HIDALGO, Texas — Making his first ever start at center, Cole Aldrich made an immediate impact when he prevailed at center court, stealing the jump ball from the fingertips of Houston center Omer Asik, a taller, more athletic and more experienced big man.
Baby steps, people.
By the looks of it, you'll need that slow and steady approach when evaluating Aldrich, the third-year center who'll now be thrust into a backup role behind Kendrick Perkins. Just 28 seconds later, for example, Aldrich was whistled for the first of his five fouls while trying to supply the one thing he's responsible for but clearly still far from proficient in — post defense.
And so it could go with Aldrich.
But while Perkins sits powerless on the bench in pinstripe suits this exhibition season, we're getting a better idea of what really is behind OKC's starting big man. As it turns out, in the Thunder's 107-105 loss to the Rockets in the preseason opener for both teams, there was a lot of good, a bit of bad and, on this night, nothing ugly.
Given what the organization requires at the backup center spot, that's about as much as you can ask for.
Aldrich got better as the game went along, which can be viewed two ways considering he might not see the 34 minutes he did Wednesday for the rest of the year. If he's to make an impact this season it'll have to be in short waves of opportunities. Still, Aldrich did enough to leave you encouraged, finishing with 10 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Hasheem Thabeet, who is projected to be the third-string center, scored 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting with three rebounds and one blocked before fouling out after 14 minutes.
“I knew both would play hard,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I thought they both came into camp in good shape. They both do the little things that we need. We're not going to ever look for either one of them to demand the ball in the post and look for post scoring. They're offensive rebounders. They're points around the basket (guys) with dump off passes when our perimeter players demand double teams. They were getting easy buckets. That's what they have to do, and I thought they did a good job with that.”
Aldrich's rough start included ill-advised fouls that seemed to stem from a result of being out of position. He got beat in transition once by Asik, allowing the Rockets' new big man an uncontested dunk. And he botched a handoff pass to Russell Westbrook on the wing, resulting in a Jeremy Lin turnover.
But Aldrich showed improved awareness in defending the pick-and-roll, a nice jump hook with both his left and right hand and a relentless effort on the glass, even if he couldn't corral every ball that ricocheted off the rim.
“It's still early,” Aldrich said. “Everybody is going to be not quite ready yet. It's the first preseason game. We're just going out there and trying to figure out what we can work on in practice (Thursday) and go from there and get ready for Friday's games … We're working toward Nov. 1 when the season starts and then beyond.”
Thabeet, meanwhile, impressed by finishing dump-off passes with authority, pounding in dunks on several occasions after a wing player drew his man away from the basket. While catching passes and slamming home baskets might sound simple for a 7-foot-3 player, Thabeet admits that he has had trouble fumbling the ball and squandering easy scoring opportunities.
“I was bobbling the ball a lot the past few years,” Thabeet said. “But getting better every day, that's my goal. Every time I step out there I want to get better at something that I wasn't able to do … We got great young guys that compete all the time and push each other, so this is a great situation for me, a great environment for me to be in. I just got to work hard.”