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Young Thunder show growth in Summer League

By Greg Auman, for
Posted Jul 9 2009 6:29AM

MAITLAND, Fla. -- This time last summer, they didn't have a home, didn't have a mascot, didn't even know their team colors.

This past season wasn't much better for the newly transplanted Oklahoma City Thunder, who changed coaches before Thanksgiving and won just three of their first 32 games.

But led by second-year stars Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, they went 20-30 the rest of the way and no franchise is putting more emphasis on the NBA Summer League than the Thunder, both in talent and a commitment to play in both Orlando and Las Vegas.

In a summer in which three NBA teams -- Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte -- aren't fielding Summer League squads, and two others (Philadelphia and New Jersey) are sharing a team, Oklahoma City is the only franchise playing in both leagues, hoping a combined three weeks of play will help forge a bond among a young nucleus.

"We take development very serious," said head coach Scott Brooks after watching a convincing 94-82 win Wednesday against the Celtics. "We've been getting after it all summer. ... This is important to all our guys to continue to establish good habits."

Oklahoma City's summer roster includes six first-round draft picks, including a pair of guards selected in the top five picks: second-year standout Russell Westbrook and rookie James Harden of Arizona State.

"The reason we're playing in both summer leagues is to take our team chemistry forward, so we can grow as a team," said Harden, who has averaged 15 points in three games. "Russell's getting to know his players. He has a pretty good sense of how Kevin and Jeff play, but he's getting to know the rookies and other guys."

There's another '09 first-rounder in center B.J. Mullens, and last year's first-rounder, center Serge Ibaka, who played last season in Spain. Another '08 first-rounder, power forward D.J. White, missed most of his rookie year recovering from jaw surgery, and there's three second-rounders who could sneak onto the regular-season roster.

"I think this is going to help a lot," said White, who had 16 points in Wednesday's victory and has averaged a team-best 5.7 rebounds this week. "Out of 12 guys, I think 10 of us are under contract with the team, and we're competing against some of the best guys."

Want a storyline? There's no better comeback story in Orlando this week than former lottery pick Shaun Livingston. He joined the Thunder in April after missing more than two years recovering from a brutal knee injury that saw him tear three ligaments and the lateral meniscus in his left knee.

Westbrook, 20, has the best NBA stats of anybody in Orlando, having averaged 15.3 points per game as a rookie out of UCLA last season. He sees the progress he's made since last year's summer games, and is impressed with what he's seen in Harden, the third pick in last month's draft.

"James is real smooth -- he does a lot of things," Westbrook said. "He's going to be good for us. He can shoot the ball real well. He also knows it's a learning process for him as well, so he can continue to learn and get better."

The players who endured last season's struggles can sense a difference from a year ago, a momentum they hope will carry over from Las Vegas next week to the upcoming season.

"This is kind of like the start of our season," Livingston said. "We're a young team, and this is crucial to forming our chemistry and really building something. They're really putting us in because they want us to start early -- we're in two summer leagues for a reason."

Game Action Notes

First-rounder Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina went 14-of-14 on free throws and had a game-high 24 points, combining with center Roy Hibbert to dominate the Utah frontcourt and keep Indiana as the league's only unbeaten team at 3-0. Hibbert had 21 points and eight rebounds, and it was a strong showing for Indiana second-rounder A.J. Price, the point guard from UConn, who had 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, going 24 minutes without a turnover. "A.J. Price I think could be the steal of the draft," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. Utah first-rounder Eric Maynor struggled from the field for the second day in a row, hitting 2 of 9 shots, and the Jazz were led by center James Augustine, who had 12 points in 18 minutes off the bench. Forward Josh Duncan had 10 points, his third straight double-digit game off the Jazz bench.

MAGIC 108, NETS/76ERS 86:
The Magic set a scoring record in eight years of summer-league games in Orlando, and hit 14 3-pointers on 25 attempts. Forward Ryan Anderson continued his strong play with 21 points, and guard Maurice Ager matched his 21 points, hitting 8 of 9 free throws. Brian Chase hit five 3-pointers for Orlando, while forward Kasib Powell hit four. The Nets/Sixers got a surprising 18 points off the bench from Temple grad Dionte Christmas, with Nets first-rounder Terrence Williams scoring 16 with four assists. Nets guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, among the league's top scorers coming in, took only one shot in 28 minutes and finished with five points.

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