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Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: The Draft

6:54 AM EDT on July 28, 2021

It’s draft week! That means it’s time for the seven of you who read these missives to buckle in cause I got 3,599 words of draft talk for you.

HISTORY

Tony Parker is the reason Sam Presti is an NBA general manager. As a wunderkind in the San Antonio Spurs organization, it was Presti that championed the selection of Parker with the 28th pick of the 2001 draft. For a team like the Spurs, who had just been swept in the Western Conference finals, finding a player that could even crack the roster late in the first round was a pipe dream. At the behest of a 23-year old, fresh off receiving a Communications degree, the Spurs got a star that helped them build a dynasty.

When the Seattle Supersonics hired him six years later, they expected an elite talent evaluator to lead the team’s rebuild. They got just that. Famously, Presti’s first three drafts wound up selecting a future league MVP. Of course, two of those drafts were while the team was still in Seattle. Who cares about those?

Since moving to OKC in 2008, Presti’s draft selections have been, let’s say, a mixed bag. His top-5 choices in the 405 have been:

5. Andre Roberson

Many readers will see Roberson in the top-5 and immediately throw the bullshirt flag at the genius label Presti is given. Dre was an incredibly polarizing figure to the Thunder fanbase. Some of that was becoming the starting small forward after Kevin Durant cupcaked his way to Golden State, a no-win situation for whoever filled that role. Most of it was that Roberson was a complete lost cause on the offensive end, with a jumpshot that resembled the guy you were forced to play with in pickup so you could get enough for five-on-five.

While accurate, his reputation is still unfair. Roberson was an elite defender and a player that developed into a difference-maker for a lot of good Thunder teams. When he blew out his knee at the pinnacle of the Russell Westbrook-Paul George led roster, that team noticeably suffered, and his absence destroyed the team’s contention hopes.

As a 26th overall pick, that is a really good return.

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4. Reggie Jackson

Another polarizing player. Jackson was a player that Presti very likely issued a pre-draft promise to engineer his availability at the 24th pick of the 2011 draft. Not very well known as a junior coming out of Boston College, the OKC GM sensed a value pick, and locked Jackson up.

As the backup to Russell Westbrook, Jackson was almost as scintillating as former Oklahoman beat writer Darnell Mayberry thought he was. In the 2014 playoffs, Jackson began to make a name for himself by hitting clutch free throws and rescuing a stagnant offense on a couple of occasions. After that, he was a constant candidate for 6th man of the year.

Eventually, his ego overcame his ability and his demands to start ahead of Westbrook made him a trade deadline casualty. But at least he brought back Thunder legend Kyle Singler.

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3. Steven Adams

Selected with a pick received in the Harden trade, Adams became one of the all-time fan favorites as the jolly giant that juxtaposed with the crusty exterior of Russell Westbrook. He also anchored the defense for many years. He would probably be higher on the list if not for the NBA evolving away from the traditional center.

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2. Domantas Sabonis

Sabonis only played for the Thunder for one year, but probably the second most talented player that Presti has taken in Oklahoma City. A multiple time all-star, Sabonis was used to entice Indiana into trading Paul George to the Thunder.

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1. James Harden

Did you know that James Harden used to play for the Thunder? I know, no one ever mentions it, anymore, but he was actually the very first player selected in the draft for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was also the third player drafted by Sam Presti to win an MVP award, but he did so as a member of the Houston Rockets.

While it may seem like a cop-out to give Presti credit for evaluating a future MVP and making the number one on the list be the earliest pick in the draft order, it really was a controversial pick. A lot of evaluators, including a basketball writer for an obscure local website, believed that Ricky Rubio was going to be a superstar. Taking an asthmatic shooting guard out of Arizona State was not the obvious choice.

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Now that we have the home run choices out of the way, let’s look at how Presti has swung for the fences and missed:

5. Terrence Ferguson

If Presti has proven one thing, it is that he loves unconventional paths to the NBA. Terrence “Turd” Ferguson was the first high school player who chose to play in the Australian Basketball League instead of going to college in the U.S. for a year. Playing halfway across the world made scouting him a chore, and Presti wanted to leverage that unknown quantity into a draft steal with the 21st pick of the 2017 draft.

Early on, Turd looked like he might be a steal and finally give the Thunder the “3-and-D” wing the team had always coveted. Unfortunately, he never displayed any consistency, disappeared for games at a time (sometimes literally), and eventually got so hesitant to even attempt shots that he got buried on the bench. Last Summer, he was thrown in the Al Horford trade, and now he’s out of the NBA entirely.

