Archive - November 2016

With each game Sabonis shows improvement

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Legacy is an integral part of the NBA. For some players, the desire is to create a foundation of memories and amazing play. Championships, records and accolades are the fuel for this particular drive.

For others, the desire stems from continuing a legacy.

Domantas Sabonis is no stranger to the latter. The challenge for the former Gonzaga Wildcat is attempting to balance the expectations that are inherent with star lineage and the patience that is needed for a rookie lottery pick.

Through the first six games of the season, Sabonis has shown glimpses of what made Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti pull the trigger on the Serge Ibaka trade. While the focus of that player transfer was Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, many around the NBA applauded Presti for adding Sabonis to the deal.

The Thunder as a franchise is in a pseudo-rebuilding mode after the departure of Kevin Durant. A luxury considering Russell Westbrook is fully entrenched for the foreseeable future. Other than Westbrook, the starters are all under 25 years old.

Sabonis is an integral part to the Thunder equation. If Oklahoma City is going find sustained success in the post-Durant era, Sabonis will have a lot to say about it.

So far in this young NBA season, Sabonis has given the Thunder reason for optimism.

In the first three games, Sabonis struggled. Of course, any rookie will have their lapses. Foul trouble and unfamiliarity with the increase in competition plagued Sabonis.

“There maybe some nights where he will get into foul trouble, he got some early fouls against (Blake) Griffin,” Billy Donovan told reporters during the early Sunday morning practice. “It’s going to be a process, anytime you’re young like that, there will be ebbs and flows.”

The West Coast back-to-back was the business trip the rookie needed. Prior to the Clippers’ game, Sabonis averaged four points, 2 rebounds and no blocks or assists. From the Clippers’ game since, his averages have seen a steady increase: eight points, four rebounds, one block and three assists.

The crowning moment was the big three-point shot Sabonis hit late in the fourth against the Clippers. It was a shot that finally gave the Thunder the lead, which it never surrendered. It was a shot that common rookies are hesitant to attempt.

“Coming out of the California trip and this last game (against Minnesota), he’s had three games where we’ve seen improvement, hopefully that can keep happening,” Donovan added at practice.

Statistics are just one part of the process. Like Donovan said, there will be ebbs and flows with young players. The box score will be all over the map as the season marches on. For Sabonis, it is all about consistency.

The team respects Sabonis’ game. Veterans like Nick Collison have taken it upon themselves to help mold the former lottery pick. Similar to the improvement from Steven Adams’ rookie campaign going into his current play, Collison understands the ability Sabonis’ possesses.

“He’s got a good feel on how to play already, he’s very skilled,” Collison shared at Sunday’s practice. “He has a good feel for everything that goes on on the court, he’s an impressive guy to be doing it at that age.”

While team expectations overall have been tempered to an extent, the improvement Sabonis has made in a few short weeks has given the franchise the optimism necessary to continue to play the rookie even through some tough stretches. Once the game slows down and Sabonis understands the way the game is officiated, you can expect the rookie to be vital to the Thunder’s success.

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For Oladipo its only a matter of time

Victor Oladipo arrived to the media stand yesterday morning at the Thunder practice facility a very soft-spoken man. His voice was quiet. The rest of his teammates were on the court shooting buckets. It was simply hard to hear the newly extended-Oladipo.

Over the first games, at times, it has been hard to hear Oladipo as well. The scoring has been there. The fourth-year player is even scoring more than his 15.0 points per game average. What has disappointed a vocal minority of Thunder fans is his shooting percentage — a measly 34 percent to go along with a 25 percent from beyond the arc.

Because of the lackluster shooting, that same vocal minority has begun to question if the four-year, $84 million extension was worth it for Oklahoma City. How can you invest in a player that isn’t a consistent shooter in today’s NBA. As the Thunder are constructed currently, shooting is the most glaring need.

Pump the breaks.

On Wednesday night, the former lottery-pick will playing only his fourth game with Oklahoma City. A roster featuring seasoned, battle-hardened players like Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams. Players like Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson who have gained trust in their teammates to perform at a high level. This is real basketball in fact. You can not just plug-and-chug players and statistics onto teams and expect a seamless transition.

But yet, fans want more. You can somewhat blame Oladipo’s career trajectory for that.

For Oladipo’s first three seasons, he was the man for the Magic. The future of the franchise. His exciting play to go along with his athleticism was seen to be the foundation to be built upon. Despite the optimism, the Magic as a team made minimal leaps in improvement. The roster was disjointed and Orlando suffered from an identity crisis.

For all of the Magic’s misfortune, Oladipo was a consistent bright-spot. A 43 percent shooter from the floor as well as an athletic defender, the former Indiana Hoosier appeared to be a few teammates — or even a different team — away from making that next step into the NBA hierarchy of shooting guards. Something Oladipo claimed he was capable of being earlier at Thunder Media Day in September.

Now with Oklahoma City, Oladipo is being asked to find a new role. A role where he is no longer looked upon to be the alpha-dog. That title falls squarely on the shoulders of his walking triple-double of a teammate.

This new role will take time to adjust too. Knowing where his teammates will be in certain situations. Knowing which teammates are confident in particular spots. Add to the fact that the Thunder look for him to score, and you find yourself a recipe for a relatively slow start.

Has Oladipo hit a wall with finding this new role? He, as well as his coach don’t believe so.

“I feel there is so much more I can accomplish,” Oladipo said. “I feel there is so much more I can bring to the table.”

If you have only followed Oladipo’s career through his highlight reels, it is easy to take him at his word.

“I just have to improve on the little things,” Oladipo said.

Little things: knowledge of role, spacing, team stamina. This is what’s causing the struggles of the talented shooting guard.

It is hard not to believe him. In his short stint with Oklahoma City, Oladipo has shown flashes of brilliance as well as lapses in shooting or general play. This is to be expected when a player changes teams as well as roles. The athleticism and ability are all there, it will just take time and more games for it to come to fruition.

The excitement garnered when the Thunder acquired Oladipo mainly focused on the possibility of seeing the most exciting, deadly back-court duo in the league. The world knows how crazy an athlete Westbrook is. While many may not be too familiar with Oladipo’s ability, NBA people are aware of his capability. Anytime you pair a player like Westbrook with a talent like Oladipo, it will be a lightning rod of excitement.

But its not just Westbrook he needs to gel with. Head Coach Billy Donovan said as much this morning at practice.

“I think everyone looks at the backcourt with him and Russ, but its also Domas (Sabonis),” Donovan said. “You know its getting comfortable with him, the pick-and-roll with him. Victor has to get connected with everybody, and not just those two (Westbrook and Oladipo).”

When your starting five consists of a rookie power forward, a one-way small forward and a top five player, it is going to take some time for a talented scorer/defender like Oladipo to find his way. Each game has seen an improvement in some category.

By season’s end, the Thunder will obviously look much different than in November. Oladipo will certainly look much different as he becomes more comfortable with his new teammates and role. Until then, patience is the key.

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