man volcanoed. He was pulling without a care in the world. It was an outflowing of 3s. After the fourth I was roaring. After the fifth I found nirvana. How can you look at this stat and not start cackling with glee?

He’s not a good player yet but more and more he’s putting together good moments, good stretches. He’s a fun passer. Or maybe fun’s not the right word at the moment. Fun’s coming, but currently let’s say he’s … adventurous with the basketball? Outgoing, maybe? Reckless? He’s not successful every time he tries to add some sauce to the proceedings. He’s probably not even successful half the time. And there will probably be some big moment in some big game sometime in the future, probably, when he Stephs a pass into some courtside fan’s arms, a victim of momentary hubris and the entertainer in himself. That may well happen many times over the course of his career. But he is something to see.

You could give me literally any prediction for Poku’s career and I would consider it fully in play. He might also have dominated that future game I just made up. He might also be out of the league in three years. The full spectrum of possibilities is on the table for this kid. He’s the youngest player in the NBA. So young Stacey King said about him, “Tell you what, boy, he looks really young out there.” There’s SGA young and there’s so young the opposing team’s local announcers can’t help but comment on it. He’s a stick of clay and he’s all over the place. Followed up his semi-breakout 14-point, eight-rebound performance against the Mavs with a 2-for-11, four-point dud against the Knicks. Then Sunday afternoon he went ballistic, put up the 23-piece. Hit five 3s. It would make sense it would take him a bit to get going. No summer league. Hardly any training camp. Brand-new country. Brand-new level of basketball. Maybe the G League bubble gave him the time to focus and work on some specific things he knew he had to improve? Maybe it helped him get his footing? Maybe it was a turning point? Or maybe nothing has changed. He’s turned in back-to-back four-point performances since the 23-point bonanza and has disappeared for extended stretches. Again, anything is possible with this guy. He’s such a singular player already. He has so much to get better at. Sometimes I watch him and think there’s no way he’s ever going to be a player teams seriously worry about. Other times I watch him and I’m certain I’m watching the start of something great. He’s a roller coaster. Rooting for him feels that way, at least. It’s like I’m on a roller coaster and they’re building the track while I’m riding it.

At some point every tanking team’s fan base has a guy like Poku because at some point every tanking team’s fan base has a young player of promise for whom those fans want the world. They want so badly for them to be great, want so badly to have hit the jackpot. I’m currently battling that thing I’d imagine a lot of fans deal with where it’s like, my heart and my brain are duking it out. Do I just really want this player to have a super bright future or do they actually have a super bright future? Again, with Poku, you could tell me anything and I’d buy it as a viable possibility.

Effort’s a skill. So is confidence. Thus far, it would appear Pokusevski’s on-court confidence level vacillates somewhere between Ferris Bueller and William Faulkner. He’s not without precedent, exactly, but you watch him and get the sense he could clank 50 in a row and still be just absolutely unconscious. The misses don’t seem to register. Before he went to the G League bubble he was shooting 17.9 percent from beyond the arc. He was still taking three a game, though. Shooters shoot. He carries himself like a matador or something. He plays loose. Actually, saying Poku plays loose is like saying an elephant’s big. It’s true, but it doesn’t do it justice. He’s not without the razzle-dazzle.

Since they brought him back from Orlando he’s been starting and my guy is getting up some shots. He’s taking five 3s a game. He’s rebounded the ball well. I mentioned the passing flashes. Poku’s easy to have fun with for a multitude of reasons, but he’s a real prospect with real ability who can do stuff organizations value. There is a world where he’s amazing. There is a world where he’s terrible. This is true of other young guys in the league, but there may be no player in the league with a greater distance between their potential ceiling and potential floor.

When you’re dealing with young players with promise on teams building for the future, you’re looking for hints of things early on, whispers. Poku’s got a whisper of off-the-dribble stuff. He’s got a whisper of a pull-up game. And he shows plenty of promise as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll. And the shot can look a little awkward at times, but he really seems like a shooter! And I wonder whether he’s done growing? Didn’t Giannis just, like, keep growing? And Tatum, too?! And Poku’s already 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. I’m sure he’ll keep growing. He’ll probably get to like … let’s see … carry the eight … I bet he gets to like 7-foot-3 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. And the footwork is already so smooth for his size. And he’s shown the ability to pass guys open. And it seems like his teammates like playing with him. And can any of what I’m saying even be trusted? I don’t know. I want him to be so good. Of course I’d be this way, so hopeful, leaning into the positives. It’s hard not to. That’s the thing with tanking: You want to be bad but you also want young players good enough that you can get excited about the future. It’s one thing to lose and have hope in some nameless, faceless future draft pick. It’s another thing to lose and have hope in a real person who’s playing right now. A player you can see develop and grow and get stronger. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.

