Hasheem Thabeet has had a towering presence his entire life, and a recent visit to Houchin Elementary in Moore was no different as he unfurled himself from inside the Rolling Thunder Book Bus.
At 7-foot-3, Thabeet is the tallest active player in the NBA. He also is the tallest player in Thunder history and the tallest in franchise history, edging out Tom Burleson, James Donaldson and Rich King of the Seattle SuperSonics, who all measured 7-foot-2.
The problem is the 263-pound Thabeet has come up small his first three NBA seasons, which has many wondering exactly how big of a deal he'll be for the Thunder.
Thabeet was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. He was chosen between power forward Blake Griffin of Oklahoma and shooting guard James Harden of Arizona State, both of whom have excelled since their arrival.
Working in Thabeet's favor is the fact he comes to OKC by choice.
A native of the Republic of Tanzania and a collegiate product at Connecticut, Thabeet had no say in his three previous pro stops. The Memphis Grizzlies drafted him and eventually traded him to the Houston Rockets, who dealt him to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Three teams in three years equaled no fun and little success.
“Definitely this is a great opportunity for me,” Thabeet said. “Every situation in the past doesn't really matter. The present is what I've got to face. I've got to deal with what I can control, come in and work hard and just be a part of the team.
“It's another situation, so I've got to come in with a different mentality and be ready to work hard.”
OKC acquired Thabeet as a free agent with little financial risk. The Thunder signed him to a deal that guarantees him $1.2 million this season. After that, it's non-guaranteed at $1.2 million in 2013-14 and $1.25 million in 2014-15.
“Young players, as we've seen, they all develop at different rates in different situations,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said after Thabeet signed July 11. “I wouldn't make any judgments based on two or three years. I think we have to allow that process to take its course and allow him to continue his development and see where things lead after his time with the Thunder.”
Thabeet has been working out at the Thunder practice facility throughout the summer and occasionally has gone through drills with fellow centers Cole Aldrich and offseason signee Daniel Orton, a former Bishop McGuinness High School standout.
OKC starting center Kendrick Perkins has spent time at the practice facility, rehabbing offseason surgeries to his groin and left wrist. Perkins said the groin is “fine.” The wrist is still healing and just began the final month of an anticipated three-month rehab process.
Though there is no official depth chart at center, the logical pecking order is Perkins-Aldrich-Thabeet-Orton. There was a void at the No. 2 spot when OKC chose not to re-sign free agent veteran Nazr Mohammed this summer.
With Perkins still on the mend for several more weeks, the Thunder's seven-game preseason schedule figures to serve as a proving ground for Aldrich, Thabeet and Orton.
Training camp begins Oct. 2, and OKC opens the regular season on Nov. 1 at San Antonio.
As long as Perkins is physically capable, he's the starter, and he let that be known after a Thunder Fit clinic at Deer Creek Middle School last Wednesday.
“We're all teammates, but at the end of the day, the center position over here is mine and that's the way we're going to keep it,” said Perkins, wearing a brace on his left wrist. “Any other way, backup minutes or whatever they want to go about, that's their problem. Once I hit the court, I'm going to make it known — and it's going to be known — that that's mine.
“It's no beef, but at the end of the day, that's what it is.”
Though only 27, Perkins is entering his 10th NBA season. He became the Boston Celtics' regular starting center at age 21.
“It's going to be interesting,” Perkins said of the battle to be his reserve. “Guys are really going to be battling for minutes. We've got a lot of talent.”
Based on 36 minutes per game, Thabeet's career averages are a respectable 7.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots. That's comparable to Perkins' career averages of 9.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes.
Trouble is, Thabeet has only averaged 10.3 minutes in 135 career games, which is why his averages sit at 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks.
“I'm happy with what I can do any time I step out there,” Thabeet said. “I'm not worrying about anything I can't control. What I can control is to work hard, be a good teammate, listen to the coaches and come in ready to work.”
From the outside looking in, Thabeet said he viewed the Thunder as “a bunch of young, talented guys who like to compete. I like to compete.”
Thabeet said he is confident he can contribute to the Thunder.
“Oh definitely,” said a smiling Thabeet. “I'm young (25) and getting better every day. I've got a ways to go. I'm not where I want to be yet and only time will tell.”
Thabeet's sheer mass fits well into the Thunder's defense-minded approach.
“As a young player, at 25 years old, he's really just beginning,” Presti said in July. “We've always looked at everybody's body of work and how we feel like our organization can put them in positions to be successful. Clearly, we feel like there's an opportunity to impact Hasheem's development, but that's going to be a process.”
Thunder reserve center Hasheem Thabeet ranks among the tallest players in NBA history at 7-foot, 3 inches. A look the big guys:
7 feet, 7 inches: Gheorghe Muresan (1993-2000); Manute Bol (1985-94)
7 feet, 6.55 inches: Slavko Vranes (2004)
7 feet, 6 inches: Shawn Bradley (1993-2005); Yao Ming (2002-11)
7 feet, 5 inches: Chuck Nevitt (1982-93); Pavel Podkolzin (2004-06)
7 feet, 4 inches: Mark Eaton (1982-93); Rik Smits (1988-2000); Ralph Sampson (1983-92); Priest Lauderdale (1996-98)
7 feet, 3 inches: Randy Breuer (1983-93); Keith Closs (1997-2000); Swede Halbrook (1960-62); Zydrunas Ilgauskas (1997-2011); Aleksander Radojevic (1999-2000; 2004-05); Peter John Ramos (2004-05); Arvydas Sabonis (1995-2003); Ha Seung-Jin (2005-06); Hasheem Thabeet (2009-present)