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Summer School is Out: The Thunder’s Summer League Experience

As the NBA’s 2016 summer league experience ends with the Las Vegas summer league championship game on Monday, it’s time now to look back at what the Oklahoma City Thunder did with their summer league time in Orlando. As for the team, the Thunder were tied for 2nd in their league with a 4-1 record, but finished 3rd by virtue of the Orlando Summer League points system, which awards 4 points for every victory, 1 point for every quarter won, and 0.5 points for every quarter tied. The only loss on the Thunder’s record was a close game where the Thunder sat their three roster players with NBA experience. While the team’s performance was good, there probably shouldn’t be much to glean from as the Orlando Summer League was probably stacked with the least amount of talent between the three summer leagues. Here are 10 points to take from this year’s summer league:

The Graduates (These guys probably won’t be back in Orlando next season):

1. Cameron Payne was the best player in Orlando…

Like he should’ve been. The second year guard who was chosen with the final lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft, averaged 18.8 points, 4.5 boards, and 4.0 assists per game in the four games he played. He shot just 43.6% from the field (to include a worrisome 28.6% from 3-point territory), but combatted that by getting to the free throw line, to the tune of 6.5 attempts per game. He did a good job of running the offense and developed great pick and roll chemistry with Mitch McGary. Defensively, he was more aggressive on the ball and has improved his defensive self-awareness. After an up and down rookie campaign, Payne looks poised to have a much more consistent year this season.

2. Mitch McGary’s game is maturing

One thing that really blew me away this offseason was how much more serious McGary was this summer league. No more of this “bull in a china shop” routine. McGary was controlled while remaining aggressive. He averaged 14 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in his four games in Orlando. The rebounding number a little worrisome, but I wouldn’t focus too much on them. Power forwards are playing more and more from the perimeter and Dakari Johnson was doing a good job of grabbing most of the available rebounds.

He developed a great 2-man game with Cameron Payne, often finding himself on the receiving end of oops from Payne’s alleys. Defensively, McGary was a lot more active, but still struggled to stay in front of ball handlers on most possessions. In what was a very trying year for McGary, he looks ready to have a bounce-back year for the Thunder. Unfortunately, his season is not getting off to a great start as he will have to sit the first 5 games of next season due to a failed drug test.

3. Josh Huestis is a glue guy, no matter what court he plays on.

Huestis was the ultimate glue guy for the Thunder this summer. He provided scoring, contributing 9.5 points per game in his 4 contests. He provided rebounding to the tune of 6 boards per game. He shot 40% from deep. He was the Thunder’s best wing defender in Summer League, averaging 1 steal and half a block per game.

With the departure of Kevin Durant, the minutes at small forward will likely be divided among 3 players: Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler, and Huestis. With minutes available, Huestis will have the opportunity to be a rotation player this season, even if it is the 9th or 10th guy off the bench.

4. Semaj Christon deserves a shot in the league

Christon was the second leading scorer on the Thunder summer squad, averaging 16.8 points. The Thunder’s second round pick from 2012, spent last season playing in Italy, and that experience seems to have helped Christon’s development. He appeared to put on a bit of muscle, and used that bulk to muscle his way into the lane for easy shots and free throw attempts. He still has a shaky outside shot, but now knows when and how to get his shot off. Defensively, Christon was a terror in the passing lanes, racking up 2.5 steals per contest.

While Christon definitely deserves a shot in the NBA, I don’t know if the Thunder have the room to supply that. With the signing of Alex Abrines, the roster currently sits at 14. While there is a need for a third point guard, the Thunder usually reserve that spot for a veteran on a small contract. Hopefully the team gives Christon a shot this season.

We’ll likely see you next year in Orlando

5. Dakari Johnson would’ve had a career in the 90’s and 00’s, but not in today’s NBA

I’ll say this: Dakari Johnson is a load to handle on the inside. That big frame is able to carve out space and gobble up offensive rebounds like a certain Turk that plays on the Thunder. But when he gets the ball, the man can barely jump over a piece of paper when he puts a shot up. And that’s where he gets in trouble. His lack of athleticism betrays one of his most promising strengths: size. Johnson grabbed 21 offensive boards in his 5 games played, but often found his shot blocked when he went back up with it. Now, his size allowed him to get fouled a ton, but those trips to the line usually only yielded one point (54% from the free throw line).

If this was 1996, Johnson would’ve made a career of being a big body. He reminds me a lot of Thunder big man coach Mark Bryant. He would’ve had epic battles against Othella Harrington, Oliver Miller, and Bryant Reeves. Hell, he might’ve held his own against Shaquille O’Neal. But in this new NBA, Johnson would not be very effective. We’ve seen what happens to players like Henry Sims or even an Al Jefferson or Greg Monroe. They literally get played out of the game. And unless they are a superior offensive talent like Jefferson or Monroe, they deficiencies essentially make them unplayable. Sorry, Dakari; you should have been born 20 years earlier.

6. Daniel Hamilton has potential, but that potential probably needed a season or two more of college experience

Daniel Hamilton is something. I just don’t know what it is yet. His game suggests “jack of all trades,” but his polish negates anything positive. He has an okay stroke from deep, shooting 33% from the 3-point line on 12 attempts. He’s an okay playmaker, as seen with his 2 assists per game. He grabbed 3.6 boards in the 5 games he played. And he played pretty good defense. He’s definitely an Oklahoma City Blue project, but he probably could have benefitted from a season or two more under Kevin Ollie’s guidance in Connecticut.

The Foreign Exchange Student

7. Tomislav Zubcic might become a sneaky good get from the Toronto/Luke Ridnour trade from two seasons ago.

Sometimes when random trades go down, you sometimes see a random foreign name thrown into the mix as trade filler. Usually those names just slip into the recesses of history, as the player usually stays overseas and never comes over to the NBA. Well, Zubcic was one of those names. Until he showed up in Oklahoma City last season to play for the Blue. Zubcic is a 6’10 stretch 4 that can “big-man” handle the ball and shoot from 3-point territory efficiently enough to be a threat. He reminds a lot of Donatas Motiejunas, but without the back issues. If he remains in OKC’s farm system, he may be someone that latches on later in the season on a 10-day contract.

The Super Seniors

8. Richard Solomon, Reggie Williams, and Marcus Lewis must love their yearly pilgrimages to Orlando.

I hope the Thunder pays for the travel and for the per diem.

Mr. Consistent (the kid that never missed a day of school)

9. Max Hooper

Sing this to DJ Khaled’s “All I do is Win”:

“All I shoot is threes, threes, threes/No matter what/Got shooting on my mind, I won’t even try a dunk…” You get the picture. Hooper had 2 shot attempts in summer league. Both were 3-point attempts. All is right in the world.

The Ambassador of Goodwill

10. Good of Victor Oladipo to take the ambassador reign from Durant and show up to support his new teammates in Orlando.

I like the guy already.

As everything else with the Thunder this summer, the summer league experience was looked at through the guise of Kevin Durant no longer being on the team. With Durant and Russell Westbrook in tow, every summer league was more an opportunity to see some of the Thunder’s (more unheralded) talent pipeline in action. It was easy to watch because you knew the bread and butter of the team were already on the team. But now, with Durant’s departure, summer league kind of took on a different tone. We needed to see improvement from the guys who were going to be on the Thunder next season. It was weird to feel like that again. To feel like summer league will somehow have an impact on the regular season. But this is the new reality for the Thunder. And while Payne, McGrady, and Huestis all showed improvement, there is no way any of their contributions will be on par with what the Thunder will be missing.