by Scott Stanchak, NBA D-League.com
It’s all a matter of perception.
Some young NBA players view being sent to the D-League as a demotion, a knock against their skills that they’re not ready for the big time. Others believe the experience will only help their games mature.
Cole Aldrich is in the latter category.
“It’s cool just getting this experience,” Aldrich said of his time with the Tulsa 66ers. “I think it’s helped a lot. With the help of the guys on this team, I’ll continue to learn a lot more.”
The New Orleans Hornets selected Aldrich 11th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. New Orleans then traded his rights to Oklahoma City for two late first-rounders. The Thunder had been looking for a young, defensive-minded center to compliment its 22-year-old stars, forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook.
Aldrich was a defensive star at the University of Kansas. In three seasons, the 6-foot-11, 245-pounder averaged 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. After he was bestowed with All-American honors at the completion of his junior season, Aldrich decided to go pro.
“It’s been a blast. The guys on the (Thunder) are one big family,” Aldrich said. “It’s really easy to make the transition from college to the league and team.”
Despite only seven months on the job as an NBA player, Aldrich has already seen major disparities between the college and pro games.
“We played a tough schedule at Kansas. We played a number of good players. This is a different game though,” Aldrich said. “The schemes are different, there’s more spacing on the floor. People think that there’s not any defense in the league, but the offense is so good and the defense is good, but the offense is just better.”
Nenad Krstic has started 33 of the Thunder’s 42 games at center this season. Serge Ibaka’s been out there for tipoff 18 times. Clearly, coach Scott Brooks has depth at the position. But Aldrich figures to fit into Oklahoma City’s future because Kristic has one year left on his deal after this season and Ibaka could always play the four.
Because of this logjam, Aldrich was forced to spend many games on the bench. In just seven appearances – totaling just over seven minutes – the 22-year-old averaged about a point and rebound. On Nov. 24, 2010, Thunder management decided it would be best to send Aldrich to their NBA D-League affiliate in Tulsa.
“I was excited. Everybody thinks it’s a demotion and it’s this and that. I just use it as a learning experience,” Aldrich said. “I can come down and I can play and just have fun. A lot of these guys went to training camp with us so we know them pretty well. I knew I was going to have a lot of fun.”
Since joining Tulsa, Aldrich is getting the time on the floor he had hoped for in Oklahoma City. In 15 games, he’s averaging 9.3 points, 2.5 blocks and 7.7 rebounds in 28.4 minutes.
Aldrich says despite being away from his Thunder teammates, they all still remain in touch.
“I talk to a lot of the guys on the team all the time,” he said. “Kevin and I text all the time, and a few other guys on the team, too. It’s just a big family. It’s really warm.”
While Aldrich’s primary goal is to get a call-up to Oklahoma City, his focus remains in Tulsa. At 19-6, the 66ers have the best record in the league and they are in the midst of an 11-game winning streak.
“I’m just having a fun time with the guys here. We have a great winning streak going right now; we’re playing great defense; we’re just having a lot of fun. Whenever the opportunity comes, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
It would appear Aldrich has already mastered one of the steps that will help him return to the NBA: a positive attitude.