Oklahoma City Blue Head Coach Mark Daigneault had no doubt in his mind. There was a crack, a sliver of an opportunity. He knew that the point guard who had spent a season in the G-League and another overseas would throw his best punch.
Through a confluence of events at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, rookie point guard Semaj Christon found himself staring down the barrel as a backup point guard behind the NBA’s 2017 MVP, on a team with playoff aspirations. A year after shipping off to Italy to compete for Consultinvest Pisaro and two seasons after putting in the sweat equity with the OKC Blue, Christon was suddenly, surprisingly, getting a chance to make a claim at being in the rotation every night.
Just as Daigneault’s instincts told him, Christon attacked the moment and played his role without fear. The attitude he brought to practice earned him an unlikely spot on the roster. He had clearly made a mark on Billy Donovan, and the Thunder’s head coach rewarded Christon with the break he needed.
“When you’re not the last team standing there are different things that you go through that make what you do every day extremely valuable,” Donovan began. “Being with Semaj last summer and seeing how he was in training camp and the growth that he made for me as a coach was really rewarding, because it was the hard road for him.”
To start the season he was in the rotation, and he performed well with a feistiness on defense that is rarely seen in a rookie. Then midway through the year Donovan made a change that left Christon on the bench before plugging him back in during the months of March and April. That amount of change would have been tough for a veteran to handle, let alone a 24-year old. Christon did it with poise and professionalism.
“The unselfishness of Semaj and what he did, I couldn’t be any prouder of him,” Donovan added. “Because what he went through this year wasn’t easy. To keep yourself ready, especially being young, and it’s your first year in the league.”
“I just always wanted to be out there competing, so I knew or I figured if my number was going to get called, just try to motivate myself to just be ready to play and do my job for the team,” Christon shrugged.
The traditional numbers Christon put up don’t pop off the page, but his purpose on the floor is to primarily be a fiery defender who can defend point guards and shooting guards. On offense, Christon helped the Thunder get into offense and transfer the ball to the second unit’s primary scorer, Enes Kanter, and shooters like Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott.
Heading into 2017-18, Christon’s role is uncertain. Westbrook will of course get the lion’s share of minutes while longtime NBA vet Raymond Felton will likely be slotted into the backup point guard role. As Christon learned first-hand last season, however, and with the way the NBA is trending smaller, he’ll be ready for any potential role.
Fortunately, he’s had Westbrook as a mentor over the past few years. The duo of under-recruited, big, physical point guards have grown fond of one another, and Christon has tried to soak up as much of the perennial All-Star’s wisdom as possible. One of the most crucial lessons has been how to channel the passion in the heat of battle, but also to set the tone for the other four players on the floor.
“(Westbrook) talked to me a lot, especially in the beginning, just because of my emotions,” Christon explained. “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.”
On an emotional level, and through most of the season, Christon came off as subdued. Generally, he can be a quiet guy. But as the season went along, and through Summer League where he was clearly the team’s leader, Christon showed off more of his edge, his competitiveness and outgoing nature. That’s all a part of his growth as not only a player but as a person. With the Thunder this year, he’ll have a chance to continue on that journey, learn from the best in the game and just like last year, stay primed for his moment.