Thunders’ Young Players Ready To Step Up
The Oklahoma City Thunder just claimed top honors at the 2013 Orlando Pro Summer League. With a final 5-0 record, they were the only undefeated team among the ten who participated – good news for a team who has been totally quiet in this frenzied free agency season. Just as fans and followers were starting to question why the Thunder weren’t working to upgrade the roster during the offseason, it became apparent: they may not need to.
With last seasons’ starting five still intact and the promising performance in Orlando of an ever-improving Reggie Jackson and rising Jeremy Lamb and others, we were reminded that the Thunder are ready to make a legitimate title run next season.
We understand what the implications of the Collective Bargaining Agreement mean to a small-market team like the Thunder. It means after securing long-term deals with stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the dollars available to pay other top players are severely limited. It spelled the end of Kevin Martin’s one-season tenure in Oklahoma City. Worst of all, it led to the trade of eventual All-Star James Harden.
So the Thunder is relying on their proven method of developing talent through the draft. In June, they drafted seven-foot Steven Adams, Grant Jerrett and Andre Roberson. The three draftees appeared in Orlando along with Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins. Last seasons’ 28th pick, Perry Jones III, did not participate as he was dealing with a minor oral infection.
The immediate questions are these: Is Lamb ready to fill Martin’s shoes? With Thabo Sefolosha in his final contract year, will Lamb see playing time next season as the Thunder’s starting shooting guard?
“I haven’t thought about it much,” answered Lamb, when asked during the Summer League. “I am working and am excited to have an opportunity, but I’m just working hard trying to be the best player I can be. If that’s coming off the bench, if that’s playing low minutes, whatever it is to make the team better, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just working hard, trying to get better as a person and as a player, and I haven’t thought much about that a lot.”
Lamb’s play in Orlando has definitely garnered attention. He scored 14 points and logged six rebounds in Game No. 1. He followed it up with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and one-of-nine in three-pointers in Game No. 2, but Lamb made the game-winning pullup jumper in the final seconds. Following that second game, he explained why he viewed this showing in a positive light.
“The biggest thing is being able to impact the game other ways than scoring,” Lamb said. A lot of people know I can score, (that) I can shoot the ball, but like today, I didn’t shoot well at all. I was just trying to play good defense, get rebounds, set my team up, just try to do other things to impact the game.”
He sat out Game No. 3, but in Game No. 4, Lamb scored an impressive 32 points, going three-of-five in three-point shooting and nine-of-ten at the foul line. He nearly bested Jackson’s record-setting 35 points in Game #3. And in the championship game, Lamb scored 18 points, dished out four assists and grabbed three rebounds.
“The Summer League has been big,” said Lamb. “Just been working the whole offseason, and being able to do it in a game-like situation’s been good.”
Following the first game, Steven Adams, the Thunder’s 2013 12th draft pick, was direct when describing how it felt to participate in his first NBA contest.
“Pretty exciting,” he shared. “I just felt like I was really nervous about it, but then excited about it at the same time. I’m just glad to finally get one underneath my belt. Now it’s kind of like relaxing and just focus on the main points that they go across.”
The Thunder’s well-documented need for another low-post player may be answered in New Zealander Adams. Admittedly, turning him into a contributor will take time.
“I’m a work in progress,” said Adams. “So we’re just taking it day by day. I’m just working hard every day and getting better.
“I’m just trying to showcase whatever we’ve worked on over the past week and whatever they try to teach me at OKC, which is pretty much just defense,” he continued. “That’s like the main area they want to teach me. The defense, rebounding, run the lanes, set screens.”
The ex-Pittsburgh product had a nice showing in Orlando. In three games, he averaged 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and .643 in field goal shooting.
“I think I’m doing pretty well,” said Adams. “I’m just listening to the coaches. Whatever they say, I’ll do no matter what it is. They know what’s good for me. They’ve been around for a long time. Best coaches in the world. They know what to do.”
Many were surprised to see Jackson in Orlando; he played in just two games averaging 19.5 points, 2.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds. When he wasn’t playing, he was the Thunder’s biggest cheerleader from the bench.
A collision in the first game with teammate Daniel Orton resulted in Jackson’s left eye being nearly swollen shut. Orton, who turned heads with 12 points and 5.5 rebounds in two games, suffered a mild concussion, which kept him sidelined for three games. Jackson was his usual forthcoming self afterward, saying he was ready to return to the court.
“I can open it, and still I got one eye,” he deadpanned. “I can see the floor with one eye, I’m good.”
Jackson had plenty to say about his presence at the Summer League, as well as the potential of Lamb.
“I’m happy to be here,” Jackson began. “Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb is who I roll with all the time. I’m sad Perry isn’t here. It’s always good, I like to be in Jeremy’s corner. I see him up close and personal get better. I think to be a special shooting guard, you’ve got to have no conscience, and hopefully he’s on that way. I’m just happy for him.”
The loss of Martin, the Thunder’s third-best scorer last season, would suggest Jackson will be expected to increase his production. How much pressure does he feel to step up next year?
“None,” he answered quickly. “The team has to do it. Everybody, collectively, you have to go in there and get better in every position you’re thrown into. Hopefully, you produce. But no added pressure. You can’t do it…can’t do that to yourself. Just gotta go and enjoy the game.”
Believe it or not, 23-year-old Jackson, is older than Lamb, Orton and Adams. He has advice to share with his younger teammates.
“Just keep playing. Stay hungry. Never really be happy. You’re going to have growing pains. I can feel it, just confidence in myself. You have bad games. Just got to move on and get better from it.
“I think this will be a good stepping stone,” Jackson said about how the Summer League will aid his team. “The right stepping stone in the right direction.”