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How The Thunder And Thabeet Got Here

by Darnell Mayberry Published: July 5, 2012

When the Thunder and Hasheem Thabeet agreed to a two-year deal Wednesday, it immediately made me think back to the weeks leading up to the 2009 NBA Draft.

Thabeet was the top center prospect after dominating most of his college competition. He was a lock to be a top three pick but was anything but a can’t-miss prospect. I remember writing about 53 stories examining Thabeet leading up to draft night. Some were warranted. Some definitely were overkill. But the big man was a fascinating ballplayer, one who possessed defensive skills the Thunder sorely lacked back then.

Opinions varied on Thabeet, but everyone, it seemed, had one. One person I work closely with who shall remain nameless even remixed The Go-Go’s 80s hit “We got the beat” by circling the office crooning “Don’t draft Thabeet, don’t draft Thabeet, don’t draft Thabeeeeet. Don’t draft Thabeet.” The guy was just a polarizing player. But he had so much size, so much potential.

The Thunder was enamored with Thabeet and, clearly, still is to this day.

A rummage through our archives, however, tells an interesting story about Thabeet and the Thunder, both then and now.

June 9, 2006: From a summer diary by Blake Griffin during his days on the AAU circuit:

On the toughest guy he’s gone up against: “I played a 7-3 guy from Houston, Hasheem Thabeet. He’s going to UConn. He was harder to guard than score on. He made me feel small. It’s like a totally different game. But he was easier to go around.”

Imagine that. Six years ago, Blake Griffin found it hard to guard Thabeet. Sort of amazing to think about today, isn’t it? As for that last line, well, I guess some things never change.

April 18, 2009: This was a blurb about the Thunder’s top five options in the 2009 draft if OKC lost the upcoming draft lottery and a chance at Blake Griffin:

3) Hasheem Thabeet: Defensive monster. Still, the Thunder should be wary of the UConn big man with the franchise’s history of drafting 7-foot busts.

Funny how the second part still applies. Of note, the No. 1 option, according to whoever did this — I couldn’t find a name. It might have been me — was Ricky Rubio. The No. 2 option was James Harden. Four was DeMar DeRozan, and five was Jordan Hill.

May 19, 2009: Before playoff basketball arrived, this was the second most exciting day in Thunder history. The only day that ranked ahead of it was the day Clay Bennett stepped in front of a podium at the Skirvin Hotel and declared “We made it” in reference to the franchise purchased by a group of Oklahoma businessmen but supposedly was intended to stay in Seattle. This was the day we found out whether the Thunder would win the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery and the right to draft Griffin, the consensus top selection:

A few fans said they don’t follow the NBA closely but will watch to see where Griffin winds up. “If there’s nothing else on TV, and I remember it’s on, I might flip to it,” said Leah Housley. “I think I’m one of the few people in Oklahoma who doesn’t want Blake Griffin. “Sure, he’ll help whatever team he goes to… But I think our real need is a big center. I’d love to get Hasheem Thabeet.”

Leah, if you’re out there, we forgive you.

May 20, 2009: This was written by our man Berry Tramel:

If the 7-foot-3 Thabeet is another Samuel Dalembert, the 76ers’ athletic center, I’ll take that, too. Both will drive you bananas on offense, but if Thabeet can defend the basket like Dalembert can, that will improve this team quickly. Interior defense is priority A for the Thunder.

I really just included this for all the Kendrick Perkins haters. The next time you rip Perkins for what he can’t do, think back to how bad the Thunder’s interior defense used to be and then pipe down about Perk.

May 20, 2009: A look at possible picks by Mike Baldwin provided a scouting report:

Closer look: Look for most mock drafts to have the Thunder selecting the 7-foot-3 UConn intimidator. Thabeet has a large wing span and could provide the rebounding and shot-blocking defensive presence the Thunder sorely lacks inside. But he’s far from a slam dunk. The Tanzania native still has much to learn. He has poor hands, is a sub-par offensive player and could have difficulty with the pick and roll. Some scouts question his basketball IQ and whether he can consistently play hard.

Whomever Mr. Baldwin spoke with deserves a raise.

