ORLANDO – A lanky Russell Westbrook was still growing into his frame in 2008, before his OKC jersey even had a team name attached to it. Steven Adams’ hair was crisply manicured, a far cry from the flowing locks he dons today. Yet for both men, and for many Thunder players, Summer League is where they got a first taste for NBA action.
As the Thunder heads into its 10th season, the team is celebrating specific portions of the year and aspects of NBA life that are meaningful to the 12-month season as a whole. One of those is Summer League, a week-long competition that begins just days after the NBA Draft, where youngsters and pro hopefuls get a chance to show what they’re made of in front of coaches and scouts.
The week is a crucial part of the Thunder youth’s development, not just because of the action on the floor, but the contact they get with the organization’s coaches and staff before they embark on the rest of the offseason work.
“First and foremost, this is really the starting point for us to see where our guys are and to get a baseline, especially on some of the rookie players and some of the returning guys that we’re fortunate enough to have coming back,” Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said.
For the Thunder, winning with youth has always been part of the DNA. Less is not expected due to age, and as a result the Thunder has utilized Summer League as a springboard for young players to get prepared for NBA basketball.
“What we’ve tried to do over a period of time is make sure that we always have a continuation of our roster that could continue to improve as well as a sustainable environment and culture that is as organic as possible,” Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said.
Typically, even the rookie players who compete in Summer League aren’t always of the caliber of a player like Westbrook. Instead, most of the players on Summer League rosters are fighting to capture the 14th or 15th spot on a roster, scratching to make a G-League squad or hoping to show off to a foreign scout who is hoping to bring a talented player back to their team.
“Most of the guys who play are not established NBA players,” Daigneault explained. “It gives them the opportunity to showcase what they’re capable of doing in a highly competitive environment.”
While these players are still maturing and trying to find their way, so are the coaches and talent evaluators in the gym. In fact, it’s usually assistant coaches like the Thunder’s Mark Bryant, Darko Rajakovic or this year, the Oklahoma City Blue’s Mark Daigneault who are at the helm.
These assistants all agreed that the experience of being a head coach in these situations has tremendous personal value and growth potential. Leading practices and shootarounds, patrolling the sideline and making in-game decisions are all crucial ways Thunder coaches can continue learning more about themselves and their players as well.
“It allows everybody: the front office, coaches and fans, to take a hard look at guys who haven’t had consistent opportunities in the NBA games in a highly competitive environment,” Daigneault explained. “It has tremendous value for everybody.”
Over the course of the 10 seasons, the Thunder has been able to establish its own identity, and that shines through at Summer League. The team won the Orlando Summer League championship in 2013, and each year the roster and players are competitive, both in skill level and with a commitment towards both team ideals and winning.
“We’re trying to play a certain way, which is the Thunder way,” the scruff-less Adams said back when he played in Summer League in 2014. “We’re trying to get better as a team and the chemistry comes from playing together. Everyone is taking the right steps forward to playing the Thunder way.”
“We just kept putting it in their heads: We play hard, we play physically and we’re going to play for 40 minutes and we’ll see what happens at the end,” Bryant said.
Those are the same standards that Thunder players are held to during the regular season, the playoffs and throughout the offseason. Just because most of the young men on Summer League rosters won’t end up with the parent club once training camp ends, it doesn’t mean the Thunder won’t invest the same way.
At its heart, that’s what Summer League is all about – a first chance to devote the organization’s mental, physical, emotional and financial resources to its youngest generation of players. In turn, the club gets to see which players respond, and which ones may have a chance to wear OKC’s letters across their chest.
“Guys know what is expected. They walk the walk. They know what it means to wear the logo,” Daigneault affirmed.