Predicting the Roles and Impact of Each OKC Thunder Newcomer This Season
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t make any high-profile moves this offseason, but they are still the class of the Western Conference. None of the newcomers will single-handedly push the Thunder over the hump and into the Finals again. Yet, they all have defined roles which must be maximized to fulfill the potential of 2014-15's version.
There are only five new players to cover, and we already know that one of them—first-round pick Josh Huestis—definitely won’t play a part in the NBA this season. It’s likely that fellow rookie Semaj Christon will join him in the D-League, but a strong showing over the course of the season could eventually vault him onto the NBA roster.
Beyond those two, the rest of the offseason additions will all factor into the nightly rotation. The roles they will fill are the subject of discussion here (plus some stat projections for the players that will definitely play NBA minutes next year).
Honorable Mention: Josh Huestis
Josh Huestis makes the list as an honorable mention because we already know that he won’t be playing for the Thunder in the NBA this season, despite being a first-round pick. As detailed by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Huestis made a deal with the Thunder to sign with OKC’s D-League affiliate for the year.
While this was the first transaction of its kind, it could end up working out very well for the Thunder. Huestis was definitely a reach at that point in the draft, but he has the potential to become a defensive stopper in the mold of the departed Thabo Sefolosha.
Playing for the Tulsa 66ers will be a great opportunity for him to rack up playing time and refine his shooting stroke. He won’t play any role for the Thunder this season, but he’ll be filling the wings in the Chesapeake Energy Arena soon.
Semaj Christon: D-League Project
Semaj Christon is also probably destined for the D-League this season, but his length, athleticism and defense give him a chance to work his way onto the active roster.
The general sentiment regarding the Xavier point guard is that he should have stayed in school another year to hone his outside shot and decision-making. Both of those statements looked accurate in the Orlando Summer League.
Christon was a defensive pest who made a number of nice plays and got to the rack, but his poor outside shooting made him somewhat of a liability and easier to defend.
With Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Sebastian Telfair ahead of him on the point guard depth chart, a year in the D-League would serve Christon well as an opportunity to work on his two main weaknesses.
Sebastian Telfair: Third-String PG
Sebastian Telfair’s role is very much subject to change. The most important factor will be whether or not head coach Scott Brooks decides to slot Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup.
Jackson is clearly one of the five best players on the team, and starting him would make Telfair the primary backup at point guard. If Jackson stays in his current role of sixth man extraordinaire (the likely option in my mind), Telfair will play the same role as Derek Fisher did last year.
Westbrook and Jackson are sure to see plenty of minutes on the court together, so there will definitely be a spot in the rotation for Telfair to grab around 10-15 minutes per game. Fisher played a whopping 17.6 minutes per game last year, but that was too much and Telfair doesn’t bring the same kind of perimeter shooting (32 percent three-point shooter for his NBA career).
Telfair’s job will be to run the offense (i.e., pass to Durant or Westbrook and get out of the way), and he’s fully capable of being a reliable third-string floor general.
Per-Game Stat Projections: 10-15 minutes, 5 points, 3 assists, 0.7 steals
Mitch McGary: Energizer Bunny
During the Orlando Summer League, McGary showed off a skill set that definitely has a place in the OKC rotation, but it’s unclear how large that role will be this season. The Michigan product possesses a style similar to the man ahead of him on the depth chart—Nick Collison.
Both play with reckless abandon and are exceptional passers given their size, but McGary possesses more natural scoring ability. Tom Westerholm of ESPN.com analyzed McGary’s all-around impact in Orlando:
As a high-post big, McGary let the offense run around him, waiting until his defender sagged to knock down mid-range jumpers effectively. McGary’s numbers, however, may not be an accurate depiction of his impact. He creates chaos, tipping loose balls and throwing his body around the floor—an infusion of energy that might impact a regular-season game as the season drags on.
Despite McGary being an offensive upgrade, Collison provides so much intangible value off the bench that it’s hard to foresee a scenario where he would be displaced by the rookie.
Coach Brooks has shown a tendency to lean toward the experienced players, so it’s more likely that McGary’s role for this season will be as the fifth big man so he can grow into Collison’s role next year (as Collison is in the last year of his deal).
Between the frontcourt depth ahead of him and the small-ball lineups where Kevin Durant plays the 4, consistent minutes will be hard to come by for McGary. He should still be effective in limited playing time because of his high motor, but this season will be preparation for 2015-16.
Per-Game Stat Projections: 5-9 minutes, 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 0.4 blocks
Anthony Morrow: Long-Range Gunner
OKC desperately needs improved floor spacing this season, and the only way to obtain it will be to put better shooters on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. Nobody would dispute that James Harden is a much better player than Kevin Martin, but the Thunder offense has never been more prolific or efficient as it was in Martin’s lone season in Oklahoma (112.4 points per 100 possessions, 52.7% eFG via Basketball-Reference.com).
Signing Anthony Morrow seemed like an unsatisfying consolation prize after OKC missed out on Pau Gasol, but don’t sleep on what the sharpshooter will do for the OKC offense. After all, he is quite possibly the best spot-up shooter the Thunder have ever had (other candidates are Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin and Daequan Cook).
None of those others has shot over 40 percent from downtown in more than three seasons. Morrow is currently at 42.8 percent for his career.
According to the official NBA stats page, he ranked 12th (minimum two attempts per game) in the NBA in three-point percentage on catch-and-shoot opportunities last year, knocking down 44.1 percent of them. Only three Thunder players surpassed the 40 percent mark in the same category last season, and they’re all gone (Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Reggie Williams).
Morrow is sure to receive more of those opportunities than ever before with defenses helping on Durant and Westbrook. Opposing teams could live with Fisher and Butler taking those shots, but they won’t be able to do the same with Morrow. His presence will be a tremendous boost for the OKC offense—which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Morrow will find minutes in the rotation and has a good chance of snatching a starting spot if Jeremy Lamb doesn’t impress and Coach Brooks wants to keep Reggie Jackson on the bench. Whenever he gets on the court, Morrow will provide an instant offensive boost and take the Thunder to an even more explosive offensive gear.
Per-Game Stat Projections: 22-26 minutes, 13 points (45% 3P), 3 rebounds, 1 assist