Berry Tramel

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Sam Presti: How far above the norm are the Thunder drafts?

by Berry Tramel Published: June 25, 2014
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Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder listens to general manager Sam Presti talk about Ibaka and his new contract during a press conference at the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder listens to general manager Sam Presti talk about Ibaka and his new contract during a press conference at the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

 

What kind of draft evaluator is Thunder general manager Sam Presti? On the surface, very good.

When Presti has high picks, he hits home runs — Kevin Durant second overall, James Harden third overall, Russell Westbrook fourth overall. When he has longshots, Presti still produces on a regular basis — Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka both 24th. When he’s in the middle, Presti is somewhere in the middle. He instructed the Hornets to draft Cole Aldrich 11th so the Thunder could trade two late-first round picks for the Kansas center, but Presti also got Steven Adams at 12, and that looks like a steal.

But what does all that mean?

Let’s look at Presti’s picks in their own vacuum.

Top-10 picks: Three. Durant, Harden, Westbrook. Durant was a no-brainer, but Westbrook and Harden were not considered sure-fire stars. Yet that’s what they quickly became.

Maybe some other general manager in the last 30 years has such a triple crown, but no one comes to mind.

The Cavaliers have had four overall top-four picks since 2011. Their four picks are Tristan Thompson (fourth in 2011), Kyrie Irving (first in 2011), Dion Waiters (fourth in 2012) and Anthony Bennett (first in 2013). Safe to say, if Presti had been drafting for the Cavs, Cleveland would not have been in the lottery this season and again have a No. 1 overall pick.

Picks 11-20: Crazyas it seems, Prestihas had just three picks in the middle of the first round. Adams at 12 last summer. Aldrich in 2010, when the Thunder drafted Craig Brackins 21st and Quincy Pondexter 26th, at New Orleans’ request and traded them for Aldrich and Morris Peterson’s bad contract. And Eric Bledsoe at 18 in 2010, when the Thunder traded him to the Clippers for a future first-round pick, which OKC eventually traded to Boston in the Kendrick Perkins deal.

The Aldrich deal now looks bad because he didn’t pan out as a possible starting center. But Aldrich was considered a possible defensive gem, and it was a decent risk. It’s not like Brackins and Pondexter have torn up the league, though Pondexter has been a contributor in Memphis. Aldrich just didn’t develop. So it goes as a bad pick, but a defensible idea.

The Bledsoe deal doesn’t look bad — Bledsoe is a blooming star now and was very good for the Clippers. But the Thunder didn’t need a point guard (it had Westbrook and a solid, at the time, Eric Maynor). If the Thunder had kept that pick, Presti would have selected someone else. And the draft pick he got for Bledsoe helped the Thunder land Perkins, which turned the Thunder into a title contender immediately in February 2011. So I’d rate the teen picks one hit, one miss and one even.

Picks 21-30: Under Presti, the Thunder has had six picks in the 20s, not counting the two it traded to New Orleans. Of those six, Jackson and Ibaka were smash hits. One was OK, Perry Jones at 26th in 2012. Two made the roster but were seldom-used — Byron Mullens, 24th in 2009 (the Thunder actually drafted Roddy Beaubois at No. 25 but immediately traded him to Dallas, which had picked Mullens), and D.J. White (who was actually drafted 29th by Detroit but was acquired for two second-round picks). And Archie Goodwin was taken 29th last summer but immediately traded to Phoenix.

Second-round picks: Not counting picks packaged in other deals, Presti has made seven second-round picks. None has played a game for the Thunder (or the 2007-08 Sonics): Alex Abrines, 32nd in 2013, who remains in Europe; Grant Jerrett, 40th in 2013, who played in the D-League this just-completed season; Magnum Rolle, 51st in 2010; DeVon Hardin, 50th in 2008; Sasha Kaun, 56th in 2008, who was immediately traded and never made the NBA; Carl Landry, 31st in 2007, who was immediately traded to Houston for cash and the future pick that became Kaun; and Big Baby Davis, 35th in 2007, who was quickly traded to Boston in the Jeff Green/Ray Allen deal.

The big miss was Landry, who has proven to be a solid pro, albeit undersized. Davis is a ballplayer, too — he hurt the Thunder as recently as May, with the Clippers — but if he was needed in the Green trade, so be it. That trade helped the Thunder go about the rebuilding business that results in what the Thunder is today.

So Presti’s drafting acumen is not found in the second round.

He’s spectacular early in the first round. As spectacular as anyone in recent history. He’s OK in the middle of the first round. He’s solid in the late first round.

Or is he? How well do other good drafters do? What is the ratio of success early, middle and late for successful teams?

I pulled the drafts of four teams that are mostly-successful and haven’t built by manufacturing rosters. They’ve done solid jobs drafting and tried to put together teams the old-fashioned way: San Antonio, Chicago, Portland, Indiana and Golden State. No Knicks or Heat or Rockets or Clippers or Mavericks.

If the Cavaliers don’t know what they’re doing with high picks, a good chunk of the NBA sure doesn’t know what it’s doing with later picks. But some franchises do.

How does Presti compare with the organizations that have a clue?

