When the Thunder re-signed Nazr Mohammed to a contract extension last month, many wondered what that meant for center Cole Aldrich.
Some viewed Mohammed's deal as a reflection of the organization's opinion of Aldrich. But there is no correlation between the two.
Mohammed is a savvy veteran who provides leadership and experience in addition to underrated offensive and defensive ability. Aldrich, on the other hand, is a still-wet-behind-the-ears big man who is expected to blossom in due time.
But the plan for Aldrich hasn't changed. Expect the rising second-year center out of Kansas to be in town for the foreseeable future.
The Thunder dealt two first-round picks to trade up to snag Aldrich at No. 11 in the 2010 draft, and the organization hasn't put Aldrich on any sort of timetable for when he should sprout. If anything, though, Mohammed's presence should speed Aldrich's development rather than delay it.
But because Aldrich was limited to 18 games and only 7.9 average minutes in his rookie season, it becomes easy to view Mohammed's return as a detriment. A better way of looking at Mohammed's re-signing, however, is to focus on the impact he can have on a young player.
There is no guarantee that Mohammed remains ahead of Aldrich in the rotation. It's possible Aldrich bumps Mohammed next season and becomes the full-time backup center to Kendrick Perkins. But even if Aldrich doesn't crack the rotation, he'll have Perkins and Mohammed, as well as Nick Collison, to learn from in practice.
And Aldrich has proved to be a willing learner.
“He's a humble guy, he works hard and he can play,” Perkins said. “I think he's going to provide some good minutes for us next year. He's just got to be ready. One thing I've learned about Coach (Scott) Brooks is he's not just going to give you minutes. He's going to have to come in and earn his minutes.”
Aldrich has dedicated this summer to sharpening his skills. He said his main goal is “just to get better.”
“Just work hard and make sure that when the season does come around, whether it's in September or whenever it is, I come in in shape and make sure I've gotten better,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich is spending the majority of his time at his alma mater in Lawrence, Kan. He's attempting to improve his quickness and reaction skills, his hand-eye coordination and his rebounding and hustle.
One of the biggest areas of improvement Aldrich must focus on is defending the pick-and-roll. In addition to adjusting to the speed of the NBA game, Aldrich has to develop his footwork so that he isn't exploited regularly when his opportunity does come knocking. But he sensed improvement as last season wore on.
“I could see myself getting much better,” said Aldrich, crediting a few of last year's punishing practice sessions. “It's not easy having Russell (Westbrook) coming off the pick-and-roll, but if you can do it against him then against other guys, it's going to be a little bit easier.”
Aldrich's teammates, some of them speaking from experience, say all the work will soon pay off.
“I love his mentality,” said forward Serge Ibaka. “I think I had the same mentality my first year when I was not playing. I kept working and waited my turn. If he keeps that mentality, he can do a lot of stuff in this league.”
It's not out of the question, though, that Aldrich spends a healthy amount of time in Tulsa again next season. Last year, Aldrich averaged 29.3 minutes over 21 games with the NBA D-League's 66ers. He averaged 10.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.62 blocks while shooting 54.4 percent from the field. As a second-year player, Aldrich will again be eligible for assignment to the D-League up to three times next year.
But he said his time in Tulsa helped him get comfortable on the court by providing meaningful minutes. If all goes well, though, Aldrich will go from Tulsa to the Thunder's ninth or 10th man.
“I'm really excited,” Aldrich said. “Every year is a new opportunity, whether you get it in one way or another. But it's going to be exciting.”