The Oklahoma City Thunder are expecting to submerge themselves into a tanking season for the first time in team history. The organization has seen one losing season in Oklahoma City and it was their first. The first year was fun, exciting, and new. If you were ever going to lose, that was the time to do it–before the novelty of Oklahoma’s first professional sports team wore off.
Now, the Thunder will ask Oklahomans to do something no other fanbase has (other than the minority of Sixers fans who trusted the process): support their favorite team as they focus on bettering their draft pick and developing young talent again, rather than making big-splash moves to continue to contend. While I believe this fanbase, for the most part, will stay intact, that is still a worrisome ask in a small market. The global brand will take a hit, but if Sam Presti gets this tank right, those fans will come back when the winning starts again. Fan support aside, OKC has a bigger concern.
How will this college basketball season even look?
With the first of many extra first round picks in the Thunder treasure chest set to convey in the 2021 draft, the answer will be almost as important as how the NBA season looks. Despite the NCAA announcing they will play college hoops around mid-November, a quirky Twitter video from Oklahoma State encapsulates this season perfectly.
Scouting from a distance
As someone who works within college athletics, this video rings true as most questions I’ve asked are met with a genuine “I don’t know” from those in sports living day-to-day, and in some cases hour-to-hour. The NBA Draft process, even in a normal year, is a crap shoot. With the new wrinkle of limited games–always open to sudden cancellation and modified methods of contact with prospects–your front office will truly be put to the test.
These next picks will decide the fate of this franchise, and thanks to COVID-19, the college basketball world is doing the Thunder organization no favors. Luckily for Oklahoma City, they will be able to use this year’s makeshift home market combines and Zoom meetings as a trial run before the pressure begins to mount on each selection they make for the next three or four years.
This year, taking meetings is not just about the player, it is about finding out what works and what does not work in this new era of pro day videos and in-market visits rather than the traditional all hands on deck combines in the Windy City. This abnormal process will likely remain for next year’s class as well, in which the Thunder desperately need to nail their pick(s).
The less you know
Spoiler Alert: Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State) is the top prospect on my big board heading into this season. I am thankful for college hoops returning to bridge the gap between the Finals and the start of the next NBA season (a smaller gap than we initially assumed). However, if we take a look at last year’s pre-season big boards, Cole Anthony (North Carolina) led the way not only on mine but others’ around the media as well. Things change.
Now? He is projected to go in the late lottery after a lackluster college season that featured a few injuries and poor play. James Wiseman (Memphis) had a ton of questions out of high school, but was still sitting high on most everyone’s big board entering the season. However, without a college season to answer those questions and the ever-changing NBA play style, he has also fallen down mock boards. While the Warriors and Hornets might still make the push to select him near the top of the draft, many around the NBA now view Onyeka Okongwu (USC) as the better big in the class.
Cole Anthony is one of the best examples of why the college season is so important. What if Cade Cunningham would suffer the same fate as Anthony with a full season of play, but COVID-19 ended his season prematurely? While I do not think that will happen, it would set back rebuild plans for the team that selects him in a hurry. If teams only have a five game sample size to judge the 19 year old they are hanging their franchises hopes on, could you blame them for whiffing?
Scraping for info
The Thunder always make an effort to meet with a ton of prospects prior to the NBA Draft, even digging deep with players such as Victor Oladipo and Trae Young who the organization knew they had no chance of selecting at the time. It is good to have background information on players in case you get the chance to trade for them in the future, as they did with Oladipo.
As it sits right now, the college season could play 30 games, or three games. We simply do not know in the age of coronavirus. College football has been able to weather the storm fairly well with a few cancellations per week–nothing significant enough to put the season on pause, yet.
Given that basketball games are playing indoors, you would assume the crowd size would be slim to none at these games. Does it matter if you don’t get to see a prospect rattled by the Cameron Crazies or deliver inside a hyped Allen Field House? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s another layer of complexity to this unique process.
On the bright side, if this college season goes off without a hitch, it will give us meaningful basketball to watch as we keep one eye on the Thunder’s current activity and one on the future. Rumors, speculations, and transactions will keep us going until Cade Cunningham, BJ Boston, and Jalen Suggs tip-off on (or around) Turkey Day. And they’ll keep us occupied until we get the gift of Christmas NBA basketball.
As everything changes minute-to-minute, one thing is for sure: No college basketball season has ever meant this much to the Oklahoma City Thunder.