Picks 1-10: During Presti’s era with the Thunder/Sonics, the Spurs nor the Mavericks have had a top-10 pick. The Pacers have had one, Paul George at 10 in 2010. The Blazers have had three — Greg Oden first in 2007, Damian Lillard sixth in 2012 and C.J. McCollum 10th in 2013. The Bulls have had two — Derrick Rose first in 2008 and Joakim Noah ninth in 2007. The Warriors have had three — Harrison Barnes seventh in 2012, Ekpe Udoh sixth in 2010 and Steph Curry seventh in 2009.

So that’s nine top-10 picks, and five great picks. Barnes and the since-traded Udoh have been OK so far. It’s too early to tell on McCollum; so far, only Oden was a miss (a bust, really), and that was injury-related. Oklahoma City is eternally grateful that Portland took Oden, so Durant could fall to Seattle, but you can’t come down too hard on the Blazers. Big men are hard to find. They almost always go first, everything being equal. You could argue that Durant’s specialness was apparent at the University of Texas, and you’d be right. So the Blazers can’t avoid criticism. Still, five great picks out of nine total is a good ratio. There are quite a few top-10 misses, believe it or not. The very fact that the Pacers are an elite team, the Bulls have been when healthy and the Warriors are getting there is because those top-10 picks hit.

All in all, not as impressive as Presti, but close, considering Presti hasn’t had to pick in the 7-8-9-10 range.

Picks 11-20: The Spurs have picked twice in this range — Kawhi Leonard (we count him since Indiana picked Leonard for the Spurs, so it could trade for George Hill), 16th in 2011, and James Anderson, 20th in 2010. The Pacers picked Jerryd Bayless 11th in 2008 and Tyler Hansbrough 13th in 2009. The Warriors took Klay Thompson 11th in 2011, Anthony Randolph 14th in 2008 and Marco Belinelli 18th in 2007. The Bulls took Tony Snell 20th in 2013; Kevin Seraphin 17th in 2010, then traded him immediately; and James Johnson 16th in 2009. The Blazers took Meyers Leonard 11th in 2012 and Brandon Rush 13th in 2008, trading Rush immediately.

That’s 12 picks in this range. Two rising stars, Kawhi Leonard and Thompson. A solid contributor in Belinelli. A few serviceable players — Bayless, Hansbrough, Rush, Seraphin, Johnson, Randoph, maybe Anderson. A couple of young players fighting for playing in Meyers Leonard and Snell. Maybe a little better ration than Presti’s 1-1-1.

Picks 21-30: OK, the real test. The Spurs took Livio Jean-Charles 28th in 2013, Cory Joseph 29th in 2011, George Hill 26th in 2008 and Tiago Splitter 28th in 2007. The Pacers took Solomon Hill 23rd in 2013 and Miles Plumlee 26th in 2012. The Bulls took Marquis Teague 29th in 2012, Nikola Mirotic 23rd in 2012 (traded for him on draft night) and Taj Gibson 26th in 2009. The Blazers took Nolan Smith 21st in 2011, Elliot Williams 22nd in 2010, Victor Claver 22nd in 2009 and Nicolas Batum 23rd in 2008 (actually traded for him right after the draft). The Warriors took Festus Ezeli 30th in 2012.

So that’s 14 players drafted 21-30. Of those 13, no real stars. But Hill, Splitter, Gibson and Batum are really good players on good teams. Plumlee was traded to Phoenix after a year but shows promise. Ezeli started three playoff games for Golden State as a rookie but was injured last season. The rest are unproven or out of the league. So that’s six out of 14 proven ballplayers, counting Plumlee and Ezeli. A better ratio of Presti if you don’t count Perry Jones but not as good a ratio if you do count Jones. So pretty close.

Second round: I don’t bore you with every name. I’ll just give you the hits and the totals. The Spurs have had 11 second-round picks in those eight drafts (they are the Spurs, remember). DeJuan Blair went 37th overall in 2009 (the Spurs got him with a pick they traded for the year before, giving up the just-picked Goran Dragic) and Nando De Colo went 53rd in 2009. The Pacers have had six second-round picks. Lance Stephenson went 40th in 2010 and A.J. Price went 52nd in 2009. The Bulls have had three second-round picks, including Aaron Gray, 49th in 2007. The Blazers have had 11 second-round picks (not counting players immediately traded). Wil Barton went 40th in 2012, Jeff Ayres (via trade) went 31st in 2009, Dante Cunningham went 33rd in 2009, Patty Mills went 55th in 2009 and Josh McRoberts went 37th in 2007. The Warriors have had six second-round picks. Draymond Green went 35th in 2012.

So that’s 38 second-round picks. Eleven turned into players who at least stuck for awhile. Stephenson is an excellent player, though a knucklehead. McRoberts is a playoff starter. Green is a valuable member of a very good team. Mills is the latest cult hero in San Antonio.

You can find ballplayers in the second round. Presti hasn’t, not yet anyway, and that’s a shine off his star.

Presti’s drafting overall is outstanding. Ibaka and Jackson are his plums. Durant, Westbrook and Harden are his prizes. But the Thunder drafting of Presti and co. doesn’t stick out way ahead of other good-drafting organizations.

Presti has hit on some, hit big on some, and missed on others. In the NBA, that puts the Thunder ahead of most teams. Just not all.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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