It feels odd to start a lottery draft preview series on a team with two top 10 players and one of the most talented teams, top to bottom, in the league. But such is life after an injury-ravaged season in the rugged Western Conference. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka missing a combined 88 games, not to mention injuries to other rotation players, the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves at the end of the lottery with the chance to add another high-level talent on a team-friendly contract.
Assuming the Thunder re-sign Enes Kanter, as is expected, the Thunder will have 14 guaranteed contracts for the 2015-2016 season, not including those of restricted free agent Kyle Singler, last year’s first round pick Josh Huestis or this year’s 14th overall selection. They’ll also have a formidable frontcourt rotation, where their primary concern will be the allocation of playing time, especially in light of Durant likely playing minutes at the power-forward position.
As their depth chart illustrates, the issue for Oklahoma City has never been talent, especially at the top of the roster. However, since moving on from James Harden (sorry to bring it up again, Thunder fans), the Thunder have been unable to get their shooting guard’s play to match that of the rest of the roster. The lack of development from their young wing players in recent years was one of the more confusing elements of the Scott Brooks era. Using Basketball-Reference’s play-by-play estimates and John Hollinger’s PER, 75 percent of Oklahoma City’s shooting guard minutes last season went to players that performed below league average. This roster weakness, however, isn’t for lack of trying. Since just 2012, the Thunder have spent four first-round picks on wing players, not including the protected future first-rounder used to acquire Dion Waiters this past season, and have gotten very little return on that capital.
Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, despite their perceived upside coming into the league, each failed to crack Scott Brook’s rotation during their first three seasons in the league. With a new coach and expiring rookie contracts, this is a make-or-break season for both, assuming they’re not moved prior to the season to open up roster space.
Andre Roberson, in only his second season, started 65 games at shooting guard and proved himself a valuable wing defender. His shooting woes, however, make him a complete non-threat to opposing defenses; the degree to which teams left Roberson open on the wings would make even Tony Allen blush.
Enough has been written about Dion Waiters and his island in Oklahoma City. Suffice it to say that Waiters has incredible physical talent but his basketball IQ, attitude and shot selection make him a difficult long-term fit for the Thunder. His rookie extension negotiations will be telling, as it’s unclear whether Waiters is viewed as a key piece for the Thunder moving forward and whether Waiters would be willing to accept an extension inline with his production rather than his potential.
Anthony Morrow has essentially been the exact opposite of Roberson throughout his career, known both for his otherworldly outside shot and his inability to provide any value on the defensive end. Morrow caught fire down the stretch of last season, shooting 50 percent from three-point range on just over five attempts per game after the All-Star break. He may stand to benefit the most from the health of the Thunder’s stars, as the extra defensive attention they draw will likely present even more open looks than he received this year. At age 30, and with just one year remaining on his contract, Morrow may be seen more as a temporary stopgap rather than a long-term piece of the puzzle. Much like Roberson, it’ll be interesting to see whether such a one-dimensional player will have a role in Billy Donovan’s new system.
Despite the logjam at shooting guard (or perhaps because of the logjam – there’s the old football adage that teams with two quarterbacks don’t really have one that I think is applicable here), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Thunder solidify the position with a two-way player through the draft. Many mock drafts have the Thunder selecting Kansas swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. or Kentucky sharpshooter Devin Booker. Oubre’s physical profile is impressive, and though raw as a prospect, he could provide depth at either wing position. He’s also one of the few remaining players at this stage in the draft that possesses All-Star potential.
Booker, at 6’6 with a 6’8 wingspan, has prototypical size for a shooting guard and is widely acknowledged as one of the top shooters in the draft. While one or both are likely to be selected before the Thunder are on the clock, R.J. Hunter, profiled last week by Phillip Taggart, is a shooting guard who may actually fit the offensive needs and win-now timeline of the Thunder better than either Oubre or Booker.
Because of his low release and lanky figure, Hunter has often been compared to Kevin Martin, a player the Thunder acquired in the Harden trade for his ability to work off the ball and draw free throws at a high rate. Hunter has many of the same characteristics to his game. While some have balked at Hunter’s low three-point percentage this past season, he profiles as an above-average shooter in the NBA based on his career shooting numbers.
Beyond shooting, Hunter’s 20.3 AST% from the wing and 0.447 free throw rate evidence an ability to work as a secondary ball handler, capable of drawing fouls in bunches and creating open looks for teammates. There are legitimate concerns that his slender frame may inhibit his ability to draw contact at the NBA level and will likely make it difficult to become a lockdown defender. To make up for his lack of strength on defense, Hunter will rely on his 6’10 wingspan to contest shots and disrupt passing lanes. Hunter is currently seen by many as a reach at the 14th pick, but if he’s able to replicate the success of Martin, he’d be a steal at the end of the lottery. And with his combination of shooting, size and playmaking ability, he may be just what the Thunder need.
The Thunder may also look to address the backup point-guard position with their selection. D.J. Augustin has proven he’s nothing more than a capable backup guard, and with just one year remaining on his contract, Oklahoma City may look to develop a rookie point guard this year with the expectation that they’d assume the backup role for the 2016-2017 season. After D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, four point guards are likely to be in the mix for teams in the middle of the first round.
According to many prognosticators, Cameron Payne has the highest ceiling of the group. After reportedly making a promise to take him with the 14th pick, the Thunder may have helped push Payne up draft boards and out of Oklahoma City’s range. Payne is a gifted scorer who maintained a high level of efficiency despite a high usage rate. He also was able to contribute in ways beyond scoring, showing strong passing instincts and the ability to operate out of the pick-and-roll.
At 6’4 with a 6’7.5 wingspan, Jerian Grant most closely resembles the type of player the Thunder have targeted to fill their combo guard role. He has the size to play minutes at the shooting guard position and the playmaking ability to be a primary ball handler.
Tyus Jones and Delon Wright are two players analytic models love, but that nonetheless have athletic flaws that force Oklahoma City to bypass their talents. Jones is renowned for his basketball IQ and intangibles, but lacks the size and athleticism that Sam Presti has typically targeted on the perimeter. His advanced numbers, apart from his excellent shooting, look rather pedestrian as compared to the other point-guard prospects, though his team context as often the fourth option on a loaded Duke team may have as much or more to do with that than his skill level. For a team that has typically looked to their point guards to provide some scoring punch, Jones, while a great prospect, may not fit the Thunder’s needs.
While Wright has great size for the position, allowing him to be a menace on defense, he lacks an outside shot and is a below-average athlete in terms of foot speed and explosion.
More than anything else, the Thunder’s upcoming season will be about the health of their three stars and Kevin Durant’s impending free agency. For a team as talented as Oklahoma City, a lottery selection is a rare opportunity to restock the end of the bench with promising, high-upside players or to seek immediate contributors at positions of need. For the Thunder’s sake, I hope this is the last lottery draft preview they’re a part of for many years.