At first glance, today’s signing of Robert Vaden might be a head-scratcher.
But dig deeper into the Thunder’s history and the culture of the organization and the transaction makes much more sense.
Vaden was a 2009 draft pick of Charlotte but was acquired via trade by the Thunder. Perimeter shooting is his specialty. The last two seasons, Vaden has played over in Italy and with the Tulsa 66ers, all while his draft rights remained property of the Thunder. In 45 regular season games with the 66ers this season, Vaden averaged 10.4 points while shooting 39.2 percent from 3-point range, along with 2.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 28 minutes per game.
The Thunder inked Vaden as the 15th man but kept him with the 66ers by immediately assigning him to Tulsa. The 66ers made the second round of the NBA D-League playoffs, but expect to see Vaden in a Thunder uniform at the conclusion of the D-League playoffs.
It’s unlikely Vaden will find minutes on the Thunder. The team’s rotation is set, and talented players like Nate Robinson are already squeezed out.
So why did the Thunder sign a guy who probably isn’t going to play?
The answer can be found in something rather significant the Thunder is doing — growing from within. Vaden’s signing is the organization’s latest example of its commitment to its current cast of young players. For the Thunder, a laundry list of guys already make up that group. In addition to Vaden, the list includes Byron Mullens, Cole Aldrich, Ryan Reid, Latavious Williams and Tibor Pleiss. Last season, D.J. White and Kyle Weaver also fell into that category.
Vaden’s call-up is further proof that the Thunder rewards hard-working players who have the right attitude and show a commitment to getting better. Aldrich has spent much of his rookie season paying his dues and is currently doing so in Tulsa. Mullens has been on the Turnpike Express as well over the last two seasons. The system might not result in every young player getting called up or put on the permanent roster. But a clear method has been created, and it’s already led to some pretty favorable results.
Quietly, the Thunder-owned 66ers have cranked out tons of talent. The Thunder did the exact same exercise with Mustafa Shakur last season, signing him toward the end of the season for the rest of the year and the playoffs. Shakur is now playing for Washington. Weaver, meanwhile, chipped in during emergency situations last year in between stints developing with the 66ers. Now, Weaver is a member of the Utah Jazz. The 66ers also helped Zabian Dowdell get signed by Phoenix and Larry Owens recently get signed by the Wizards.
The system is working because the Thunder is committed to in-house development.
Don’t be surprised if Vaden, Williams, Reid are all on the Thunder’s training camp roster next fall. It would be another step in the process for each of them to potentially make their NBA dreams come true. And for the Thunder, it would be another chance to groom young guys who might someday be able to contribute valuable minutes in a pinch.
Vaden might not be the sexiest selection as the 15th man. But be careful not to overlook what his signing symbolizes about the continued commitment to the growth and development of players that are in the program.