Sam Presti has one superweapon in his strategy to bring a championship to the Thunder: building through the draft. He’s gone so far as to say “draft picks are our lifeblood”. Oklahoma City doesn’t have beaches or glamour to pull in big talent. Instead, the team has to pick their stars straight off the vine.
As the Thunder’s offseason arrives, attention is shifting away from the court and toward the draft. Per Tankathon, OKC has better than an 80% chance of having at least one top-five pick in this July’s selections. That’s a big number when you consider some draftniks say this class has five #1 picks.
Leading the pack is Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, but the Thunder only have an 11.5% chance at the top pick. So, assuming Cade is off the table, who should Presti have in his crosshairs?
To me, the answer is clear: OKC needs to select Evan Mobley.
The total package
The Californian center stands tall as a redwood and swoops in like a condor to consume shots with his 7-4 wingspan. He also has quick, light feet. His balletic toe-taps help him shadow lightning bug guards on switches. These skills, combined with his Tom Brady-like anticipation, make him a defensive god. Mobley is a machine built to destroy pick and rolls, which is the main course of every NBA offense.
Mobley is no slouch on the other end either. He’s a solid decision-maker with the ball, making quick reads and delivering on-time passes to cutters and shooters. He finishes drives and lobs by thundering down from the sky. And with a usage percentage of only 23%, he does all this without dominating the ball.
Sam Presti’s goal is to win a championship. One of the non-negotiables in that process is having an elite defense. In the last ten years, the average league champion has ranked 5th in defensive rating, with none of those teams falling lower than 11th. Further, basically all of those teams featured a top-flight defensive anchor, usually a switchable rim protector. Anthony Davis. Draymond Green. Chris Bosh. Tyson Chandler. Unless you have peak LeBron and a pinch of magic, you need one of these guys. You need an Evan Mobley.
Say no to wings
The other three top prospects are all exciting players. Ending up with Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green, or Jalen Suggs would feel like Christmas morning any year, including this one. But there are All-Star level guards and wings available at the top of every draft, and the Thunder already have one on the roster. They need one more before they can think about contending, but wing talent is just more fungible than a walking one-man defense.
Recent drafts were replete with long-limbed giants that could leap tall buildings in a single bound–guys like Mo Bamba or Jaxson Hayes. But Mobley shows alertness and anticipation more in the mold of Tim Duncan.
NBA bigs have to either be monstrously huge, fundamentally sound, or outrageously athletic. Put two of those together, and you’ve got an All-Star. Evan Mobley is all three.
If you’re still not convinced, think about how these prospects fit with a team. Ball-dominant players compete for shots and control of the offense. They suck up air. Granted, the modern game requires these players to win. But finding the right fit between two offensive creators is a challenge, as Thunder fans will remember from years of rooting for Russell Westbrook.
On the other hand, high-motor players who plug the leaks on defense and finish the plays their teammates create–players like Evan Mobley–fit with everyone. In fact, they enhance everyone. Drafting Mobley would build the ecosystem to allow both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Thunder Star TBA to reach their ceiling. That is how you build a contender.