Thunder Will Have A Top Shelf Coaching Staff

By Randy Renner

The Oklahoma City Thunder will have one of the most experienced group of coaches on any NBA bench this coming season, especially when it comes to overall head coaching experience.

The Thunder finalized their staff of assistant coaches yesterday when Mo Cheeks agreed to return to Oklahoma City. He joins newcomers Monty Williams and Anthony Grant and holdovers Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic.

Among that group Bryant is the only one without head coaching experience but he's regarded as one of the NBA's best "big man" coaches and has been particularly praised by current Thunder big men Steven Adams and Mitch McGary for his role in their rapid development.

Cheeks spent four years as Scott Brooks' lead assistant before leaving to take the head coaching job in Detroit. Cheeks had also been head coach for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers and has a combined 620 games of NBA head coaching experience over parts of nine seasons.

Williams spent five seasons and 394 games as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. He was fired last season despite leading the Pelicans into the playoffs. Williams also spent five years as an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers and is an assistant coach on Team USA.

Grant is a longtime friend and colleague of Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. He was an assistant for Donovan both at Marshall University and Florida before leaving to be head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and then Alabama. Grant has a combined 303 games of head coaching experience in college.

Rajakovic was a highly successful head coach in Europe before joining the Thunder to become head coach of the Tulsa 66ers, the Thunder's D-League team at the time. Rajakovic then moved to Scott Brooks' staff.

“I’m really excited about the vast experience that this staff will bring to our team,” Donovan said in a written statement released by the team. “The opportunity to bring these coaches together will help us work towards our goal of having a defensive identity, sharing the ball and playing efficiently on both ends. The group delivers an incredible set of individual skills, knowledge and background to the table, and I believe that the impact of their collective efforts will be very beneficial as we continue to build the tradition of the Thunder.”

Not to be overlooked is Donovan's own head coaching experience, though none of it in the NBA. In 21 years as a head coach at Marshall and Florida he made the final coaching decisions in 708 games, winning 502 of those games and two National Championships.

Another plus for both Cheeks and Williams is their previous relationship with Thunder superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Cheeks was very influential in Westbrook's development and could be seen many times having one-on-one conversations with Westbrook on the Thunder bench.

Williams got to know Durant during Team USA activities. Both men grew up in the same area of the Washington, DC suburbs.

“Monty Williams has been a big influence as well,” Durant told USA Today last summer, “just coming from the same area I come from, knowing his background and knowing his story…to know him from afar, just knowing that he put in so much work to become a head coach, just being around him for a week with USA Basketball and knowing how great he is with the guys. He is a phenomenal leader, so he inspires me a lot because he’s from the area I grew up in and the route he took to making it in the NBA and being a coach and being just a great leader.”

With all those head coaches on one bench, chemistry and trust between those guys is going to be paramount but so far Donovan appears to be just the kind of boss who can make it all work.

 

 

 

Cameron Payne: "I Was Starstruck From The Beginning"

By Randy Renner

It never hurts to have a couple of recruiters who also happen to be two of the biggest superstars in basketball.

When Murray State point guard Cameron Payne came to Oklahoma City for an individual workout before the draft guess who greeted him when he walked through the door?

"The first time I was here I saw Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, so that was a big time plus and they greeted me by my name, so I was starstruck from the beginning," Payne said during his introductory news conference inside Oklahoma City's mammoth Devon Tower.

That workout turned into a day and a half visit. Payne was not only shown around the Thunder facilities and the arena but he also visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and was shown some other places around town.

"Everybody on the staff just welcomed me with open arms and this city and what they do for the Thunder is just great. The whole city comes together to watch the Thunder play and it's just fantastic. It's like a big time college out here."

Payne was one of several players the Thunder were targeting leading up to the NBA Draft. GM Sam Presti told reporters on Saturday the team had narrowed that list down as the draft got closer and also had plans in place to jump at a chance to move up, a chance to move down (though Presti didn't like that option much) and a chance to move all the way out of the draft.

By the time things started Thursday night the Thunder were pretty much decided on Payne, there was just too much to like about him, both as a player and a person.

