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#ThunderRank: No. 16 – Semaj Christon

#ThunderRank: No. 16 – Semaj Christon
#ThunderRank – A look at the top 17 players for the Thunder and how their seasons might shake outPlayer Summary

Semaj Christon was selected with the 55th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat. His rights were then traded to the Charlotte Hornets, who then traded his rights to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were coming off a season in which they had made it to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals before succumbing to the eventual champion, San Antonio Spurs. Heading into the 2014 offseason, one of the major areas of need for the Thunder was at back-up point guard. The team was just coming off a season in which starting point guard Russell Westbrook missed 36 games due to multiple various knee surgeries, and back-up point guard Reggie Jackson was blossoming into his own right as a starting caliber point guard. To compound things further, veteran “3rd string” point guard Derek Fisher was retiring after the New York Knicks offered him their head coaching position that offseason.

After the season, Jackson made his intentions clear that he wanted to be a starting point guard somewhere in the league, whether in Oklahoma City or elsewhere. With the writing on the wall, the Thunder knew the Jackson situation would go one of two ways: either he was saying that to leverage more money from the Thunder heading into restricted free agency or he was really wanting to be a starting point guard somewhere in the league. Westbrook was, by all medical accounts, going to be healthy moving forward so Jackson was not going to supplant him. And Jackson had no interest in being a backcourt mate to Westbrook. He wanted to be a starting point guard in position and in title.

As is usually the case with Thunder GM Sam Presti, he chose to look towards the future and drafted Christon in the second round of that year’s draft. The team chose to forego signing him to a contract, instead opting to have him develop with their D-League affiliate, the Blue. Christon had a great rookie season for the Blue, averaging 18.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.6 steals in 35 minutes of action in 44 games. He was chosen to play in the D-League All-Star game and was named to the D-League’s All Rookie Third Team.

While Christon had a great year in 2014-15, the Thunder, on the other hand, had a miserable season due to injuries. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Westbrook miss a combined 88 games, and the Thunder found themselves in the lottery with the opportunity to draft a position of need, which once again was back-up point guard. During the season, the Thunder traded Jackson to the Detroit Pistons and got back DJ Augustin. While Augustin was serviceable, he was a defensive sieve, a streaky shooter, and was heading into free agency after the next season. Even though they had Christon waiting in the wings, the Thunder decided he wasn’t yet ready to play in the NBA, and decided to draft point guard Cameron Payne with their first round pick.

Rather than spend another season in the D-League, Christon decided to play overseas with ConsultInvest Pesaro of the Italian Serie A league. In 30 games, he averaged 14.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.6 steals in about 33 minutes of game action. He returned back to the Thunder in July to participate in the Orlando Summer League, where he showed a maturation to his game. He had put on some muscle while overseas and was using that added strength to his advantage while posting smaller point guards up. Defensively, he showed the lateral quickness to not only stay on his man, but also hedge over and assist on pick and rolls.

Because of his continued development, the Thunder signed him to a non-guaranteed rookie minimum contract this offseason. While it is non-guaranteed, the contract does carry $200,000 in guaranteed money and likely a pre-arranged agreement the Christon will play for the Blue if he does not make the Thunder’s 15-man roster to begin the season.

2015-16 statistics (ConsultInvest Pesaro of the Italian Serie A League):

30 GP, 33.2 mins, 14.3 pts, 3.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 46.9% FG, 19.0% 3-pt FG, 66.4% FT

Best Case Scenario

Christon enters this season as the odd man out. He has a non-guaranteed deal on a team that is already carrying 16 guaranteed contracts (an NBA roster can only carry 15 guaranteed contracts by the time the season begins). What makes this situation different is that the Thunder guaranteed $200,000 of that contract, even if he doesn’t make the team. No team is going to guarantee that much money without something coming out of it. Likely, the plan is for Christon to sign with the Blue if they doesn’t make the Thunder’s 15 man roster by opening night.

But the Thunder are currently a team whose roster is being reshuffled. The departure of Durant and the trade of Ibaka meant the team would run a lot of its game plan through Westbrook. Knowing that, the team has slowly started to restructure the team around Westbrook’s strength and weaknesses. The possibility of a trade, especially one involving Cameron Payne, would mean the Thunder would be in need of a back-up point guard. That’s where Christon fits into all of this.

If a trade does happen, especially one involving Payne, the Thunder will likely groom Christon to be his replacement. While Christon may not be the scorer Payne is, he does have a lot of the same playmaking ability. Where they differ is on the defensive end. Christon does a much better job of staying in front of his man, and his bigger frame allows him to defend more positions. If the Thunder transition into more of a defensive minded team next season,  the addition of Christon on the defensive end may negate the loss of Payne on the offensive end.

Worst Case Scenario

The worst case scenario for Christon would be if the team keeps both Payne and Ronnie Price on the roster throughout the season, and Christon has to spend another full season in the D-League. Payne is one of the Thunder’s most realistically, tradeable assets, but he’s also one of the few ball-handling, playmakers on the team. Getting rid of Payne would likely necessitate getting back someone who can also handle the ball and playmake a little. Teams aren’t necessarily rushing to get rid of those types of players.

Percentage that he will be traded sometime this season:

1%. Christon does not have a ton of trade value. He’s an unknown commodity as an NBA player, and his contract would have to be guaranteed to have any sort of value.

Christon’s Season Preview

I believe Christon will play for the Thunder sometime this season. What I’m not sure of is the situation that will put that into motion. Bringing in Christon means the team is definitely exploring trades that may involve Payne. But again, the Thunder aren’t openly looking to trade Payne just because. The haul for Payne will have to be significant, and will likely involve other players on the roster. There are also likely scenarios in which the Thunder trade other players and a roster spot becomes available later in the season. Christon’s season will likely involve a lot of time in the Cox Convention Center, but also some time in the Chesapeake Energy Arena later on in the season.