In-Game Minutes Key to Player Development

There are 240 available minutes for an NBA head coach to ration out throughout the course of a game. For a team that is successful, like the Thunder coming off a 60-win season, the challenge is doling out those minutes to young players who need to grow while staying competitive each night.

For the long term development of players in the NBA, nothing is better than getting on-court experience. That’s one reason why the Thunder organization has been so aggressive with its use of its D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, racking up the most assignments last season of any team in the NBA.

This year, Head Coach Scott Brooks is augmenting that strategy with court time for its young players in Thunder games as well. The organizational philosophy is to build homegrown talent and let young players assimilate into the core of the squad, and minutes on the floor, regardless of how many, are vital. Thus far, an emerging young core of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson have had chances to see live NBA action.

“It’s about just coming and doing your job every day and seeing where it takes us,” Brooks said. “They (young players) had a good month of training camp. They’ve had some good opportunities but the minutes will fluctuate. You have to be able to just focus on your minutes and make them very productive. I think our younger players have done that.”

For first-hand experience of just how essential getting that playing time within the flow of the rotation, in minutes that matter when the game isn’t already decided late in the fourth quarter, all the Thunder has to do is turn to Jackson. Last season the now-third-year point guard emerged from playing with the 66ers to being elevated to the backup point guard role, eventually to the starter when Russell Westbrook went down with an injury.

After performing admirably in a difficult position, Jackson broke through with more confidence, a higher skill level and better basketball IQ, which has served him well so far this season as he’s averaging 8.7 points, 4.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per contest now that he’s re-situated in his backup point guard slot.

“It’s just getting comfortable, having a sense that coach trusts you and getting experience,” Jackson said of the playing time he received last year. “We are a young team, so we’re going to need guys to step up, myself included. Getting out there and getting experiences and having the feeling that your teammates and coaches trust you makes everything easier and makes you just go out there and play more free flowing.”

“There were valuable lessons that he has learned that you can’t learn until you get that opportunity,” Brooks said of Jackson. “Now he’s back to that original role that we had him at, he’s going to do a very good job with it.”

With Jackson’s development as one example, the Thunder has employed a similar strategy with its other young players like Lamb, Jones and Adams, which is aided by the fact that Brooks treats each player the same way, regardless of age. Lamb has been effective, scoring 9.8 points per game in 18.5 minutes while shooting 40 percent from three-point range as a part of the Thunder’s second unit.

Jones has been a positive addition to the rotation, making an impact in a variety of areas on the floor. A player who can gel into any lineup because of his rare mixture of size, speed, length and athleticism, Jones has the ability to defend multiple positions and stymie smaller guards with his wingspan and quickness.

“I want him to show his activity,” Brooks said of Jones. “He’s very athletic. We need to see that every possession. That’s something I tell him to focus on. Show your activity with your athleticism. He’s done a good job with that. He’s on the right path of getting better with the work he puts in. He’s a great kid who gives everything he has.”

Adams has brought physicality to his role in the backup center position, working in concert with Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka to body up against opposing big men. Still a raw, 20-year old player, Adams will have ups and downs throughout the season, but has shown promise with his ability to catch and finish near the rim, in addition to his efforts rebounding efforts in traffic.

“I just focus on his energy and his effort and his desire to get better every day,” Brooks said of Adams. “It’s there. He has a motor. He’s very active… There’s a learning curve, but it’s ongoing but he’s willing to accept that there’s a curve and he has to improve in those areas.”

Veterans like Collison understand that thrusting these players into the rotation isn’t just an experiment or a test run, but an essential part of the Thunder’s team-building efforts this season and into the future. The Thunder’s stated goal is to be a different, better team come April than it is right now in November, and discovering now which ways these young players can impact the game and what they need to improve upon will be important as the spring rolls around.

“Those guys need opportunity to figure out what it is that they can do to affect the game,” Collison explained. “The minutes are good. They’ve worked hard and they’ve earned it. Our young guys have done a really good job.”

When the time comes this spring and hopefully beyond for the Thunder, Brooks may have choices to make about which players stick in the rotation and which lineup combinations and player groupings are used in high-level contests. Facilitating the growth process, particularly early in the season, will give Brooks more information and better options as the season progresses. The bevy of confidence and comfortable players he has at his disposal will allow him to be flexible in selecting which ever-ready players he wants to see on the court based on the matchups that will produce the most success.

“I want guys to play their minutes with quality in mind,” Brooks said. “Some games guys are going to get 15-20 minutes, some games they might get 30-40 minutes. You just have to focus on playing your minutes well to put yourself in the position to earn those minutes in the game.”

“It’s a league that you have to make some tough decisions,” Brooks concluded. “But it’s good to have those decisions to make because it means you have a pretty good team.”