"As a player he's incredibly cerebral, he understands space, he understands angles, he understand time" said Presti. "All of these things that are really hard to teach he has those things intuitively. And as a person he was equally impressive."

The Thunder have always wanted to bring in a certain type of player, a player that embraced team and community. A player that embraced sacrifice and hard work. That seems to be exactly the kinda guy Cameron Payne is.

"He has no assumptions," Presti said. "He doesn't feel entitled to anything, he's had to work for everything he's had and most importantly the people who have known him throughout his life, say he's the same guy."

That probably has to do most with the way his parents raised him and the Payne family attended the news conference sitting on the front row with Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett and head coach Billy Donovan.

"I never could have done it without you guys," Payne said to his parents. "Ya'll raised me the right way."

Part of that upbringing included lots and lots of basketball.

As for that great court vision Payne has and that ability to find open teammates? Well you can credit that certainly to God given talent but also give a lot of credit to the Payne family.

"I grew up in a household full of point guards and my dad he was the first point guard of us all and he taught me very young, you gotta get everybody involved, so I grew up being a team player, that's all I know."

Payne knows he has to get better and has to get stronger and bigger physically to go up against the best the NBA has to offer.

It would be nice if he could begin his Thunder career at the Orlando Summer League which begins July 4th but he broke a finger on his right (non-shooting) hand during a workout for the Nuggets in Denver. 

He'll spend time with Thunder team doctors on Monday to decide how best to proceed but more than likely you can scratch Payne from any playing time in Orlando though he does plan to go to Florida with the team and at least get to know the staff and whatever future teammates might be playing. The Thunder haven't announced their full Summer League roster yet but at least two or three of the younger Thunder players should be there in addition to all the free agents.

He'll then begin training camp as the team's third point guard behind Westbrook and D.J. Augustin who's contract runs out at the end of next season. Right now the plan appears to be learn from Westbrook and Augustin, get playing time when you can and be ready to take over the backup role in 2016-17.

And if Cam Payne can some how force the Thunder to think about moving up that timetable, so much the better. But the Thunder have enough talent and enough patience to let him get better at his own pace while learning from the best in the game.

 

 

 

 

Thunder Take Cameron Payne With 14th Pick

By Randy Renner

The Thunder liked Cameron Payne and Kelly Oubre a lot going into draft night and with both still on the board when the Thunder picked at 14 they decided to stick with the guy most had figured they would take all along. 

Murray State point guard Cameron Payne averaged 20.6 points on 45.6 percent shooting and handed out 6.0 assists while also averaging 1.9 steals per game. 

Payne is 6-2, 185 and is left handed. 

He was also one of the best shot creators in college basketball last season, in fact an in-depth statistical look by DraftExpress.com rated Payne the second best shot creator last season.

Payne has tremendous confidence and a great feel for the game plus he was one of the best operators of the pick and roll in college.

The Thunder also needed another point guard. They just have two on the roster, Russell Westbrook and D.J. Augustin and Augustin's contract runs out next season so Payne can figure things out at the NBA level this season, get some playing time and then be ready to backup Russ in 2016-17. 

Last week we put together an in-depth look at Cameron Payne and the strengths and weaknesses of his game.

Cameron Payne, Point Guard, Murray State

Word leaked out early about a possible deal in the works between the Thunder and Murray State point guard Cameron Payne. Sources had leaked information to some reporters that Payne had a promise from the Thunder that he would be taken with the 14th pick if he was still on the board.

Ever since those stories came out Payne's stock has seemed to rise and more and more teams drafting ahead of the Thunder brought Payne in for individual workouts. The Thunder did the same thing last weekend which kinda threw cold water on all those reports that the Thunder had already decided on Payne.

Many draft experts still expect the Thunder to take Payne, the only ones who don't are the ones predicting Payne will be gone before the Thunder pick at 14.

Whatever the case may be, it's clear the Thunder are interested in the sharp shooting point guard and for good reason.

Payne averaged 20.6 points on 45.6 percent shooting last season for Murray State while handing out 6.0 assists and grabbing 3.8 rebounds a game. He was named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. He's 6-2 and has a 6-7 wingspan which is outstanding for his height. He only weighs 185 pounds and is rather lanky, so he could use a few more pounds of muscle. He's left-handed which at times can cause problems for some defenders.

