In the 2013 NBA Draft, the Thunder traded for a lanky forward out of Colorado who was known for rebounding and not much else — Andre Roberson. Obviously, the Thunder are pretty solid on the wings, so Roberson hasn’t been asked to do much. But when he’s been on the court, he’s been defensively sound — kinda like a baby Thabo Sefolosha. As we know, Sefolosha’s contract runs out at the end of this year, so let’s take a look at Roberson and what the Thunder will most likely do this offseason.
Roberson stands only at 6’7″, but in college, he rebounded with the best of them. He averaged 11.3 rebounds per game in his junior year, good for second in the entire country (he was 0.1 rebounds away from that top spot). He was also a staunch defender, leading the Buffaloes in blocks 21 times and in steals 19 teams during his junior year. Because of all this, he was honored as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Entering the draft, people knew he was offensively challenged. But rebounding is the most translatable skill from the college game to the pros, so he became a first round talent.
After making little contributions to the Thunder during the month of November, Roberson was sent to the D-League, and spent three games as a member of the Tulsa 66ers. In those three games, Roberson was an animal. In 35 minutes a game, Roberson averaged 17.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He looked very comfortable in his time in the Developmental League, and stuffed the stat sheet like he did in college. He was active in the passing lanes, and created some scoring opportunities, as you can see in this video recap of their loss to the Texas Legends.
He went 56 percent from the field during his time in Tulsa, but only shot 14 percent from 3. Clearly, Roberson has some work to do with his jumper. But he obviously excels around the basket and thrives in the transition game. His spell as a 66er was a great success not only for his confidence, but for the success of the Thunder as a whole. And it couldn’t have come at a better time either — he dropped 25 points in the loss against Texas, but on the same night, Thabo Sefolosha went down with a knee injury. Thus, Roberson was called up the very next night.
Roberson then started three straight games, against the Hawks, Grizzlies and Lakers. He saw no more than 22 minutes as a starter, since the Thunder have an exceptionally strong bench in the backcourt. But Roberson showed flashes of the defensive powerhouse we saw at Colorado. Against Atlanta, he did an admirable job shutting down Kyle Korver, only allowing one of the best shooters in the league to make one 3-pointer while Roberson guarded him. Memphis certainly does not have the offensive potency of Atlanta, but Roberson excelled both defensively and offensively that game. He went for seven points and four rebounds and while he’s far from a legitimate offensive threat, he can finish at the hoop. He was given the job of guarding Kobe Bryant against Los Angeles and shut him down. It was a pyrrhic victory for NBA fans as a whole, because if Kobe can be contained by Andre Roberson, this may be the last of Kobe that we will see. But in Roberson’s three games as a starter, he looked generally solid defensively.
The team knows his strengths and weaknesses (pretty much everything offensively for him is a weakness at this point) and utilized him effectively. But you can’t help make young Thabo Sefolosha comparisons to Roberson at this point. When Thabo was young, he couldn’t shoot a lick. However, he was a defensive stalwart and rebounded well for his size. Roberson is in the exact same position.
The question of Roberson or Sefolosha will be quite challenging for GM Sam Presti to answer. Thabo has stated that he wants to stay in OKC, but money talks. On both sides. He could receive a lucrative multi-year deal somewhere else, or the Thunder could simply choose not to resign him. But they are in a tough spot with Roberson. If Thabo is healthy, Roberson has no business wallowing away on the bench; they are too deep and long on the wings for him to ever see significant minutes. That will most likely mean more D-League assignments, which aren’t bad things, but won’t be the best sample size to decide if Roberson can contribute in the future.
I think Thabo is a valuable asset for this Thunder team, and hope he resigns. Roberson simply isn’t ready for Thabo’s large role yet. However, the 2-guard position in OKC is rapidly evolving. If Sam Presti thinks Jeremy Lamb is ready for a starting spot next year, then why would he pay Thabo big money to come off the bench when he’s got basically a poor-man’s Thabo in Andre Roberson? But I don’t know how that question will get resolved.
One thing is for sure — if Roberson continues to prove his worth in the D-League (or for the Thunder), that will make his life a lot easier, but Sam Presti’s job a lot more confusing.