It’s no secret the top priority for the Thunder during Summer League is finding a backup point guard to play behind reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Just look at the roster, which features five or six possible candidates out of 13 total roster spots.
While it’s smart in theory to give yourself as many bites at the apple as possible, it was always going to be tricky for summer coach Mark Daigneault to navigate.
Marcus Thornton was sunk from the start as the low man on the totem poll, recording just 12 minutes of action in the team’s first two games. Players like Markel Brown and Marcus Paige saw their playing time come almost exclusively with another point guard on the floor, pushing both to the off-guard position and, for all intents and purposes, off the Thunder’s radar. You can’t blame Daigneault, considering Brown and Paige are both shoot-first players who probably aren’t NBA-caliber floor generals, but it’s unfortunate considering both are so undersized.
That leaves two traditional point guards on the roster. Well, that was until Daniel Hamilton emerged as a primary ball handler this week.
In case fans are unaware, Daigneault is the coach of the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. After Tuesday’s game, he stressed that Hamilton running point is nothing new, as he served as the backup point guard for the Blue all year long. “We just put the ball in his hands because it was good for our team, he’s a great playmaker.”
It’s an interesting wrinkle for Hamilton, who by-and-large has looked out of control as a wing scorer this week. The spot-up shooting that is supposed to be his meal ticket is missing, as he’s 2/10 from deep through three games. The way he’s attacked the basket is amateur, mostly by putting his head down and driving with his right hand, launching himself into his defender and hoping for a foul or to find an open teammate in the air. When it comes to finishing around the basket, he almost exclusively uses his right hand, causing some awkward angles and contributing to 26% shooting from two point range.
But as a point guard? He’s shown some potential. Through Tuesday’s action, Hamilton is ranked second in the Orlando Summer League in assists with 19, and several of his 11 turnovers can be accredited to those head-down attempts to score I mentioned earlier. He has excellent size for a point guard at 6’6″, and his vision in transition has taken the entire gym by surprise on a few occasions. On the defensive side he’s guarded almost exclusively point guards with some real success. A total transition over to the position could be his best opportunity at making it to the big leagues.
Which brings us to Dylan Ennis and Semaj Christon.
While most of the Thunder faithful are likely hoping that one of the fresh faces will come in and outperform Christon, that simply hasn’t been the case. It’s the latest example of fans saying “Player X sucks” relative to a certain competition level, only to find out that he’s a more viable option than his available replacements. Matched up against the fringe NBA players in Orlando, Christon has looked pretty good.
His best trait is his ability to get into the lane, which he’s been able to do at will this week. Once in the paint he’s been inconsistent, showing some flashes of brilliant playmaking and some moments of boneheaded decision-making. His finishing ability is good when he can get around his defender, but less so when having to go through or over him. His shooting mechanics are OK but he’s not a threat from deep, only attempting one three in the three games so far this week.
The most concerning trend is his tendency to make his match-up personal if he’s challenged by an aggressive defender — a trait he no doubt picked up watching Westbrook. The difference is that Christon doesn’t possess Westbrook’s otherworldly athleticism or scoring talent. This leads to him breaking off possessions in favor of inconsistent isolation, which is not exactly what you want from a backup NBA point guard.
The last option on the roster, Dylan Ennis, is a player I’ve come to admire this week. That doesn’t mean he’s dynamic enough to make it in the most competitive position in arguably all of professional sports, but he’s just impossible not to love. He plays extremely hard, is constantly consulting with Daigneault and the other coaches during the game, and is the first one to encourage the team during huddles.
He’s not an elite shooting threat by any means, but he has shot an efficient 5/7 from deep through three games and has only turned the ball over twice. Defensively, his 6’8″ wingspan and strong upper body allow him to match-up with bigger guards, and that endless motor keeps him buzzing around the ball.
His biggest problem is a lack of sizzle, similar to what teammate Josh Huestis has experienced. He makes good decisions with the ball, but rarely creates assists that aren’t already there. He can score driving to the rim, but rarely because he’s completely beaten his man off the dribble. He’s just a boring choice — the type that is hard to gamble on when a contract option is already in place with Christon and a two year relationship has already been built with Hamilton.
So has the Thunder found a great option in Orlando to be backup point guard next season? Short answer — no. But the thing is, somebody’s gotta do it.
Though fans can get excited about the hope a new player may provide, the experience Semaj Christon has under his belt probably makes him the best choice of the group. Unless Sam Presti can pull a Sam Presti with a trade or a bargain free agent signing, get used to seeing 10-12 minutes of Christon in the regular season.