He has an outstanding basketball IQ and his shooting improved from his freshman to sophomore season and so did his passing.

That combination of shooting, scoring and the ability to get his teammates involved is perhaps what intrigues teams the most about Payne.

The Thunder (though we never REALLY know what Sam Presti is thinking) would probably love to add a point guard. Right now Russell Westbrook and D.J. Augustin are the only point guards on the roster and typically the Thunder like to carry three. Payne could eventually become Westbrook's backup and (God forbid) if Russ decides to move on after his current contract expires in 2017 Payne could be ready to step in.

On the downside, Payne is not a particularly explosive player. Scouts have said he's "not a high-flyer" and at times has had trouble finishing at the rim, hitting just 49 percent of his shots from there whether from the half-court offense or in transition. He turned the ball over 2.5 times a game last season, which isn't terrible but it's not great either. Those issues came up while he was playing in the OVC so they would likely be even more pronounced in the NBA.

He also tended to take shots too early in the shot clock, at times forcing them up even though he was defended. (Sounds a bit like Reggie Jackson or even Westbrook at times).

Payne's defense was up and down. His wingspan, big hands and athleticism certainly helped in the passing lanes where he averaged 2.1 steals per 40 minutes. He also has the ability to anticipate where opposing point guards are going to go with their passes and that helps create those steals too.

Down low though Payne struggled, he was often posted up because of his lack of physicality and during some games he didn't appear to be fully engaged on defense and had all kinds of trouble defending the pick-and-roll. That could be a huge red flag for the Thunder. They've gone round and round trying to get Jeremy Lamb to focus in on defense and that has seldom worked so they may be hesitant to bring in another long-armed guard who can be outstanding on offense while not paying much attention to the other end.

All that said, Payne is just 20 years old and he's been impressive for most every team he's worked out with. His leadership skills are through the roof and if the Thunder can get lucky this coming season and have Westbrook and Augustin healthy the whole time they can afford to bring Payne along slowly, allow him to develop more physically and work on his defense.

My guess is if Payne is still available when the Thunder draft at 14 they'll take him.

And it turns out Payne was there at 14 and the Thunder took him. First time I've right about a Thunder draft pick since, uh, ever.

The Thunder anticipate they'll have Cameron Payne in town as early as tomorrow and hope to have his intoductory news conference on Saturday.

Thunder Make It Official, Lamb To Hornets

By Randy Renner

It took a bit longer than expected and ended up being a tad different than we thought it would but shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and his $3 million contract for next season are indeed headed to Charlotte.

The Thunder made the deal official this afternoon.

Instead of getting the contract of Matt Barnes, as had been thought yesterday, the Thunder get the contract of former Seattle SuperSonic Luke Ridnour plus a 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft.

Ridnour and his non-guaranteed $2.7 million contract have been bounced around the NBA the last several hours and they won't stop yet. The Thunder can either waive Ridnour or trade him again as part of another deal.

One thing for sure, Ridnour will not be suiting up for the Thunder.The whole point of trading away Lamb was to free up salary and a roster spot.

You might remember Ridnour was on the Sonics team when they moved here to OKC and became the Thunder. Ridnour was a very vocal critic of the move and before he played a game for the Thunder he was traded to Milwaukee as part of the deal that brought Desmond Mason back to Oklahoma.

Lamb has had a disappointing beginning to his career in OKC after being traded from Houston as part of the James Harden deal. Lamb never seemed to completely buy in when it came to playing defense and that led to less and less playing time. Then with his minutes reduced Lamb never could find consistency with his shot.

A new start should help him, especially playing on a team with his old college teammate from UConn, Kemba Walker, running things from the point guard position. He's still gonna have to figure out how to play better defense though. Steve Clifford won't put up with someone who doesn't so Lamb could still find himself at the end of the ben.

The Thunder have talked to teams about moving up, but the price so far has been more than OKC is willing to pay. Moving down, or even all the way out of the draft, is much more of an option, especially as we get into the draft and a player the Thunder really wants is taken off the board.

