12) Oklahoma City Thunder: Kelly Olynyk, PF/C, Gonzaga
Basic Stats: 17.8 PPG, 7.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 BLK
For all the accolades and recognition that are bestowed upon Thunder general manager Sam Presti, his track record doesn’t quite match at every turn. Oklahoma City has made the right moves to build a championship contender, but also was fortunate to fall into the ‘right-place, right-time’ situation in three straight draft years from 2007-2009 (picking up Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden).
Outside of those core pieces, Presti used a late 1st rounder to snag Serge Ibaka, who has become a critical piece for the Thunder. After a battle against the veteran and mighty Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, OKC was expected to lick its wounds and make that next leap to winning titles. However, given the team’s position in a small market, ownership decided against paying the luxury tax following this season. With Westbrook and Durant already locked up to max contracts, the decision had to be made between defensive menace Ibaka and the offensive dynamo Harden. Presti concluded that with ball handling and scoring already in place, defense would be more important to maintain status as a contender. Harden was flipped a year early (to maximize return) to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and Toronto’s 1st round pick.
Additionally the team moved Eric Maynor for essentially nothing in return, and had little depth behind the starting five. These personnel decisions did not manifest during the regular season, as OKC took the league by storm, winning the West and leading the league in average point differential (outscored opponents by over 9 per game). However, when the playoffs hit and Westbrook went down with a knee injury in Game 3 vs. the Rockets, the Thunder had nothing to show for years of player development and free agency. Durant was a one-man show, Kendrick Perkins (who was flipped for Jeff Green a few years before, as Presti did not recognize the emergence of small-ball) may have well been wrapped in a coffin, and Ibaka was unable to shoulder any additional responsibility. The Thunder got by the Rockets, but was steamrolled by a physical, more talented Grizzlies team in Round 2.
So now the Thunder has to decide which direction to go in as a team. Westbrook should return healthy next season, and they should have no problem returning as one of the West’s dominant teams. However, it probably should be noted that a team with real championship aspirations in 2014 shouldn’t hope for Derek Fisher to be a key piece to get them there. Reggie Jackson is an emerging talent, and OKC should be able to determine what they can expect from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones next season. But with Perkins all but wearing a shirt that says ‘AMENSTY CANDIDATE’ in all caps, help is clearly needed in the front court. Teams that rely too heavily on perimeter scoring can fall victim when those shots begin to dry up. The Thunder should use this draft to address a low post presence, and I believe the right selection is Kelly Olynyk from Gonzaga.
One of the most productive players in the country last season, Olynyk put up nearly 18 points and over 7 rebounds a game in just over 26 minutes per game of action. His PER was a mind-boggling 36.2, which led the country and the Bulldogs scored 127 points per 100 possessions with Olynyk on the court (also giving up just 89 points/100 in that same scenario). He also was tops in the nation in win shares and at 7 feet tall could even step back and hit the 3 on occasion. No one would ever accuse Olynyk of being an athletic specimen, but that may actually prove to be in his advantage at the next level. Given his extreme craftiness on the offensive side of the ball, Olynyk never relied on athleticism to get it done in college, so it shouldn’t be a concern that he won’t match up physically in the NBA. With Ibaka helping weak-side in the post, Olynyk can also focus on defending his man straight up and boxing out for rebounds. He needs to improve that facet of his game, but I expect that to come with learning from one of the league’s best players in Kevin Durant (also, KD’s increased rebounding presence will take some pressure off Olynyk to come in and dominate the glass right away).
A three man rotation at the 4/5 of Olynyk, Ibaka, and Nick Collison will give the Thunder versatility to play any kind of scheme that they are facing because all pose a threat from the outside, and can run the pick-and-roll extremely well.
A healthy Westbrook, a deeper bench, and better frontcourt play will put the Thunder back where they assumed they’d never leave just a year ago; vying for an NBA championship (or at least 2nd place to LeBron James). Kelly Olynyk is the pick here, which means that maybe OKC fans can learn the meaning of points in the paint from someone other than #35 or #0.