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.
“When we acquired Thabo, we certainly were looking for help in the present, but we looked at a long-term building block for our team because of what he represented, his identity as a player and also his competitiveness as we were building our team in the early stages,” Presti said.
Sefolosha didn't need to be steered in a different direction. He simply needed to stay the course.
The summer after acquiring Sefolosha, Presti became even more convinced he had made the right move after visiting Sefolosha and his family in his hometown of Vevey, Switzerland, a picturesque village on the north shore of Lake Geneva that's smaller than the capacity of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Observing players in their home environment is vitally important to Presti and the eclectic Sefolosha oozes with intangibles.
His white mother was born in Switzerland and is an accomplished artist. His black father was born in South Africa and is a skilled musician. Sefolosha models part-time, doubles as a local cult hero and his summer camp is the ultimate destination for the Swiss youth.
When he wasn't playing basketball growing up, Sefolosha played soccer and was a drummer in a band. Presti also plays drums.
What Presti might appreciate most about Sefolosha is his commitment, focus and willingness to sacrifice. “People don't understand how exhausting it is to defend the other team's best player night after night,” Presti said.
It takes a special player to accept defense as his primary role, and someone extraordinary to not care who gets the credit.
“One of the reasons we feel the way we do about Thabo is because he's not driven by the secondary consequences,” Presti said. “Quite honestly, that's one of the reasons he fits our team and the profile of player that we value. He does an excellent job for us, and our internal value system is something that we weigh much more than necessarily what the wisdom of what crowds might tell us. We feel that way about Thabo. We feel that way about Perk (center Kendrick Perkins). We feel that way about some of our other guys as well.”
Thunder rookie coach Scott Brooks admitted he initially wasn't sure what he had in Sefolosha. “I didn't have a good feel for what he was as a player,” Brooks said. “I thought our defensive mentally changed when we acquired him. He's a big part of our success and then we made another jump with Perk (who was acquired Feb. 24, 2011).”
Though he is considered one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders, Sefolosha has been named to the league's All-Defensive team just once, and that was to the second team in 2010.
Sefolosha is as blunt as he is smart. Asked if he has gotten his due as a defender, Sefolosha did not hesitate.
“Not really,” he said. “I think I definitely should be (considered) one of the top 10 defensive players in the league for the last three years probably, but it's not something I focus on. I really don't care about the applause and all the attention. For me, winning is the most important thing. When you win, everybody looks good. We've gotten so much exposure by getting the Finals and winning the last several seasons. For me, the ultimate goal is to win a championship and to win every game, basically.”
With his next breath, Sefolosha admitted he still has work to do. “Defensively, I still think I need to improve a lot, stay focused, get stronger,” he said. “Offensively, I think it's my best NBA season so far.”