This was supposed to be the perfect place for Daniel Orton.
Yet in his first season with the Thunder last year, the former Bishop McGuinness standout couldn't get off the bench. He appeared in 13 games, three fewer than he experienced the year before in Orlando. He played 104 total minutes.
“Interesting,” Orton labeled year one in Thunder land, his third in the NBA.
Now, as he begins his fourth season with Saturday's preseason opener from Istanbul, Turkey, Orton can only hope this go-round will be different.
“I feel like opportunity is the main thing in my career … not having the opportunity and not having the chance,” Orton said.
Out of 230 regular-season games in his first three years, Orton has played in only 29. A knee injury he sustained while playing in the NBA D-League as a rookie forced him to miss all 82 games in 2010-11 and postponed his debut with the Magic.
He's played just 291 minutes since, the equivalent of about 12 games for starting center Kendrick Perkins.
“So many instances in my life I've been given chances, like in high school and college,” Orton said. “I just feel I haven't been given that chance yet in the pros. Just kinda waiting for my moment.”
Orton has done all he can think of to be prepared whenever it comes. He remained in Oklahoma City for much of the summer, dragging himself to the gym, determined to fine-tune his game.
“It wasn't a very eventful summer,” he says. “But a lot of hard work went into it.”
That commitment to consistency is one of the things Orton says he's learned through his trying three seasons. Asked where he's grown most, Orton says maturity.
“Understanding that I can't always do things my way,” he said. “I have to buckle down and listen and go through the process.”
The process, slow as it may be, could be starting to pay off.
After a solid 2012-13 season in the D-League — where he averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots for the Tulsa 66ers — Orton strung together an impressive performance at the Orlando Pro Summer League in July. Before sustaining a mild concussion, Orton posted averages of 12 points, five rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots in three games. He averaged just 16.7 minutes.
His movements were fluid. His explosions were powerful. His touch was feathery.
It was a performance that led some Thunder fans to believe Orton is unquestionably the best center on the roster.
But the reality is Orton might be fourth string.
After serving as the third center behind Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet last season, Orton now has to battle 12th overall pick Steven Adams for time. With the Thunder using a high lottery pick and thus a guaranteed contract on Adams, the odds are stacked against Orton. Additionally, making anybody's team as a fourth center in today's small-ball craze is a challenge within itself.
Orton has seven exhibition games to prove he belongs.
“He's very, very talented,” said Perkins, who following the team's first day of practice last week pulled Orton aside to offer defensive tidbits. “You watch him day in, day out and he works hard. If he gets a shot, he just needs to go out there and do what he needs to do … You never know who's watching. So at the end of the day you got to go out there and perform.”
Said Orton: “Obviously, it's something the coaches just haven't seen what they wanted to see.”
Orton reached out to former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy after he was fired to inquire why he barely got of the bench in Orlando.
“He said, ‘I thought Earl Clark was better,'” Orton recalled. “I said ‘I can't argue with that.' He thought I needed to get better in certain areas, so I'm not going to disagree with him.”
Orton's goal now is to be a better defender. He wants to defend the pick and roll as well as he knocks down jumpers out of it.
After three years, he feels he's finally found the right attitude, approach and self-assurance.
Of course, he still needs that opportunity.