The Thunder continue to shop Perry Jones and Steve Novak. Jones is due $2 million and Novak $3.75 million this coming season and the Thunder would like to move at least one, if not both those contracts to help offset the cost or re-signing restricted free agent Enes Kanter, who could command a salary of $10 million.

Most mock drafts still have the Thunder taking Murray State point guard Cameron Payne and if Payne is already gone then most believe OKC will target Kelly Oubre, Sam Dekker and Trey Lyles. Oubre and Dekker are both small forwards and Lyles is more of a power forward. The team also had point guard Jerian Grant in for a workout this week.

So as usual, when it comes to the Thunder there are several ways the team could go and none of us mere mortals really has much of a clue as to what will end up going down.

My guess is, if Payne is still available at #14 the Thunder will take him.

Our InsideThunder.com staff will be at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center this evening, we'll also be monitoring any trades during the day. Be sure to check out our Twitter feed page so you can keep up with what's happening as we will be live tweeting through the day and evening.

We expect to talk with Thunder GM Sam Presti and perhaps head coach Billy Donovan after the dust settles this evening. Remember the Thunder, as of this writing, not only have the 14th overall pick but also 18th pick in the second round (48th overall) so it will be a late evening.

 

Thunder Working On Several Draft Day Deals

By Randy Renner

As usual this time of year Thunder GM Sam Presti and his staff are talking to a lot of teams about a lot of different scenarios going into tonight's NBA Draft.

The Thunder and the Charlotte Hornets are hoping to finalize a deal that will send Jeremy Lamb to Charlotte and provide the Thunder with a future draft pick. The original word out of Charlotte yesterday was that the Hornets would be sending Matt Barnes (or at least his contract) to OKC and the Thunder would then either buy out Barnes or waive him.

However, the Thunder would prefer a future draft pick and so old friends Presti and Hornets' GM Rich Cho, who was a Presti assistant during the Thunder's first few seasons in OKC, will continue to talk and try to settle on something.

Lamb has had a disappointing beginning to his career in OKC after being traded from Houston as part of the James Harden deal. Lamb never seemed to completely buy in when it came to playing defense and that led to less and less playing time. Then with his minutes reduced Lamb never could find consistency with his shot.

A new start should help him, especially playing on a team with his old college teammate from UConn, Kemba Walker, running things from the point guard position. He's still gonna have to figure out how to play better defense though. Steve Clifford won't put up with someone who doesn't so Lamb could still find himself at the end of the bench.

Lamb is due $3 million this coming season so the Thunder will be happy to part with that contract. They're also shopping Steve Novak, who's contract calls for $3.75 million in 2015-16 and Perry Jones, who's on the books for $2 million.

The Thunder need at least one open roster spot for a player they draft and they're trying to save some money too because re-signing restricted Enes Kanter could cost the team $10 million, maybe $12 million a season. Without reducing their payroll OKC would be looking at a huge tax bill at the end of next season.

The Thunder have talked to teams about moving up, but the price so far has been more than OKC is willing to pay. Moving down, or even all the way out of the draft, is much more of an option, especially as we get into the draft and a player the Thunder really wants is taken off the board.

Most mock drafts still have the Thunder taking Murray State point guard Cameron Payne and if Payne is already gone then most believe OKC will target Kelly Oubre, Sam Dekker and Trey Lyles. Oubre and Dekker are both small forwards and Lyles is more of a power forward. The team also had point guard Jerian Grant in for a workout this week.

So as usual, when it comes to the Thunder there are several ways the team could go and none of us mere mortals really has much of a clue as to what will end up going down.

My guess is, if Payne is still available at #14 the Thunder will take him.

Our InsideThunder.com staff will be at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center this evening, we'll also be monitoring any trades during the day. Be sure to check out our Twitter feed page so you can keep up with what's happening as we will be live tweeting through the day and evening.

We expect to talk with Thunder GM Sam Presti and perhaps head coach Billy Donovan after the dust settles this evening. Remember the Thunder, as of this writing, not only have the 14th overall pick but also 18th pick in the second round (48th overall) so it will be a late evening.