ORLANDO, Fla. — If you believe what you hear, Cole Aldrich is ready.
“He's changed his habits,” said Nick Collison. “He's really a pro now.”
But if you take what you see to the bank, the Thunder's third-year center seems to have quite a ways to go before emerging into the interior defender Oklahoma City projected him to be when the franchise traded up to get the 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Aldrich had a rather uneventful trip to Orlando with the Thunder's summer league team. Despite being the highest draft pick on the Thunder's summer league roster, the team's projected second-string center next year and OKC's third most experienced player in Orlando, Aldrich did little to stand out.
Appearing in four of the team's five games, Aldrich averaged five points and 6.5 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. Aldrich's scoring average tied him for eighth on the team with an undrafted guard out of UT-Arlington named Marquez Haynes. Perhaps a small sign of Aldrich's struggles was seen in his turnover tally. With eight, Aldrich had more turnovers than blocked shots, assists and steals combined (seven).
But Aldrich believes he got better every day in Orlando.
“I definitely think so,” he said. “That first game wasn't great. You come out and it's basically going from zero to 60. I haven't played in two years and then you go out and play 32 minutes. So it's an adjustment, and I made those adjustments as we went on and that's all you can do.”
Aldrich's game has never been about putting up eye-popping stats. And in summer league, especially, stats can be deceiving. But for four games, Aldrich had trouble doing even the small things that he is supposed to supply.
He had difficulty corralling the ball, from either passes or rebounds. He couldn't finish consistently on offense. He set countless illegal screens, which were the source of the majority of his turnovers. And he had a hard time keeping himself between his man and the rim.
At times, it looked like Aldrich had no desire to be in Orlando. But he insisted that the time spent here will help him next year.
“It was good,” Aldrich said of his first summer league experience. “It's always good to get out on the court, to learn, to go through those things that you need to learn. I think for me to be in the rotation and be successful with our team next year, those minutes were great. I'm going to learn from them.”
One positive that Aldrich can take from Orlando is even during his struggles he continued to rebound well and supply good energy defensively, most notably in pick-and-roll defense. Aldrich showed sound fundamentals stepping out and slowing the ballhandler by showing his 6-foot-10 frame before quickly rotating back to his man.
“All those early mornings before my rookie year pushing a damn sled and doing the things before the game are starting to pay off,” Aldrich said. “I still have a long ways to go. I'm nowhere near a finished product, but that's the fun part of the journey.”
Privately, the Thunder believes Aldrich is better suited for the more structured NBA setting. The team thinks Aldrich will be fine once Garrett Temple is replaced by Kevin Durant, Dwight Buycks becomes Russell Westbrook and Morris Almond morphs into Thabo Sefolosha.
It's hard to dispute that philosophy since summer league is not conducive to big men and definitely not geared to showcase team-oriented, defensive-minded big men. Thus, it might be wise to reserve judgment on Aldrich until the regular season.
Besides, five days can't trump what teammates have seen over the past two years.
“He's ready to go,” Collison said at the end of the season. “I think he's ready to play, and we've got confidence in him.”
Collison credited Aldrich for dedicating himself to the game.
“The first year, he did his work but he really sees the value in it now and realizes it's his job,” Collison said. “I think sometimes you feel like you're doing the work for your coaches because that's what they want you to do. But I think he realizes the value that every day he's working for himself and it's his career and this is the work he has to put in. He's really shown a lot of improvement this year. A lot of it with him comes down to what kind of opportunity he gets.”
The backup job now belongs to Aldrich.
We'll soon see if he'll make us believers.