Next season starts now. The Thunder’s 2016-17 campaign ended on Tuesday night in Houston, and as a part of the wrap-up activities Head Coach Billy Donovan and the players all met with the media on Wednesday to break down the year that just passed and preview their offseason plans.
As the team discussed the resilient season it just completed, they also seemed determined to get their rest and then get right back to work in order to be ready for 2017-18. Below is Part 2 of the running blog of what all of the guys had to say:
For Part 1 of the End of Season Interviews, click here.
Victor Oladipo walked into his end of season interview with a booklet in his hands. On the front it read, “Obsession is Natural”. Quite fitting for the summer Oladipo plans to have. Coming off his first season with the Thunder, and fourth in the NBA, the two-way wing got his first taste of playoff basketball and it seemed to be an eye-opening experience in comparison to the regular season game he was used to.
Watch: Victor Oladipo
As he described his plans the offseason, Oladipo described the summer before his final year at Indiana University. He spent countless hours in the gym, working himself to the bone and it paid off. The next summer he was selected second overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Coming off the most efficient shooting season of his career, Oladipo recognized that he must find ways to impact the game on multiple levels, be a playmaker and elevate his teammates. In Russell Westbrook, he has a great mentor to do just that.
“I know I’ll have to work this summer. I know what I need to work on. I know what I need to get better at. I know what to expect now. I played with these guys for a year. I know what my role is,” Oladipo listed. “So it’s going to be a very relentless summer. A summer that I need to be focused. I need to get better at. I’m looking forward to it.”
“(The motivation) was there, but the Playoffs made it even more relevant. Made it even higher,” Oladipo continued. “I have high expectations for myself, so I don’t feel like I’ve played well. I feel like I could have played a lot better.”
A player who signs with a team after the trade deadline doesn’t always come in and make a huge impact, and for the Thunder’s Norris Cole it may have seemed that way for a while. He did see minutes throughout the final two months of the regular season, but mostly provided some veteran guidance for the Thunder in its transition defense coverages and for rookie point guard Semaj Christon.
Watch: Norris Cole
That is, until Game 3 of the Thunder’s first round playoff matchup against the Houston Rockets. Cole, a two-time NBA Champion, provided an excellent boost off the bench in the Thunder’s sole victory in the series. By playing with pace and tempo in the second unit, Cole got the ball moving and helped the Thunder’s reserves knock down some crucial baskets in the victory. Although the Thunder didn’t achieve its ultimate goal, Cole was proud of the way the team carried itself.
“We competed at a high level. We had each other’s backs, and I think that’s what’s more important,” Cole said. “At the end of the day, only one team is going to hold up the trophy, so everybody is going to say what they could have done and what they should have done, but I think what’s more important is how we competed together and we always had each other’s backs, and I think that says a lot about our guys.”
The gritty forward Taj Gibson spent his entire career in Chicago with the Bulls. In a moment, he was whisked away to Oklahoma City. For most, that type of shock could have been viewed as scary or negative. Gibson was familiar with the organization he was headed into, however, and welcomed the experience with open arms. Having been a part of playoff runs in a championship city, Gibson recognized Oklahoma City and the Thunder as having the same qualities right away.
Watch: Taj Gibson
“This is one of those cities when you come and you put on a uniform, you’re expected to win games,” Gibson explained. “This is a first class organization.”
Gibson was also familiar with the Thunder’s leader on the floor, Russell Westbrook. The two go way back to USC-UCLA days in Los Angeles, but this was the first time Gibson was actually able to play with Westbrook as his teammate. Needless to say, the long-time veteran who played with point guard and former MVP Derrick Rose came away impressed with Westbrook’s leadership chops.
“(Westbrook) is a team-first kind of guy. When you’re in the hunt, when you’re in the battle, he gets you jacked up,” Gibson said. “He’s going to challenge you and want the best out of you but at the same time he’s going to be able to pick you up and say it’s okay.”
Kyle Singler didn’t have a ton of opportunities or a massive impact on the Thunder’s in-game action, but all season long he brought effort, energy and diligence to his work. Despite having not played more than 17 minutes in any game all season, Singler was the ultimate professional and stayed ready for his moment, playing 34 minutes in Denver and scoring crucial baskets that were part of Russell Westbrook’s record-setting 42nd triple-double of the season.
Watch: Kyle Singler
“I’ve worked my entire life to get to the point of where I am today, and there’s nothing more satisfying and gratifying than knowing that you’re putting the time into your craft, into something that you love, and the growth that you can see within yourself,” Singler said.
As for the experience playing on the 2016-17 version of the Thunder is concerned, Singler knows that he was a part of a team with a leader who made the team feel united and a part of all of the team’s collective success.
“Whenever you’re talking about Russ you have to talk about the group because they go hand in hand,” Singler explained. “Being around Russell and being around the team has always been amazing. You’ve seen what he does on the court but the things that happen off the court are just as impressive. Russ could alienate himself from the group but he never does. Russ is a better person off the court than he is on the court.”
One of the subtle, but perhaps crucial, revelations that came out of the Thunder’s first round series against the Houston Rockets is that Doug McDermott can defend certain power forwards in the league. With the way the NBA is trending towards smaller players at every position besides point guard, the Thunder guard who just completed his third year in the league has the ability to retain part of what made him successful in high school and college: his ability to play forward.
Watch: Doug McDermott
“I can play a little three and four,” McDermott said. “The way the league is trending, it’s getting smaller with a lot of small ball the guys who can really spread the floor regardless of their position.”
