In Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about the Thunder’s unique use of its D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers, and how that progressive style of player development could threaten college basketball in some ways. You can read that here.
In reporting on the story, I chatted with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the benefits of his franchise’s relationship with Tulsa, how it’s grown over time and what experiences stand out. Here’s the transcript:
Tulsa is just an extension of the Thunder organization. We see it as all encompassing and integrated with what we are striving to build in Oklahoma City. It has been a vital aspect to our organization in that it represents the concept of development for both players and staff and we believe that this is integral to building a sustainable model in Oklahoma City.
How has your relationship with Tulsa grown over time?
As with anything that you want to endure and thrive it takes time and I would like to think that we have learned a little bit from each season and each experience that we have had over the years. Each season we have improved our processes with the aim being to build a synergy that connects both programs by our core values. We are constantly learning through this experience, which is of course part of development, so this is somewhat symbolic of the role it plays for our organization.
How much of an advantage is it for young players, who may not be NBA ready, to get professional experience (shot clock, living on their own, etc.)?
Every player has a different pathway to success, every player has a different arc to their development, so we think a lot of it is about timing and purpose for the experience. There is no question that adjusting to the NBA rules, and more specifically to our system of play, is an invaluable opportunity for the players that are in Tulsa. However, as much as can be accomplished during the games, you cannot discount the development work that occurs by way of video sessions, performance training, analytics work, and adjusting to the grind of the schedule. The coaches and performance staff we have had over the years in Tulsa have really taken advantage of the opportunity to try new things and test prevailing methods. I think this has really helped them as professionals in terms of finding their own voice so to speak while also advancing our thinking as an organization.
From a league-wide perspective, how have you seen the D-League evolve and how should it continue to expand and better itself?
It has grown immensely, primarily as a result of the NBA teams and their attempts to figure out the best ways to use the resource and adjust to the current rules. At this stage I think the league itself has some work to do in order to catch up with how the teams are operating and innovating. The teams are ready to advance the league, but the infrastructure has to be there to support those advancements and initiatives. Once some of that ground is made up and there is clarity of purpose, I think you will see a big leap forward for the D-League as an entity and as a supplemental brand to the NBA.
(Quick note: Presti declined to give specific advancements he thought should be made. But in doing research for this story, it just seems the league should move more toward the MLB system, though at a far smaller scale. Have an active roster and then some minor league players you can automatically control under your umbrella. The way the system is now, it can complicate things. Take Grant Jerrett for example. The Thunder traded for his draft rights last June and, if he were to play in the NBA this season, it would have to be for the Thunder. But in order to get him in the system in Tulsa, OKC had to re-draft him in the D-League draft. If another D-League team had selected him before Tulsa could, Jerrett would have had to play elsewhere and the Thunder wouldn’t have been able to control his development process, despite owning his rights.)
Is there one experience that stands out thus far?
I think it would be natural to point to the impact that Reggie (Jackson), Perry (Jones), and Jeremy (Lamb) are having for us right now, or the growth of people like (head coaches) Nate (Tibbetts), Dale (Osbourne) and Darko (Rajakovic), but I would have to say that the experience we had with Shaun Livingston (back in 2008-09) was very meaningful on a multitude of levels. This was a player that was battling so hard to come back from an injury, and the resilience and humility he showed by accepting our offer to help him get started on his road back by buying into Tulsa really jumpstarted the program. It clarified and advanced our purpose in that development is a true process, and we want to be part of that process for players and for Tulsa to be a place that players improve and get better regardless of standing within the basketball landscape. We feel like if our intention is far reaching in that way, we only stand to learn more about how to help the players and in turn that experience stays with the Thunder, and can be applied to our own players and our own organic approach to building and sustaining a team and organization.
Anything else worth mentioning about your Tulsa experience?
Our investment in Tulsa was made on the basis of learning and investing in an area that we believed would be an important aspect to developing a sustainable organization. With that said, it’s our hope that the coming years create more opportunities for growth and learning given the attention it will command from the league office and the importance it can play in altering things at the NBA level such as the draft, roster size, injury prevention, video analysis, and many other areas of advancement for the game. Additionally, it is very fertile ground for the development of business operations personnel and I don’t think it will be long before you start seeing some great business executives matriculating from the D-League into advanced positions within teams due to the leadership and multifaceted experience that can be gained within the D-League. All in all, we see still see the long term benefits of our investment from 2008 as yet to come even though we have already experienced accelerated benefits on the floor.