In the weeks leading up to the first game, every pundit agreed that this team with many new pieces, including three ball-dominant superstars, was going to take time to mesh. The advice to Thunder fans was simple: be patient.
The irony of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s opening week is that it’s turned out exactly how everyone predicted.
We’re five games in and a lot of folks are losing their minds. “Is Russell Westbrook deferring too much?” Three days later: “Why is Russell Westbrook shooting it every time in the final two minutes? Is Paul George just playing third fiddle? Did Carmelo Anthony look off Russ before taking that last shot? And why does he pull up for threes on the fast break all the time?”
Maybe that last one is just me.
But perhaps the biggest question through five games — What’s wrong with Andre Roberson?
One thing is for sure, he hasn’t been good so far. Through five games, he’s averaging 3.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 0.6 assists while shooting 34.8 percent from the field. Even on the defensive end where he’s supposed to make up for all of his shortcomings, he’s been less than elite. Oh yeah, and he air-balled his only two free throw attempts of the season.
It all could be due to knee soreness, as was reported by NewsOK. Or a rolled ankle. That would help explain why he’s only averaged 17.4 minutes per game, seventh most on the team. But I doubt it.
Here’s what Billy Donovan had to say about Roberson’s 10 minutes of game time Friday night (via Fred Katz):
“I thought he had something going on with his ankle. They told me that he was available and then really, I just made a decision, I felt like from a length standpoint, offense, defense, both sides of the ball, just wanted to give Josh an opportunity to see what he can do. I think Josh has played well, and just did that. It was really more my decision more so than anything that Andre did or didn’t do.”
I’ve always seen Roberson’s problems as being mental. He’s like a precious little wallflower. Unlike some NBA players, who possess the irrational confidence necessary to become dominant talents in an ultra-competitive evaluative process, Roberson doesn’t seem to have any of that “J.R. Smith attitude” in him. In order to flourish, the Roberson Flower(tm) needs to be watered, loved and nurtured. His game is built on confidence.
Look closely at his much-maligned shooting mechanics. Sure, I grant you’d never teach it at a shooting clinic, but his confident stroke is actually not that bad. At age 25 he’s past the point of correcting his elbow jutting out or his cockeyed release, but the NBA has seen effective shooters with more egregious form.
Check out this raw video below, which shows 11 consecutive free throw attempts during shootaround (via @KOCOCarson).
It’s a fascinating look into sports psychology. There are almost two completely different shots here.
On misses, Roberson is slow and deliberate, very stiff, pausing after he dribbles. You can tell he’s thinking about it. On these shots his legs lock dead straight, his upper body leans back, and after a slight pause or hitch by his ear, his hand snaps violently, vibrating fiercely during the follow-through.
On makes, practically none of those bad habits are present. When a ball bounces his way and his routine is interrupted, or coming off a bad miss when he just wants to get the next shot off before he can think about it, his routine speeds up. His body movement is much more fluid, his shooting hand is relaxed, and there’s no hitch. Even the flight of the ball is better, not going quite so sky high before hitting the bottom of the net.
The irony of players like Roberson, of which the Thunder have drafted more than a few, is that they make for great culture guys. These are players who don’t care about their stats, they work hard, and handle all the dirty work for a team. Their unselfishness is great in the locker room. All this, while at the same time capping their potential.
Andre Roberson has always been this type of player. As a senior in high school, he averaged just 15 points per game — a middling 3-star recruit. His sophomore and junior seasons at Colorado he was first team all-conference, but never averaged more than 12 points per game. In his final season there he shot 32.8% from the college three-point line. When he was thrust into the starting lineup as a 22-year-old second-year player after the departure of Thabo Sefolosha, he was content to attempt just three shots per game. He’s never been a killer.
Which means that when it goes bad, it goes very bad. And now his confidence may be at an all-time low. The first shot of Friday night’s game was a Roberson three that didn’t get anywhere close to hitting the rim.
The difference is that now the team seems to be leaving him behind. He has played a grand total of 23 seconds of fourth quarter time this entire season. 23 SECONDS! In the past two games, Josh Huestis has recorded more total minutes than him. Jerami Grant has logged far more playing time. Raymond Felton has looked usable. And of course there’s Alex Abrines. All four have been more effective alongside the other starters than Roberson.
As the season goes on this could be a really significant trend. Grant and Felton are free agents after this season, so theoretically there’s less incentive to develop them than Roberson, who signed a significant three-year deal this summer.
But if Roberson can’t snap out of his funk and the team continues to show a lack of reliance on him, it could signal a departure from the mutual commitment made over the summer. As the new-look Thunder tries to find its identity, Donovan’s comments on Friday night suggest Dre might not be as much a part of it than anticipated.