The Thunder announced late Friday afternoon that its NBA Development League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, will relocate in time for the 2014-15 season, joining their parent club in Oklahoma City.
Even on a slow news day, the announcement barely made a ripple locally, never mind nationally.
But the move could carry significant benefits to the Thunder from a basketball standpoint while also ushering in a new wave throughout the NBA with how the D-League is used for team-building purposes.
Two Thunder draft picks remain unsigned, and the arrival of the 66ers in Oklahoma City stands as confirmation that they’re likely destined to spend the year competing in the D-League.
For guard Semaj Christon, the 55th overall selection out of Xavier, it’s a natural landing spot.
But with Josh Huestis, a first-round selection, the Thunder could be on the verge of breaking ground.
As the 29th overall pick, Huestis would become the first player selected in the first round to forgo his rookie season to sign in the D-League. In other words, he’d be the first-ever domestic “draft-and-stash” player.
NBA teams have long drafted international players and left them overseas, developing on someone else’s dime. But if Huestis signs with the 66ers as expected, he’ll be an American-born, American-bred prospect who, as a first-round pick, could be the flag-bearer for how the NBA envisions the future of the D-League.
In its push for a true minor league system, the NBA has invested heavily in the D-League. Expansion has become a priority, call-ups a regularity, and rules have been relaxed to make it easier for teams to use their affiliates.
The D-League is expanding to a record 18 teams next season, seven of which will be fully owned and operated by their NBA parent club. The goal is for all 30 NBA teams to have a single affiliate, and things are headed in that direction. A record 14 NBA teams had single NBA D-League affiliates last season.
There were 49 call-ups for 37 players last year, up from 36 call-ups for 31 players in the 2012-13 season.
The system is headed in the right direction.
Huestis would represent another significant milestone.
His selection, which on draft night was viewed as a duplicate of last year’s pick, Andre Roberson, also would make more sense. By taking Huestis with the second-to-last selection in the first round, the Thunder secured another critically cost-effective rookie scale contract. The difference is that standard four-year deal — two guaranteed years and two team options in the final two seasons — would come on the back end of a preliminary year in the D-League and ensures the Thunder would have Huestis developing in its program for at least five seasons.
It’s forward-thinking at its finest.
By going this route, the Thunder saves a roster spot and some precious salary for a season but also retains Huestis’ restricted free agency rights at the end of his fourth NBA season, affording OKC with the first chance to extend his contract.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the Thunder had this path for Huestis in mind when the team selected him. He was projected as a second-round selection and became a draft-night surprise when his name was announced with the 29th pick.
Committing to this route requires some sacrifice on Huestis’ part. His rookie scale contact would pay him slightly more than $1 million next season. His D-League deal will pay him approximately $25,000.
But Huestis, a Stanford grad whose maturity and presence wowed those in attendance at his introductory press conference, likely is looking at the big picture and taking a more long-term approach. Joining the Thunder would guarantee more money, but it wouldn’t come complete with playing time. He’d likely be stashed in the D-League anyway or, worse, drafted much later (or not at all) and subject to a non-guaranteed contract in the second round. He’d then have to fight to make a roster or head overseas in search of a professional playing career.
By committing to the Thunder pipeline, though, Huestis has as much of a guarantee as professional sports can offer. He has a franchise committed to developing him on the front end with the financial payoff fixed into the back end.
Oklahoma City used a similar strategy with 2013 second-round pick Grant Jerrett and proved its commitment to him this week — and maybe honored its word — by awarding him with a contract extension that will provide long-term security.
Unlike last year, when the Tulsa 66ers had to maneuver for the No. 1 overall pick to get Jerrett by orchestrating a complex three-team trade that included three players and three of the top 11 D-League draft picks, the NBA now allows draft picks to sign with their team’s D-League affiliate without needing to be reacquired in the D-League draft. It’s a significant change that allows teams to avoid unnecessary transactions and the sticky situation that New Orleans found itself in last year, when 42nd overall pick Pierre Jackson played the year with Portland’s affiliate rather than that of the Pelicans.
The 66ers’ move to Oklahoma City should only enhance what has been a fruitful commitment by the Thunder to player development using the D-League. Tulsa’s proximity before helped the Thunder foster one of the league’s best partnerships with its D-League affiliate. Numerous 66ers coaches and players, including five current Thunder players and new assistant coach Darko Rajakovic, cut their teeth on the D-League and now stand as success stories, examples after which future players like Huestis can pattern their path.
If Huestis finds success, Oklahoma City will be the first NBA team to try the domestic draft-and-stash on a first-round pick.
But chances are it won’t be the last.