Morrow, Sabonis, Roberson Shine In Blue/White Scrimmage

Players line up for free throws at the Thunder Blue/White Scrimmage at OKC's John Marshall High School Tuesday night. (Photo By: Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

Players line up for free throws at the Thunder Blue/White Scrimmage at OKC's John Marshall High School Tuesday night. (Photo By: Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

They called it a game but it was really a scrimmage, a glorified practice, but there were plenty of times last night when it seemed to be much more than that. And with all the jobs up for grabs on this season’s Thunder squad it probably was.

Anthony Morrow is trying to show he is deserving of more playing time to help fill the scoring hole left behind by Kevin Durant’s departure and last night he filled up the baskets by scoring 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting, a couple of 3-pointers and four free throws. He also grabbed five rebounds.

Defensive intensity was really ramped up with players diving and crashing onto the floor. A couple of them, Cameron Payne and Joffery Lauvergne, didn’t get up right away.

Both should be fine, Payne bumped knees and tweaked an ankle and Lauvergne was poked in an eye.

A couple of big takeaways from the night? This Sabonis kid can really play and Andre Roberson continues to get better.

Domantas Sabonis, the rookie from Lithuania by way of Gonzaga and the son of basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis, scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting. He hit all three of his free throws, grabbed three rebounds, while also notching an assist, a steal and two blocks, all while being quite modest.

“Without my teammates I couldn’t have done it,” he said after the scrimmage. “They find me with open looks and I was lucky enough to knock down my shots. My teammates helped me out really well.”

All his teammates were impressed, even the guy who has seen most everything already, Russell Westbrook.

“He’s a man, he’s physical, he knows how to play the game, he knows how to pick his spots and as you can see, he can play.”

That was indicated at the start of the scrimmage when Sabonis came out with what will likely be four starters come the regular season, Westbrook, Roberson, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams.

Roberson’s improvement on the offensive end of the floor really started taking off in the playoffs last season and last night he scored 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting. It’s not just the scoring that’s picked up with Roberson, it’s his entire offensive game. He continues to set screens and hand out assists, in fact he led the Thunder with six assists.

But it is still his defense that comes first and took advantage of his length to grab four steals, which tied Ronnie Price for the team lead.

“I thought we were good (on defense) getting to our spots,” he said, “and helping each other out on the floor and just gaining that trust from each other.”

Defense has been ahead of the offense in the first practices of training camp and it showed last night the the teams combining for a whopping 28 steals.

Price’s four thefts were just a part of an overall solid outing from him. He had 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting, three rebounds and three assists. He’s trying to prove he has more value than just as a veteran voice and mentor to a big crop of young players.

So yes it was just practice but it was easy to see this season’s Thunder team at least has the potential to be an exciting, dynamic bunch that should be fun to watch.

Donovan Will Mix Things Up At Blue/White Scrimmage Tonight

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan talking with communications director Matt Tumbleson at Tuesday's practice. (Photo By: Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan talking with communications director Matt Tumbleson at Tuesday's practice. (Photo By: Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

Just how different will this season’s Thunder squad be than last season’s version? Several hundred fans will get a quick first look at the possibilities tonight during the annual Blue/White scrimmage.

The “game” will be held at Oklahoma City’s John Marshall High School. Tickets are being distributed through the school and are not available to the general public.

Typically in these games the squad is divided up as equally as possible, core players will be out there for a little bit, not much, and most of the contest is between younger players on the Thunder roster and guys trying to make the team or at least secure a spot on the OKC Blue.

“I think there will be some things that will probably be encouraging and some things that will be sloppy and we will need to work on,” head coach Billy Donovan said after Tuesday morning’s practice session.

How Donovan will handle things tonight is still a bit of a mystery since there are so many new faces on the team.

“I’m not worried about the rotation part of it now,” Donovan said Monday and echoed again today. “We’re gonna try to mix around different teams and have guys play with different players. Right now we’re just, more than anything, trying to get guys to understand how we’d like to play.”

That can be a problem when you have as much turnover as the Thunder have had over the summer. Of the 20 players on the camp roster nine are new to the organization and Semaj Christon, who has been in Thunder camp before and has played with the Blue, might as well be added to that list since he was playing Italy last season and is leaning Donovan’s system along with the other new guys.

And even Thunder veterans are having to get used to playing without Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters so like GM Sam Presti said during an interview last week, “this will be a season of discovery,” and it all begins with training camp.

“I think offensively you're going to have to go through some change,” Donovan said. “I don't think that necessarily the philosophy changes at all. I'm still a big believer in ball movement and player movement and attacking the paint and extra passing and those things. But you got to try to create those situations with the personnel you have.”

Training camp, especially this camp for the Thunder, is going to be about a lot of experimentation with matchups and combinations. Some of that will be on display at JMHS this evening.