What McDermott’s ability to stay on the floor defensively can do for the Thunder offensively could be even more dramatic. The extra spacing created on the floor by having a shooter at the power forward position can open up driving lanes for Russell Westbrook, rolls for Steven Adams for lobs or free angles for cutters to hit the paint. The key to it in terms of whether McDermott and what his sharpshooting provides will be the work he puts in this summer in Oklahoma City.
“I try and add something each summer. I don’t want to stay the same player,” McDermott said. “I can get stronger, definitely better laterally, in the weight room and on the court and really just improve my body. Being able to do some more stuff off the dribble, not just being a spot-up shooter and also being able to work on my post game.”
Jerami Grant is looking forward to having a summer and a training camp with the Thunder, but during his first season in Oklahoma City, and third overall in the NBA, he showed why he can be an intriguing player for this team moving forward. Defensively, Grant has the length, size and athleticism to stay with most perimeter players, and also flashed his improved three-point range as well.
Watch: Jerami Grant
“Everybody has their spots,” Grant said. “I like mine at the elbow, left block, and in the corner shooting threes.”
“I took good shots,” Grant noted. “Just being able to take good shots and having the players on this team to create for you makes it a lot easier to raise your percentage and just make threes.”
Much like with McDermott, the Thunder learned quite a bit about Grant and his viability as a player at different positions on the floor during the playoffs. He saw time as the power forward and center against Houston, and it seems with his ability to finish at the rim and block shots, those might be comfortable roles for him. As a result, he’s going to work on his ability to slide down a position or two as well.
“Being able to play in the pick-and-roll as a screener,” Grant said. “It’s definitely something I will work on this summer.”
When Josh Huestis joined the Thunder organization, he had spent his entire basketball life, including a four-year career at Stanford University, as a center and power forward. The Thunder had an idea, however, could they turn Huestis into a perimeter player? With the direction the league is heading, Huestis’ size (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) and skill set as an intelligent shot blocker and defender made him an intriguing candidate for the transformation.
Watch: Josh Huestis
After three seasons with the Oklahoma City Blue and spot appearances with the Thunder, Huestis is looking forward to another offseason to continue honing his guard and small forward skills. As the Thunder saw in the postseason, having versatile players who can switch everything on the perimeter and then play around the rim is a valuable tool come April.
“The biggest thing is just continuing to develop as a perimeter player. That’s something that’s an ongoing process for me,” Huestis said. “Continuing to work on that and develop those skills and try to become as good of an all-around player as I can be, improve my shooting. That can always get better and ball handling, defense. I’m not trying to limit it to one or two things, just trying to get it as good as I can overall.”
On the road in one of the premier NBA markets against the eventual number one seed in the Easter Conference, Thunder rookie Domas Sabonis had perhaps his best game all season. 20 points, while knocking down 8-of-11 shots and 4-of-6 three-pointers was quite the stat-line, but also indicative of where the forward-center’s game could be headed in the future. As the NBA continues trending towards the perimeter, don’t be surprised if Sabonis spends time at the five spot, spacing the floor even more for drivers by utilizing his developing three-point touch.
Watch: Domas Sabonis
“I knew that that was a big emphasis on my game. This summer I was working to get drafted and to extend my range if I wanted to play as a 4 man in the NBA,” Sabonis said.
As the son of basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis, Domas has had one of the best mentors the world has to offer. Still, he became close with and utilized the aid of Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant and Thunder centers Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Nick Collison, all of whom were crucial in Sabonis’ development.
“They’re a great group of guys,” Sabonis said. “It’s been a great year, just learning from all of them. It’s just been — it was a bit funny, but it’s also been great for me to improve.”
For a player who had spent his entire career in Spain until the age of 24, it’s incredible that the transition for Alex Abrines wasn’t sharper. The young shooter burst onto the scene with some incredibly hot shooting during long spurts of the regular season and represented the Thunder in New Orleans as a part of the Rising Stars Competition, along with his fellow rookie Domas Sabonis. As he looks ahead to next season, however, Abrines believes he can be more than just a catch-and-shoot player.
Watch: Alex Abrines
“This year I was more like just a shooter, but I know I can put the ball on the floor and help the team with penetration and getting open shots for other guys,” Abrines said. “That’s the way I like to work, and I’d like to be better at it.”
In order to stay on the floor for long periods, Abrines knows he’ll have to continue to step up his defensive abilities. Most of that has to do with his body. He’ll continue to work with the Thunder’s strength coaches this summer, but also utilize one of his best gifts – his foot quickness.
“You’ve got to work on that. After every practice we’ve been doing some choppy steps like going from the low position to your man and then explosion steps, and that’s things you’ve got to do to get better,” Abrines explained. “You’ve got to do it like a hundred or a million times, so just keep improving and be faster.”
Soft-spoken and typically stoic, Thunder rookie point guard Semaj Christon isn’t flustered or surprised by much. He’s played for the Oklahoma City blue and overseas, and grinded his way to an opportunity with the Thunder. After being tossed in and out of the rotation, Christon stuck with the second group late in the season and into the playoffs.
Watch: Semaj Christon
A certain someone, the Thunder’s starting point guard with an underdog history of his own, took a liking to Christon and his story. Russell Westbrook’s lessons have come in handy for Christon, and that helped the rookie make strides this season.
“(Westbrook) talked to me a lot, especially in the beginning, just because of my emotions,” Christon said. “If I get frustrated, I can’t really let the guys see it, or just playing my role and doing what I need to do to stay on the court. He still talks to me about just doing my job, just doing what I need to do to stay out there.”
“(Westbrook) is teaching me a lot, on and off the court, just how to do things the right way,” Christon continued. “I can call him about anything, talk to him about anything. Just like a big brother.”