DeAndre Liggins made it crystal clear at Thunder media day why he came to Oklahoma City.
“I'm just trying to get a job,” he said. “That's all I'm trying to do.”
After two weeks, he looks like the right man for the gig.
Liggins, the 6-foot-6 swingman out of Kentucky who played his rookie season with Orlando last year, has the resume, the references and the right skills to earn the 15th and final roster spot on the defending Western Conference champion.
Through three preseason games, last year's 53rd overall pick has been the most pleasant surprise of all 19 players in Thunder camp.
“He plays defense with everything he has,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “And you love guys that play with their hearts out every possession.”
Liggins is in a tightly contested, five-man race for the final spot. Joining him are center Daniel Orton and guards Hollis Thompson, Andy Rautins and Walker Russell Jr. If we don't assume he has secured the 14th spot, Hasheem Thabeet would be in the mix as well, making it a six-man battle for two spots.
Either way you slice it, Liggins has a leg up and one word explains why.
Asked before making his first start against Charlotte on Tuesday what fans should know about him, Liggins repeated “toughness” four times. It was only a six-word answer.
The other two words: “That's it.”
A quick check with the team's most trusted reference confirmed as much.
“He's a workhorse, man. I love him,” said Kevin Durant. “He's just quiet, comes in and does his job and plays hard every possession. You can tell he's a guy that's tough and has been that way his whole life. You can just tell by how he plays that he's been working from the bottom to get to the top his whole life. People have counted him out, I'm sure, but he continues to keep beating the odds and he's having a really, really good preseason.”
Liggins isn't just lodged in a numbers game. He's at the mercy of a coaching staff and front office that must choose what singular skill they feel is best to add to an already stacked squad.
Rautins is a pure shooter. Russell is a pure point guard. Thompson is a shooter with the potential to be a defender. Orton is an athletic space eater with good offensive awareness. Thabeet is a shot-blocker.
“We definitely have a lot of good choices,” Brooks said. “We have guys that can do things that the other guys can't … It's whoever plays the best … We're going to make the decision in a couple of weeks.”
In the meantime, Liggins has played like a man fighting to put food on his table.
Last Wednesday, in the Thunder's preseason opener against Houston, Liggins came off the bench and supplied an immediate spark. All he did was be a ball hawk on both ends. He clamped down on his man defensively, relentlessly chasing guys like Jeremy Lamb and Chandler Parsons on screens. He played the passing lanes, pick-pocketing unsuspecting opponents before streaking the other way for easy baskets. He stuck his nose under the basket, mixing it up in the paint to fight for rebounds, loose balls and any bucket he could manufacture from in close.
Liggins scored 10 points with four rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in a surprising 25 minutes that were earned through his play, not planned in advance.
“He had a great game,” Durant said. “(Expletive), he had more points than I did and he's not even really a scorer and guys weren't looking for him.”
Against the Bobcats on Tuesday, Liggins played 26 minutes — six more than Brooks said he would after announcing him as the starter 90 minutes before tip. Again, every second was earned. Liggins finished with five points on 2-for-2 shooting with six rebounds and one steal. In the plus-minus category, he was a plus-15, good for third best in the game behind Durant and rookie Perry Jones III.
But what the box score didn't show were the endless hustle plays Liggins produced or the numerous floor burns he earned. The most impressive of all his plays came on an early second-half defensive possession. When the Thunder entered the half leading the woeful Bobcats by a mere four points — turning Charlotte over only twice — it was clear the game plan to start the second half was to crank up the defensive intensity. Liggins led the way. Almost single-handedly, Liggins forced a shot-clock violation, applying so much pressure on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that this year's No. 2 overall pick had no room to breathe and nowhere to turn.
“He's determined to get a stop,” Brooks said. “I like his toughness. I like his length. He's always pursuing. He never gives up on plays. He's one of those stay and play type of guys. You can never ever have enough of those guys.”
League rules, unfortunately, mandate that teams must.
Liggins wants to be the last man standing.
“We're all friends. We talk and laugh,” Liggins said of the fight to be 15th man. “But at the end of the day it's a business. I'm here for a reason.”