They were his Big Three, a trio of players you either haven’t heard of or names that would serve as good subjects for a "where are they now?” trivia question.
Stanley Jackson. Corey Benjamin. Corey Crowder.
Before Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha was equipped to defend the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, this is who he cut his teeth on training to become a defensive stopper.
They were men. Sefolosha was just an 18-year-old kid getting his first taste of professional basketball in France. The rail-thin teenager from Switzerland was talented, but the American-born trio was more experienced.
"I knew I had to be really good at one thing,” Sefolosha remembered. "Better at something than the players we already had. And I figured playing defense was one thing I could do. So I took it upon myself to be the best defender that I could.”
Seven years later, Sefolosha could be on the verge of emerging as one of the NBA’s best defenders. Oklahoma City demonstrated its belief in Sefolosha last February when it traded a first-round pick to Chicago for his services. Last week, the Thunder signed Sefolosha to a four-year extension believed to be worth $13.8 million.
Kevin Durant called him the "heart and soul” of the team because of how he sets the tone defensively from the opening tip.
"He’s our leader in that area, and we’re very fortunate to have him,” Durant said. "He’s a guy that basically can lock down a premier scorer in this league.”
Sefolosha will get his chance to earn his keep tonight as Bryant and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers roll into the Ford Center. Bryant, fresh off a season-high 41 points at Atlanta on Sunday, ranks third in the league in scoring at 26.8 points.
Bryant and newly acquired Lakers forward Ron Artest top an elite list of defenders Sefolosha someday wants to crack. It includes Houston’s Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza and Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince.
Given the fact that each of those players, with the exception of Ariza, will be at least 30 by season’s end, Sefolosha’s time seems to be now.
"I’d love that,” Sefolosha said. "It’s not really a goal, but I’d love to get there.”
Sefolosha has all the tools. He’s 6-foot-7 with a wide wingspan, big and quick hands and the athleticism to be a pest. He’s a savvy player who’s capable of the things every team seeks. He can play multiple positions. He has the ability to play in a system equally as well as he defends individually. He adheres to game plans, understands offenses and angles and is consistently in the right place to prevent easy baskets.
"Thabo has the ability and the mental makeup,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "You need them both. You can’t just be an athlete that doesn’t have a defensive mentality. The biggest part of being a great defender is you have to have the ability to not let a big-time scorer get you down if he scores a bucket on you.