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Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Going Outside the Box

There are two things that have been true about Thunder GM Sam Presti:

1. He knows what he's doing when drafting in the lottery

2. He doesn't listen to the consensus when it comes to the lottery

If Presti had been influenced by who he should take, he would have taken Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in the 2008 and 2009 drafts. Instead, he took Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Last season, he definitely would not have selected Josh Giddey if the opinions of the "draft experts" factored into his decision-making.

This season, the conventional wisdom is that Presti will choose between whichever of the three freshman big men Orlando does not take when he is on the clock with the second pick overall. You know what happens when you assume, right?

Interest in Ivey?

So if the pick is not Auburn's Jabari Smith, Jr., Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, or Duke's Paolo Banchero, who might get the call? There have been some rumors that the Thunder are extremely high on Purdue sophomore combo guard Jaden Ivey. One person creating that chatter is former Thunder front office worker Derek Murray who predicted on The Uncontested Podcast that Oklahoma City would select Ivey. Others have suggested that OKC could swap places with the Sacramento Kings at four to select Ivy in a more expected draft slot.

The appeal of Ivey is understandable, especially when you consider Presti's history. Most analysts liken him to Thunder legend Russ Westbrook, for good and bad. He has an incredible motor and desire to win, like Russ. He can be unstoppable getting to the rim, like Russ. He has freakish athleticism, like Russ, and a similar build. Meanwhile, he is a streaky shooter with more confidence than ability in that department. Presti went out on a limb to make Russ the fourth pick overall in 2008 and could do the same for Ivey this year.

One difference between now and 2008 is that when Westbrook was taken, it was to be the sidekick of Kevin Durant--who played an entirely different position. Now, if the Thunder were to take Ivey, he would be fighting for minutes with the four best players currently on the roster who all play the same position as him (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, and Tre Mann). If Ivey is truly projected as the best player in the pool, that logjam would not be a major factor. However, Presti would have to be confident that Ivey was going to be significantly better than the projected top-3 who all fit into a hole in the roster.

International (Canada) Man of Mystery

Another player that has been linked with OKC is "Kentucky" pre-frosh Shaedon Sharpe, a mystery man when it comes to fan knowledge. Canadian-born Sharpe was a borderline top-100 high school recruit going into the Summer of 2021 when he was supposedly a junior in high school. Then, he dominated in an EYBL tournament and skyrocketed up the rankings. Sometime that following Fall after Sharpe had enrolled early at the University of Kentucky, it was discovered that he had enough high school credits to have graduated.

Despite being a team that has historically showcased freshmen, John Calipari instead chose to redshirt Sharpe. He practiced with the team, although the frequency is debated and witnesses have reported he was either the best player on the floor or barely noticeable, but was never allowed to suit up for a game. The expectation was that he was just preparing for his actual freshman year which would start next Fall. Instead, Sharpe applied for the draft and is projected to be a top-6 pick.

A lot of Sharpe's resume reads as catnip to Sam Presti. Since the NBA raised the early entry age to keep high school seniors from jumping straight to the draft, very few American players have skipped playing college ball entirely. Most of them have been strongly considered, or even drafted by the Thunder. Darius Bazley went to work for a shoe company instead of playing basketball anywhere and was taken by Oklahoma City in the first round and is currently on the team. Terrence Ferguson skipped college to play in the Australian pro league. He spent most of his NBA career in Oklahoma City after Presti drafted him. Also fun fact, the first high school player to play in the NBA D-League (now called the G-League), was Latavious Williams, who was drafted in the second round by OKC.

When Presti does target a college player, he tends to like Kentucky Wildcats. It's probably easier to list off players he has acquired that didn't spend time in Lexington than who did. So, Sharpe hits both the Kentucky pedigree and non-college player slots on your Presti draft bingo card.

Sharpe also hits a few more keywords that you may have heard when describing Presti prospects. He's tall for his position. He's spring-y with the potential to compete in the slam dunk contest. He's developing an outside shot.

All of that said, I struggle to see the Thunder reaching for Sharpe. I have absolute faith that if the Thunder did select him that Presti and his team will have done plenty of homework to get comfortable taking him. However, there are red flags that make me think it wouldn't happen. For one, why didn't Calipari use him? One would imagine that if Sharpe were a generational talent worthy of selecting at the top of the draft, that Kentucky's coach would have used him on the floor while he had him rather than watching him practice for a little while and leave. It isn't like the Wildcats were so stacked with talent that a player of that caliber would have been lost in the weeds. (Remember, they lost in the first round of the tournament to St. Peters.)