“Like we could take potentially a starting lineup that we may say ‘okay let’s see how these guys look together,’ or maybe let’s look at playing with three guards out there,” Donovan said.

These first few days of camp have mostly been about the basics. Two practices Saturday and two more on Sunday focused mostly on defense with some offensive sets, like side-out-of-bounds plays and under-the-basket plays thrown in.

Monday some more was added to the mix and the team was able to scrimmage a little 5-on-5.

“They’ve done a really, really good job,” Donovan said of his players, “The attention to detail the way they’re continually trying to pick up new ideas. I think it’s been three really good days to start with.”

One of the players who may get an extended look tonight is forward Josh Huestis. He put together a couple of impressive games late last season and in the playoffs when he shot 62.5 percent on threes, granted it was a very small sample size (5-for-8) but still when a team is looking for shooting you don’t want to ignore someone who’s right in front of you.

Adding even more credence to that was Enes Kanter when he was asked who has stood out to him early in camp.

“You know one guy who’s really impressed me is Josh. He worked really hard this summer and now he’s just really going at it. He’s been really good.”

Rookie Domantas Sabonis has also been outstanding so far and has picked up things very quickly.

For the fans watching the scrimmage it’s a sure bet they’ll see some combinations they’re not used to seeing but ones that could become regular features of the new-look Thunder.

 

Thunder Offense Will Change And Not Just Because Durant And Ibaka Are Gone

Thunder players and coaches working at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center on Sunday. (Photo By Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

Thunder players and coaches working at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center on Sunday. (Photo By Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

The automatic assumption when the Thunder traded away Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant walked away from the organization was that the team’s offense would change.

And that’s correct, it will, but not just because those guys are gone.

“I think offensively you have to keep constantly evolving and changing, I think that’s a never ending process,” said head coach Billy Donovan after Sunday’s practice.

So at least subtle changes were going to come anyway. Now, Donovan and his coaches will take the opportunity of wholesale personnel changes to alter things even more.

“You always have to change based on your personnel,” Donovan said. “I think you always want your personnel to play to their strengths. We’re gonna have a base system of how we wanna play but you’re always looking to evolve where everybody on the floor in a given situation is playing to their strengths.”

Donovan believes most of the significant changes will be on offense and not quite so much at the other end of the floor.

“Defensively I think as an identity is concerned you may have to make some tweaks and some changes based on personnel” but Donovan indicated the basic defensive principles won’t be different.

One aspect of the Thunder offense that Donovan seems very excited about is the new-look frontcourt featuring 9-year veteran Ersan Ilyasova, 3-year man Joffrey Lauvergne and rookie Domantas Sabonis being added to Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary.

“I think the versatility of the frontcourt players, different guys being able to play with each other, figuring out things offensively where they’re put in situations where they’re complimenting each other, so some of that will be different (from past seasons). I think it could be a real positive for us.”

Donovan hinted that Steven Adams and Enes Kanter will get more time on the floor together and and various other combinations will get long looks.

Adams figures that’s a natural progression with the skill level of the big men in camp now.

“With what we have the bigs stretch out the floor and give us different opportunities and that’s really quite good," he said. "It’s comforting that we can go inside-outside with the new bigs.”

Ilyasova is a career 37.0 percent 3-point shooter and he hit 45.5 percent from beyond the arc in the 2011-12 season for Milwaukee and 44.4 percent the next season for the Bucks.He’s by far the most accomplished long range shooter among the bigs but coaches also have high hopes for Lauvergne and Sabonis, if not all the way beyond the arc at least out beyond 15-17 feet.

“Right now we’re just trying to get a base system in defensively and then start to build offensively,” Donovan said. “But as we get all that stuff in we’ll start to look at different combinations of players and start to figure out ways to utilize those big guys.”

 

Defense First For New-Look Thunder

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

The first full day of Thunder practice was only half done and Russell Westbrook had already lost most of his voice.

“That’s a good thing,” Westbrook told reporters after OKC’s first of two Saturday practices. “Everybody came in and competed especially on the defensive end.”

Defense is mostly about communicating with each other, making sure everyone is on the same page and trusting each other to be there to help when help is needed.

For Westbrook, who of course knows where everyone is supposed to be, that communication usually means “screamin’, talkin’, screamin’ at everybody, screamin’ at myself but hey that’s a part of my job.”

“He’s talkin’ way too much,” joked newcomer Victor Oladipo. Then he quickly got serious when talking about his new teammate.

“He does a great job. He’s a natural born leader by what he does and what he says,” Oladipo pointed out. “He has so much experience he’s been in the game for such a long time and playing at such a high level for a long time it’s hard not to listen to him.”

Head coach Billy Donovan loves that part of Westbrook’s game.

“He showed great leadership today, he’s setting a tone that at least from a defensive standpoint we’ve gotta communicate.”

Oladipo is thrilled for the opportunity to learn from someone like Westbrook who isn’t afraid to step in and say what needs to be said.