3. Josh Heustis

It is never a good sign when a draft junky like me hears his team make a pick and his first reaction is: “Who?”

Taken at a time when the Thunder were trying to manage the salary cap, and not needing rookies, Presti made Heustis the NBA’s first domestic “draft and stash” player. What this meant was that Heustis’ agent, in order to assure his client a guaranteed NBA contract, agreed to delay the signing of said contract for a year, and have Heustis play in the NBA Developmental league instead.

As a fringe 2nd round candidate, it was a great deal for Heustis, and it saved the Thunder about $3MM. After the stash period was over, though, Heustis was just a waste of a roster spot. He was basically Andre Roberson without the defensive prowess.

3. Mitch McGary

McGary was the first first-round draft pick that the Thunder straight-up cut before they finished their rookie contract. Part of that was because he was suspended for running afoul of the NBA’s recreational drug test policy (which apparently requires more than five failed urine samples). He now owns a medicinal marijuana business.

Look, if you weren’t willing to have a player who is a pothead on the team, why did Presti draft this guy? He’d been kicked off his college team for failing drug tests. He was a unicyclist. The signs were there.

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2. Perry Jones III

Always on the hunt for a bargain, Presti ended PJ3’s tumultuous slide down the draft board during the 2012 draft, finally putting the guy out of his misery at 28. The athletic marvel was expected to be a top-5 pick had he declared for the 2011 draft and was expected to threaten for first overall with another year of experience.

Where Presti has had success is in finding value from players that are underscouted. In this case, Jones’ stock cratered because teams saw plenty of him and noticed that his athletic prowess wasn’t translating to being a basketball player. He did not become one for Oklahoma City.

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1. Cole Aldrich

Remember back in the old days when everyone thought the thing holding the Thunder back was that they lacked a commanding presence at center? Charles Barkley talked about it every time the Thunder played on TNT. Ah, antiquated thinking!

It infected the Thunder front office, too. In 2010 Presti set out to remedy that by packaging picks to move forward so he could get in position to take…Cole Aldrich. The plodding, white center who wore platform shoes at the NBA combine to get measured as tall enough to play center in the NBA, never cracked the rotation. His appearances were never more than garbage minutes in blowouts.

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TEAM NEEDS

• Basketball players

A rudimentary look at the current Thunder roster will tell you that the team is strong in the backcourt with Shae Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort as the team’s best players. Then they have Theo Maledon who showed a lot of promise as a 19-year-old rookie.

A careful look at the current roster will tell you that Aleksej Pokusevski and Darius Bazley are front-court building blocks, and there are no players on the roster that play center.

One might put those things together and say, the Thunder need to draft a center on Thursday. That would be an erroneous conclusion.

What the Thunder need are good basketball players regardless of their fit. If James Bouknight is the best player available to the team at pick #6, the Thunder should take him even if he duplicates SGA’s skill set. If Scottie Barnes is the guy, the Thunder shouldn’t pass on him because he is a taller version of Lu Dort. And they shouldn’t take a big guy or a shooting specialist just to fill a roster hole that exists today.

That’s how you wind up with a Cole Aldrich.

RUMORS

There are not a lot of rumors out there, which is not uncommon for OKC. They run a pretty tight ship. That said, there have been a few reports:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander available for trade?

Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report wrote a rumors article claiming that “sources” had told him the Thunder offered SGA and the #6 pick for Cade Cunningham and the first overall pick. As a huge fan of Cunningham, even I think that is an overpay. Gilgeous-Alexander was a borderline all-star in his third season and has shown significant improvement each year he has been in the league. Meanwhile, Cunningham seems like a can’t miss prospect, but the huge caveat, is that he has never played a minute of NBA basketball.

I am not skeptical that SGA was discussed in negotiations with Detroit. On the other hand, I do think the framing that OKC “offered” him is probably misleading. In this case, though, I suspect it’s more like the joke about the man who offers a woman $5MM to sleep with him. Then when she agrees, he drops the price to $5 and gets slapped. “What kind of woman do you think I am,” she asks. “We’ve established that, now we are just bargaining,” is the punchline.

In trying to move up, Sam Presti is going to try everything. My expectation is that offering SGA and #6 was a Godfather offer that Detroit could not refuse. If they did refuse, which Fischer says they did, that indicates the #1 pick is absolutely not for sale.

Scottie Barnes or James Bouknight

According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, if the Thunder are unable to move up from the #6 pick, they will take UConn guard James Bouknight if Florida State’s Scottie Barnes is off the board. The report, which is based on intel he has gathered from what opposing teams expect from OKC, says a couple of things. 1) Barnes is who they hope falls to #6, 2) Bouknight is who they expect to take at #6. It may also say something else…

Kuminga out of the mix?