I was watching Thunder-Bulls this week and our 4-year-old came into the living room and asked whether she could have another name.

“Another name?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“What do you want to be called?” I asked.

“Tarkaida,” she said.

Obviously doing a lot of guessing on the name spelling there.

“Wait, what’s up?” I asked.

“Tarkaida,” she said.

“You want me to call you Tarkaida sometimes?”


“All right. I’ll call you Tarkaida.”

She smiled the smile kids smile when they achieve their goals.

“Did you get that name from somewhere?” I asked.

“No, I just thought of it by myself,” she said.

She came over and sat next to me.

“Daddy,” she said, “did you know in three days it’s Friday and that means it’s ice cream day?!”

We sometimes let her have a little ice cream Fridays after dinner.

“Yummy,” I said. “That’s exciting.”

That new Mountain Dew commercial with the deepfake Bob Ross came on. She’d seen it before and is obviously fascinated by it. She stopped paying attention to me and watched the television.

The 1.5-year-old waddled into the room, started staring at fake Bob Ross, too. Tarkaida looked over at her and said, “It looks like a painting but it’s actually a drink.” The condescension was palpable. Fake Bob Ross grabbed the bottle he’d just painted and took a swig. The 1.5-year-old walked away like, “That’s it? This is boring. I’m done with y’all.” I had my laptop out and was intermittently pecking away at this. Tarkaida asked what was on my computer. I told her. She seemed to kind of understand. I said, “I’ll write them every week and they go up on Fridays.” She lit up and I felt happy.

“Daddy!” she screamed. “That’s ice cream day!”

This thing should probably be called Tank Diaries? now. Or maybe it’s Tank(?) Diaries. What I mean is, Oklahoma City sucks at being bad. It might not happen, this whole top-five-pick thing.

The moral dilemma does not follow me all game like a cartoon rain cloud. During the first three quarters the pick’s destiny fades into the background and the game just sort of happens to me. I want good things for the Thunder and bad things for the other team and everything is as it always was. Only about halfway through the fourth do I start to have the conversation with myself where I’m like, “OK, what do you really want?”

I’m a web of contradictions at this point. When the Thunder lost that game to the Bulls I was stoked. Up is down. Losses are wins. Tankers rejoice, right? Yes, except later that night I found myself looking at the box score and thinking, “Man, Maledon has to be better.” Last week I said to tank is to live. This week I say to be a fan is to not make sense.

Right now, at 17-24, tied for ninth worst in the NBA, the state of the tank is such that it’s not really feeling like much of a tank at all. Doesn’t mean the front office isn’t trying. They’re clearly trying. Even Mark Daigneault’s trying to do his part. Organizational alignment, baby. Some of these lineups are bonkers. Moses Brown is playing 25 minutes a game in the past five. Mike Muscala’s picked up DNP-Coach’s Decisions four of the past five games. The game he played, he was on the floor for only 12 minutes. During those minutes, he was 3-for-4 from the field, scored eight points, hit a 3, got to the line once, had an assist, and grabbed three boards. Brown’s played extremely hard, taken advantage of his minutes, and produced, but still, Muscala’s the better player, and there’s really no reason for him to be on the bench if you’re trying to win games.

The phrase you hear is “exploring the roster.” The Thunder are exploring the roster. They beat the Grizzlies this past Sunday and were down four starters. Oklahoma City trotted out a starting lineup of SGA, Justin Jackson, and three guys who played in the G League bubble—Poku, Brown, and Ty Jerome—one of which, (Brown) is a two-way guy, and they still won.

Trevor Ariza never set foot in the building and he’s in Miami now. Horford sits constantly. They sit Shai from time to time. Bazley’s still out. Hill’s been out. Dort will rest some, even Maledon. None of it works. Which is to say something’s working, on the floor. Which is to say the players have other plans. And they should. And honestly, as much as it’s the exact opposite of what I want, it’s difficult not to appreciate, especially when the quality play comes from young guys the fan base is excited about like Shai or Dort or Poku. Whatever players are available are ready and they play hard and together. They compete. Doesn’t matter the lineup. They share the ball, move, grind. Again, they’re not a good team, but these are good things. Even if they do result in nasty stuff like wins.

The trades have begun. More are coming. I’ll talk about them next week when all the trade deadline dust has settled. Lot of basketball left to play. That’s what I’ll be telling myself the rest of the season. There will be five games left and I’ll look at the standings and see OKC in the dreaded middle and be like, “Hey, lot of basketball left to play.”

Happy ice cream day. Till next week.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.