FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Cole Aldrich made his professional debut, Serge Ibaka made a long-awaited appearance in the starting lineup and Byron Mullens made the most difficult plays look easy.
All three made the most of his minutes.
With the Thunder opening its 2010 preseason on Wednesday against Charlotte down two starters and one key reserve due to injuries and illness, it was the team's young trio of big men that strutted their stuff in a 97-93 win over the Bobcats inside Crown Coliseum.
Ibaka, starting at center in place of Nenad Krstic, scored 12 points and pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds for the game's lone double-double. The second-year post man showed solid shooting touch from the left block and the same relentless aggressiveness in the paint with a handful of putback dunks. Ibaka finished 5-for-13 from the field in 26 minutes.
Aldrich, the No. 11 overall pick from Kansas, didn't check in until 7:15 remained in the second quarter. But he quickly showed the ball-hound instincts that some of his teammates have raved about since the Orlando summer league. In just 19 minutes, Aldrich corralled seven rebounds, blocked one shot and made his presence felt with hard screens and all-out hustle.
"I just had a fun time," Aldrich said. "I had a little nerves, but we just go out and play hard...I'm just an energy guy. I just love going out and playing basketball and going after the ball. I'm just trying to go out and put a lid on the hoop and make sure defensively that we do a good job."
Mullens, meanwhile, got the fewest minutes of the three with just 14. But he scored four points, pulled down four rebounds and kept plays alive with his length. Most impressive, though, was his improvement in help-side defense and awareness in the team's defensive shell.
"We're just trying to do whatever we need to do to help the team win, which we did today with Nick and Nenad out," Mullens said. "When they come back we're still going to keep doing the same thing. We know our roles, and we know what to do."
Veteran reserve forward Nick Collison did not play because of a knee injury, and starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha did not travel with the team because of illness. In their absence, Brooks threw out a frontcourt of either Ibaka and Mullens or Aldrich and Ibaka for extended minutes. Both lineups gave the Thunder long, and athletic big men previously unseen in Oklahoma City.
"They were unbelievable," said Kevin Durant, who scored 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting in only 17 minutes. "Cole was unbelievable. He rebounded the basketball and covered the paint up. Byron as well. And Serge always does a great job with that stuff. That's what we're going to need from our big guys."