Jonathan Kuminga of the G-League Ignite has been considered a top-5 player throughout the season. Early during the G-League bubble, there was discussion of him being one of the top-2 prospects. At the moment, though, it looks like he’s sliding.

If anyone has a good feel for Kuminga’s abilities and potential, it has to be the Thunder. They scouted the G-League bubble extensively. This was partially because they sent half their roster to play for the OKC Blue, but also because they needed to do due diligence since they own 10% of the draft picks for Thursday night. So, if they don’t believe the hype around Kuminga, it’s probably just hype.

On the other hand, since the report comes from rival teams, it could be a smokescreen to, who knows, assure Kuminga falls to #6. This is 4-D chess, sheeple!

Presti doesn’t want more than three rookies on the 2022 roster

Again, this is probably just other teams projecting, but it stands to reason that OKC would hesitate to load up a roster with first-year players. While Presti spent the past two Summers racking up draft picks, there is no possibility that he will add 36 rookies over the next five years. It’s impossible.

The idea is to have the capital to make moves. Some of that will be consolidating picks to get higher quality picks. If the Thunder use all six of their picks on Thursday, it will be because they failed in making moves.

Trade up partners

Moving up won’t be easy. The five teams ahead of the Thunder like being ahead of the Thunder and extra draft picks are unlikely to entice them to switch places. Detroit at #1 is almost a definite no, and Houston at #2 is pretty close to hopeless.

There are rumors that Cleveland is hesitant to bring in more young players, so #3 is potentially available. A good source says that it’s more likely that Cleveland attempts to trade Colin Sexton, who is eligible for an extension, and replace him with either Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs.

Toronto who picks just two spots ahead of OKC may be the most likely trade partner. If they aren’t zeroed in on a specific player (or maybe believe in Kuminga), they could move down two spots for some additional assets, and the Thunder could leapfrog Orlando before they can snatch up Scottie Barnes.

A deal with Toronto is tricky for a couple of reasons. The first is that Orlando can easily outbid the Thunder by offering the 8th pick, which is more valuable than even 16 plus 18, and a future pick of unknown position. Second, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri is a difficult partner for Sam Presti to work with. Both GMs drive hard bargains, and neither is willing to overpay. The closest I can recall to the two making a deal together was when they attempted to make a deal for Serge Ibaka but couldn’t agree on terms. So, instead, they both fleeced Orlando with him. (OKC traded Serge to Orlando for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, then a few months later, Toronto gave the Magic Terrence Ross for Serge.)

Promises

I wrote a whole article about this two weeks ago, but more smoke has arisen that Isaiah Jackson and Cameron Thomas have been assured selection in the first round. The NBA invited both players to the “Green Room” so that they can walk on stage when their name is called and give interviews to ESPN afterward.

All 30 NBA teams vote on who should be invited, which means that the twenty players invited are globally expected to be selected in the top-20. The reason they have the teams weigh-in is that the league does not wants to showcase their new players, and they do not want the television drama of teenagers trying to hold it together as they slide out of the first round.

As I concluded in my piece a couple of weeks ago, there is no reason to believe OKC is the one who promised those two, but considering neither player has done much to improve their stock, the NBA still believes those two are going to hear their names called fairly early.

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NAMES TO KNOW

Don’t be like me when Josh Heustis’ name was called. These are names that have been linked with OKC either by mock draft or confirmed workouts for the Thunder.

Jonathan Kuminga, 6’8” SF, G-League Ignite

Despite the reports, the most common name taken at #6 is Kuminga. Definitely the highest risk player of the upper lottery, Kuminga is probably the youngest and highest potential of the bunch. I say “probably” about his age because as a native of Congo, his birth date will never be 100% believed.

Scottie Barnes, 6’9” Everything, Florida State

If there is a player in this draft who screams Presti target, it’s Barnes. He has crazy long arms, is super tall for his position, and tested very well in the athletic drills. It’s possible that if Presti is able to package picks to move up, Barnes could be the target ahead of more consensus players like Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, or Evan Mobley. Barnes can play any position on the floor, guard anybody, and has a charismatic personality that projects him to be a good leader.

James Bouknight, 6’5” SG, UConn

Discussed some earlier, Bouknight is a crafty scorer that needs to improve his three-point shot. His film reminds me a lot of SGA.

