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.” He learned that lesson early on while fighting for minutes on his Chalon-Sur-Saone team, which plays in France’s premier pro league. Jackson, 14 years older than Sefolosha, was a 6-foot-3 guard out of Alabama-Birmingham who played 17 games in the NBA with Minnesota during the 1993-94 season. Crowder, 15 years Sefolosha’s senior, is a 6-5 wingman from Kentucky Wesleyan who played 58 games for Utah and San Antonio in the early and mid-90s. And Benjamin, six years older than Sefolosha, was the 28th overall pick by Chicago in 1998 after starring at Oregon State. He played 153 games for Chicago and Atlanta from 1998-2003. They scored plenty of points against the young buck back in France. "(Benjamin) was good,” said Brooks, who coached him briefly in the CBA. "He was a big-time athlete. And he was strong. He was about 6-6, 225 and could run and jump with anybody in the league.” Desperate to impress his defensive-minded coach, Greg Beugnot, Sefolosha committed to defense. He began to take pride in stopping his man. "It came pretty naturally,” Sefolosha said. "It’s something you can do if you put your mind to.” Sefolosha now goes into matchups against the NBA’s best players attempting to limit their touches, hound them away from their favorite spots on the floor and make them high-volume shooters if they do get shots up. "I just want to make guys tired throughout the game and earn their points,” Sefolosha said. "And in the fourth quarter, if they have the last shot of the game, maybe they’re a little tired from the work I put in for the four quarters.” Sefolosha, the former 13th overall pick of Chicago in 2006, now studies more film than he ever did before. It’s a wrinkle that has given him more of a nightly advantage. For example, he’ll decipher if a player likes to dribble a lot and know to have his hands low to disrupt his ball-handling ability. Or if he’s defending a shooter, he’ll keep his hands high and flapping. He’ll give players like Wade more space than he gives Pistons sharpshooters Ben Gordon or Richard Hamilton. "You have to know who you’re playing against,” Sefolosha said. "That’s big in this league because most guys have tendencies.” A sign of Sefolosha’s effectiveness is easily seen in his averages of 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks in 23 games with Oklahoma City last year. In the first three games this year, Sefolosha has helped limit Sacramento’s Kevin Martin to 5-for-19 shooting, Gordon to 8-for-20 shooting and Portland’s Brandon Roy to a 5-for-17 clip. "Some guys are going to score 20 on our team, and some guys are going to stop the other guy from scoring 20,” Sefolosha said. "It’s just part of the job, and I’m happy if I can help my team this way.”
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