“There was a possession today and I was kinda slow on the rotation,” Oladipo admitted, “and Russ stopped the possession and said ‘defense is about trust and believing the guy has your back.’ That’s the biggest thing about defense is believing and trusting in the person next to you and on both sides of you.”

These first few days of training camp are important to build that trust, especially with so many new faces. It’s a bonus for the Thunder to have Westbrook who, in these early camp situations, becomes a coach on the floor.

“When you have the caliber of player like Russell who’s doing it every single time and communicating it and pointing out the value and importance of that it carries a large weight,” Donovan said. “He was really great today.”

“You gotta set your team around defense and we’ve got a lot of great players that can defend at a high level,” Westbrook said.

One of those players is Oladipo, who has a reputation has being a high level defender. He agrees with Westbrook’s media day assessment that the pair could become the best defensive backcourt in the NBA.

“Defense is something I was bred on, I grew up on, I hate when someone I was guarding scores, so it’s pretty much who I am.”

The Thunder already had a stout defender at shooting guard with Andre Roberson so one of the mysteries of camp will be what happens at that position and also at small forward. Many believe Oladipo will likely be the shooting guard while Roberson slides to small forward.

Donovan has never really liked to define players with position labels and the Thunder have multiple players who are capable of performing in a variety of roles.

“I think you always wanna put guys in positions where they’re being successful and efficient. I think a lot of times people make too much out of those roles. Just do what you do well and stay away from the things you’re not as good at.”

Exactly what that means as it relates to Oladipo and Roberson will be something we’ll learn as training camp moves along and could be something that will change and evolve during the season.

 

Hard Not To Root For Mitch McGary

Thunder forward Mitch McGary speaks to reporters during Thunder media Day Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Photo By Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

Thunder forward Mitch McGary speaks to reporters during Thunder media Day Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Photo By Randy Renner/InsideThunder.com)

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

It looks like the numbers are probably against Mitch McGary this season, the 15-game suspension, the five other big men on the Thunder’s regular roster and the many months he he has already wasted of what appeared to be a promising career.

He was upfront about his issues and apologized to everyone when he addressed the media Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“I apologized to myself, foremost, my family, my parents, but also the organization, just the community of Oklahoma City. I do think that I let them down just because of the actions that I have made. But I don't think this defines me as who I am. You guys know I'm a happy-go-lucky guy. And nobody's perfect. Everybody makes mistakes.”

Now it seems McGary finally understands the risk his past behavior has had on his future.

“I've turned a new leaf. I'm not afraid to talk about it,” he told reporters during Thunder media day on Friday. “Yes, I messed up. Yes, I'm taking responsibility. I'm sober. I'm just trying to turn a new leaf and move past this. This is something I need to do for myself and focus on myself. If I really want to have a career in the NBA.”

Many had probably wondered if McGary really did want a career in the NBA. Of course injuries have been a problem but so has his failure to focus on proper workout routines, maintaining healthy eating habits and staying away from partying.

McGary refused to blame his relapse, or continuation of his use of marijuana, on injuries, saying instead “it was just my own mistakes, getting caught up in the wrong crowds. I just want to play ball, that's it. Enough with the shenanigans. Hey, I messed up in my career in college, and now I'm kind of messing up my career here.”

Remember McGary was going to be suspended for a season at Michigan because of smoking marijuana, he decided instead to declare for the NBA draft and the Thunder took him in the first round, believing (or hoping) that his problems were behind him. Now maybe they are.

“I just have like a very strict schedule. I'm just trying to get back into playing shape right now and just try and play. Everything else doesn't need to be worried about. I'm just going home, sleeping and waking up, eating right, working out twice a day, going back home, talking to my family, my mother and father, big support system, love them dearly and they are really helping me get through this.”

His teammates have helped too, no one has abandoned McGary. But still with the Thunder roster what it is and with the team having to cut at least one guaranteed contract player before the start of the regular season it’s hard to believe that player won’t be McGary.

Thunder GM Sam Presti admitted as much during his news conference Wednesday.

“He'll be with us in training camp with an opportunity to compete. All that being said, I think it's going to be a competitive camp,” Presti pointed out. “We've got probably more deserving players lined up to come to camp than we have roster spots.”

McGary isn’t blind to this. He knows his NBA future might be, probably will be, somewhere else.

“I would love to stay here and play here but I know it would be tough for me to get minutes here,” he said. “I'm really motivated right now, I don't know if you can hear it in my voice, but I feel like sometimes you have to get knocked down in order for you to jump start something.”

McGary has always had the talent now, maybe, he has the attitude and determination to match.

“Nobody's perfect. Everybody is going to make mistakes. But I just don't want to let this define me as a player. I want to turn my life around. I want to turn the page and eventually I want to be an NBA champion, whether it's this year, next year. I just want to play ball.”