Thunder center Cole Aldrich has waited two seasons for this moment.
He had busted his tail to improve his game, taking the court three hours before tipoff on every game day during the season.
He would leave the court drenched in sweat after either playing 3-on-3 pickup games against teammates or executing an array of conditioning and post drills against assistant coach Mark Bryant.
Aldrich consistently excelled whenever he was assigned to the Tulsa 66ers in the NBA Developmental League. During the offseason, he picked the brain and observed the work habits of veteran forward Nick Collison when they trained together back on their college campus at Kansas.
Aldrich awaited the chance to prove himself, playing in just 44 regular-season games his first two years. That moment arrived this offseason when the Thunder did not re-sign veteran free agent center Nazr Mohammed.
Aldrich's first chance to shine came in early July at the Orlando Summer League, where instead he fell considerably short of expectations.
“He didn't play great,” coach Scott Brooks said of Aldrich, who averaged 5.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and had twice as many turnovers (eight) as blocked shots (four) at a competition where many expected him to be a dominant defensive force.
Brooks forgave Aldrich, but he didn't forget.
“I put a little bit of weight into the Summer League,” Brooks said. “I put (weight into) it at that time because that was the most important time, but not now. Now that training camp has started, that's so far behind us.
“The summer is there to get better and improve. It's what you do all summer long, it's not what you do for the two weeks or (four) games. We'll see how he plays in the exhibition season.”
The most significant opportunity of Aldrich's career comes this month with Thunder starting center Kendrick Perkins still on the mend from offseason surgery to his left wrist.
Aldrich and free-agent acquisitions Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton are battling for the backup center position and all figure to receive ample playing time in seven preseason games to show what they've got.
OKC's preseason starts Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets in Hidalgo, Texas, just across the Mexico border. Hidalgo is home to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets' D-League affiliate.
Brooks said he will announce the starting center against Houston after Tuesday's practice. No matter who gets the nod, it's showtime because there's no time like the present to become the Thunder's No. 2 center.
Though he didn't play as well as he hoped at Summer League, Aldrich didn't mope.
“It's just a time where you can assess yourself a little bit,” Aldrich said of his first Summer League. “It's not about scoring points and doing spectacular things. It's about doing the little things — setting good screens, guarding pick-and-rolls, things like that where it's really going to make a difference.”
Given his two years with the Thunder, Aldrich owns a significant edge in experience over Thabeet and Orton.
“I feel no pressure myself,” Aldrich said. “I come in every day and work hard. I've gotten a lot better. That's all you can do.”
This is the moment the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Aldrich has waited for since being selected No. 11 overall in the 2010 NBA Draft.
What's it been like facing the 7-3, 263-pound Thabeet, selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 Draft?
“He's big,” Aldrich said with his gap-tooth smile. “He's big … and I'm a big guy. He's good. He's getting better. Obviously, we're all just having fun together. We've had some tough days.”