Kai Jones, 6’11” C, Texas

One of Texas’ ten centers, Jones has been listed as pick #16 or #18 in a number of mock drafts. He is another player with high potential that could also be a huge bust. He has the length and athleticism that Presti craves, so I could see him being taken by OKC.

Ziaire Williams, 6’9” SF, Stanford

Ziaire was the standout player on the high school team that LeBron James enrolled his son. He did not do well in his one year of college. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Williams’ poor performance at Stanford was a fluke, not the least of which is that he needs to gain a ton of weight, so this could be one of those picks where Presti is looking for an undervalued prospect.

Moses Moody, 6’6” SF, Arkansas

Good three-point shooter, capable defender. Quintessential 3-and-D guy.

Alperen Sengun, 6’10” C, Turkey

MVP of the Turkish league at 18-years-old. Analysts that value statistical data (supposedly something the OKC front office values highly) think he could be the best player in this draft and compare him to Luka Doncic. Analysts that value eye tests think he’s a clone of Enes Kanter and won’t be able to make an impact in the modern NBA. Those that love him think he played a traditional center role because that was what his team asked of him and that he’s capable of shooting threes and guarding on the perimeter.

Isaiah Jackson, 6’10” C, Kentucky

Film reminds me of young Serge Ibaka.

Usman Garuba, 6’8” PF/C, Spain

Plays for the Spanish national team at 19. Strong defender but may not ever be an offensive threat.

Chris Duarte, 6’6” SG, Oregon

Has worked out for the Thunder. Considered the most NBA-ready prospect outside the lottery, but that’s because he’s already 24 years old which would make him a dinosaur for OKC.

Josh Giddey, 6’8” SF, Australia

The Australian version of Cade Cunningham but did not shoot as well in the Australian League as Cunningham did in the Big-12. Giddey may be the best passer in the draft and would fit into Coach Daignault’s system of having the point guard be whoever rebounds the ball.

Corey Kispert, 6’7” SF, Gonzaga

Probably the best shooter in the draft, he gets lumped in with past white shooters like J.J. Redick and Doug McDermott. He really surprised people with his athletic testing at the combine, though, so he could actually be a good defender.

Keon Johnson, 6’5” SG, Tennessee

Super athletic wing that has worked out for OKC. Before the NCAA tournament, he was projected around where the Thunder’s first pick is slated, but now he’s closer to 16/18 range.

Jalen Johnson, 6’9” SF, Duke

Considered a high lottery pick early in the year, quit Duke because he hated Duke fans. Part of that was because Duke fans hated him. Quitting really hurt his draft stock, but he flashed point-forward skills before packing up his ball and going home.

Sharife Cooper, 6’0” PG, Auburn

Another guy who has worked out for OKC. With his size, it’s hard to believe that Presti has much interest. Cooper’s hope is to have a J.J. Barea-style career. Barea was a much better shooter, though.

Isaiah Todd, 6’10” PF, G-League Ignite

Ignite coach Brian Shaw was very high on Todd’s abilities to be a stretch-4. Presti loves players that skip college, so this seems like an obvious second-round selection for OKC.

Joshua Primo, 6’5” SG, Alabama

One of the youngest players in the class, worked out for OKC and would be the third Canadian on the team, if selected. Made 38% of his threes as a freshman

Joe Wieskamp, 6’7” SF, Iowa

Corey Kispert, but lower risk because he will be available in the second round.

B.J. Boston, 6’7” SG, Kentucky

Presti has a history of going after disappointing Kentucky players. Boston has a Perry Jones III quality to him, too.

Sandro Mamukelashivili, 6’10” C, Seton Hall

Worked out for OKC…hopefully just to test him out as a Summer League invite.

Jericho Sims, 6’10” C, Texas

Another of Texas’ ten centers. Lower risk than Jones because he’ll be available in the second round. Dunks a lot, but that’s about it.

Neemiah Queta, 7’0” C, Utah State

For people that do two round mock drafts, Queta almost always lands with OKC. He’s the tallest player in the draft, and analytics guys are high on him.

Filip Petrusev, 6’11” C, Serbia/Gonzaga

Petrusev did not return to Gonzaga this season because of COVID but dominated in the Serbian league. His consistency as a scorer was absolutely incredible. His worst game of the season was a 16 point performance in which he was 5 of 8 from the field.

Vrenz Bleijenbergh, 6’9” SF, Belgium

Another confirmed player to workout for OKC, he’s a huge sleeper pick. He honestly looks a lot like Poku, a player that previously seemed like a “unicorn.” Having played professionally in Belgium, he is definitely under scouted.

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