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.