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Oklahoma City Thunder: Sam Presti knew Thabo Sefolosha was special a long time ago

Defense is what wins championships, and Presti had to have the Sefolosha on his basketball team.
By John Rohde Published: April 1, 2013

When Thunder general manager Sam Presti first laid eyes on Thabo Sefolosha, he saw a 17-year-old kid in cornrows playing point guard for the Swiss national team.

As usual, Sefolosha was following coach's orders, doing everything he could to help his country win, which it rarely did. The Swiss make high-dollar watches, but there was little reason to watch the Swiss play hoops. Sefolosha was the exception and would soon become Switzerland's first (and only) native son to be drafted into the NBA.

Much of Sefolosha's scoring came in transition or slashing toward the basket. Sefolosha could dribble and was a superb passer, which is why today he inbounds the ball for the Thunder on last-second plays. Sefolosha played professionally in France and Italy before entering the NBA Draft, but knew his playing time would be limited unless he excelled at something.

“I was young and I just wanted to play so bad,” Sefolosha recalled. “I asked the coach (in France), ‘What do I have to do to spend some time on the court, to do something at a higher level than everybody else?' ”

The coach told Sefolosha to take full advantage of his length and athleticism and focus on defense. Pro players throughout Europe, including those exported from the United States, were being asked to score. In turn, Sefolosha was asked to contain those players as best he could.

Sefolosha said his mindset toward the game changed immediately. “It wasn't tough at all because I was just so hungry to be on the court,” Sefolosha said. “Whatever it took, I was willing to do.”

Presti noticed. “I followed him probably four years from first time I saw him,” said Presti, who was on staff with the San Antonio Spurs at the time.

Had the still relatively unknown Sefolosha entered the 2005 NBA Draft, San Antonio likely would have pounced if he were still available when the Spurs picked at No. 28 — a clandestine pick similar to the masterful selection of 19-year-old point guard Tony Parker at No. 28 in the 2001 NBA Draft.

When Sefolosha instead opted to wait another year, Presti immediately knew Sefolosha was bound for the 2006 lottery, which was the case when the Philadelphia 76ers picked him at No. 13, then traded him on draft night to the Chicago Bulls for Rodney Carney and a 2007 second-rounder. (Note: The player chosen immediately after Sefolosha at No. 14 was Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer, another prototypical defender who on Feb. 21 became Sefolosha's teammate.)

In June of 2007, Presti became the 30-year-old general manager of the downtrodden Seattle SuperSonics. The seemingly omniscient Presti had not forgotten about Sefolosha, who is a prototype of the ultimate hybrid defender. He is athletic, stands 6-foot-7, weighs 215 pounds and has a freakish 7-foot-2 wingspan to obstruct passing lanes.

On Feb. 19, 2009, Presti finally was able to pounce on Sefolsoha, acquiring him from the Bulls for a future first-round draft choice.

By this time, the Sonics had relocated to become the OKC Thunder, and times were hard to say the least. Presti had assumed the role of head tortoise, insisting slow and steady was the best way to win the race to respectability.

Presti inherited a gem in veteran forward Nick Collison and had drafted future diamonds in forward Kevin Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka. In that year's upcoming draft, Presti would add to his collection by snaring shooting guard James Harden with the third overall pick.

Sefolosha, however, would become Presti's first key addition via the trade deadline.

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