It could be that Calipari wasn't given the opportunity to use him, which leads us to a second red flag. His handlers have been keeping him hidden. They released a workout video with all the typical workout things. He dunked on short people and fired up threes in an empty gym. Meanwhile, he skipped the NBA combine. No one has seen him interact with teammates since a high school tournament more than a year ago. It is impossible to know what kind of motor he displays, and frankly, not being eager to showcase for Kentucky is not a positive indicator as far as that goes.

Taking a flyer on a player like Sharpe would be a decent bet outside the top of the draft, but at two...I doubt it.

(EDIT: A recent report from ESPN, that reads like the source was someone from Sharpe's camp, insisted that Oklahoma City is at the top of Sharpe's preference of who he is drafted by and that no team has done more homework on the player. Context clues also make it seem like the projections of Sharpe being gone in the top half of the lottery might be optimistic.)

Trade Back from Two

It is established that Sam Presti doesn't participate in the hive mind. If he truly is not enamored with any of the three players favored by the masses, though, he could look to bank some added assets to give a team more interested in those players his slot at two. Everyone knows he loves to stockpile future draft picks. The most likely partners for such a deal have been rumored to be Sacramento at 4, Detroit at 5, and Portland at 7.

Sacramento is loaded with guards and promising their fan base an end to their playoff drought, so being in a spot where the best options are Ivey and Sharpe is a worst-case scenario for them. At four, Presti would almost be guaranteed to have Ivey available to him.

The Pistons are supposedly enamored with Chet Holmgren and were jonesing to pair him with Cade Cunningham, the player they took first overall last year. They will almost certainly be interested in swapping places. If Sharpe convinces Presti that he's the best player in the draft, that might be a good deal.

For the Trail Blazers, moving up in the draft has more to do with acquiring an asset they can use to flip for a star-level player to pair with Damian Lillard. Getting the number two pick has a lot more juice than #7 when it comes to making a play for Washington's Bradley Beal or Jerami Grant from Detroit. For OKC, though, seven makes little sense as both Ivey and Sharpe will likely be gone. For this to happen, it would probably be a three team trade where Portland gets Grant, OKC gets the five pick, and Detroit winds up selecting at two and seven. More would probably be involved.

Trade Up

Honestly, trading down would be a surprise. If Presti evaluates Ivey, Sharpe, or another player in his top-2, why would he risk losing that player? He's just going to take that guy when he has the opportunity.

On the other hand, the possibility of getting two players near the top of the draft is a distinct option. No one in the NBA has more assets to make a deal happen. They include:

    • Picks 12, and 34 in the 2022 draft
    • Potentially four first rounders in the 2023 draft
    • Three first rounders in 2024, 2025 and 2026
    • Established players (SGA, Dort, Kenrich Williams, Derrick Favors, Mike Muscala, JaMychal Green)
    • Prospects (Giddey, Poku, Mann, Bazley, Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aaron Wiggins, Vit Krejci)
    • Draft rights to a Euroleague MVP contemplating a move to the NBA (Vassile Micic)
    • Salary cap flexibility to take on bad contracts

Unlike the 2021 draft when teams shot down seemingly Godfather-level offers from Presti, the 2022 draft is not loaded with players expected to change franchises. Look no further than the number four pick where the Sacramento Kings are in a self-imposed win-now situation and possess a draft slot that is not likely to bring them a player that brings them closer to that objective. They could be enticed to trade down, or out of the draft entirely.

The Kings are fairly loaded at the guard position and have Domantas Sabonis as their primary big man. What they do not need is another ball-dominant guard, like Ivey, or a project who will not aide them immediately, like Sharpe. Beyond that, the options are thin. But, if they could swap pick 4 for immediate help, particularly players that can provide strong defense around their current core, they would probably do it.

One package that I would certainly think hard about if I were in the Kings front office would be anything centered around Lu Dort. Dort could fortify their perimeter defense and play off of De'Aaron Fox similar to how he has played off of SGA the past three years. When paired with Davion Mitchell, the Kings would actually have an elite tandem to defend against guard-heavy offenses. Pair him with the 12 pick this year, a future first-rounder, or even the rights to Micic and the Kings would be silly to pass on the offer.

Personally, I would hate to part with Dort who is up for an extension this Summer and has been very good for OKC since signing as an undrafted free agent. However, I don't think anyone else currently on the roster would entice giving up a top-4 pick. And, if Presti really wants one of the top guards in the draft, it would be necessary to clear some playing time out for those guys, anyway.

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