May 21, 2009: This is from one of the many stories I did on Thabeet. For this piece, I enlisted the help of president Jonathan Givony, who reported a day earlier that the Thunder had spent more time scouting Thabeet than any other team:

“When it comes to workmanlike research and just being meticulous and thorough, I don’t think there is a better GM in the NBA than Sam Presti,” said Givony. “So if anybody is capable of getting to the bottom of who Thabeet is, what his potential is, what he brings to the table, how he fits on a team, I honestly think he’s No. 1 in that regard.”

Wonder what Presti now knows that the rest of the basketball world doesn’t. In spite of all of Thabeet’s shortcomings, it feels like there’s something, doesn’t it? Even more, I wonder what Presti would have done had the Grizzlies not taken Thabeet. Think about that in a larger context. It’s possible that Presti dodged two career-threatening bullets in three drafts, first with Portland taking Greg Oden and allowing Kevin Durant to fall in his lap and then with Memphis taking Thabeet and making it possible for James Harden to be alongside Durant and Russell Westbrook. Imagine what Presti’s reputation would be if he was the GM who missed on both of those picks, which, even though both were big men, could have been completely possible considering Oden’s injury problems.

June 12, 2009: For another of the zillion stories I did on Thabeet, I enlisted the insight of one of the beat writers who covered Thabeet while at UConn:

“I think (Thabeet) wants everyone to believe that he’s full of this powerful confidence,” said Mike Anthony, who covers the Huskies for the Hartford Courant. “I think he does have some confidence. But I think he does have some fear about the challenges of being great and meeting those expectations of everyone expecting him to be great.”

This, of course, has long been one of the biggest questions about Thabeet. Does he have the head and heart to match his huge frame and God-given gifts? If Anthony is correct, and Thabeet fears the challenge of being great, there isn’t a thing the Thunder can do about it, no matter how much players and coaches push him. That’s a scary, scary quote.

June 23, 2009: A round-up of rumors compiled by Mike Baldwin:

According to, Hasheem Thabeet’s camp feels good about being drafted by the Thunder, quoting a source who said it’s 100 percent that Presti will select the 7-foot-3 Connecticut center if he’s available.

Crisis. Averted.

June 25, 2009: NBA Draft day. As a preview, we asked members of our staff to share their thoughts on who the Thunder should take and who the Thunder would take. This was from Mike Baldwin:

Who the Thunder should take: Tyreke Evans if they don’t move down. If Minnesota offers the No. 5 and 18 picks for the No. 3 selection, take the deal and select James Harden at No. 5, DeJuan Blair at No. 14 and Eric Maynor at No. 18. Evans could end up being the best player in the draft. If you get Harden at No. 5 he would fill the shooting guard void. Blair would be a steal, providing a much needed physical inside presence. Maynor could serve as Westbrook’s backup for five-plus years.

Not sure why I didn’t get in on this. But I’ve got to give it up to my man Baldwin here. Looking back on our coverage, he was all over this draft. Not only did Mike lay out a pretty darn good scenario here, but in two versions of his mock draft — as well as his answer in the above piece on what the Thunder would do — Baldwin correctly predicted the Thunder would draft Harden at No. 3 and trade up to take Byron Mullens. How on earth he did that is beyond me. In seven years of covering the NBA, I haven’t even come close to nailing a mock draft like Baldwin did in 2009. Baldwin’s only misstep was he had the Thunder trading up too high to get Mullens. Instead of predicted the Thunder to go from 25 to 24, he predicted the Thunder would go from 25th to 15th and then 14th in his updated version. I had penciled in Harden at No. 3 and Maynor at No. 25 in my original mock. And then that damned Presti pump fake (you know, when he hired a Spanish law firm to check on Ricky Rubio’s contract situation) threw me off. In my last version, I had the Thunder taking Rubio at three and Chase Budinger at 25.

June 25, 2009: As part of our preview for draft night, we also did a little feature called “If I were Sam Presti, I would…” We asked five basketball minds what they would do in the 2009 draft if they were in Presti’s shoes. Here’s what one ESPN analyst had to say:

“It depends who’s there. You just have to have a plan. But I think you go get a point guard in this draft, whether you get him with your first pick or second pick. There’s plenty to be had. I’d love to lock in on Patty Mills late in the first. If you get Hasheem Thabeet and Patty Mills, that’s a good draft. Patty Mills has got a chance to be really special.” — ESPN basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb.

Whenever it is that Sam Presti goes on to bigger and better things, somebody be sure to tell Clay Bennett never to put the keys to this franchise in Gottleib’s hands. Thanks.


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by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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