66ers Grew from Reno Showcase Experience

The benefits of the Thunder’s connection with the Tulsa 66ers are becoming more visible each and every day.

While the parent club was heading to Los Angeles in advance of Friday night’s matchup against the Lakers, three of the Thunder’s youngest players were gaining valuable playing time and experience in Reno, NV. The D-League Showcase was held in Nevada from January 7-10, and it was a great opportunity for 66ers Head Coach Darko Rajakovic and his club to improve their game and demonstrate their skills along with the rest of the D-League teams.

The 66ers played two games in Reno, going 1-1 to put its season record to 9-8, while also sweeping the skills competitions as Andy Rautins won the three-point shooting contest and Dominique Sutton won the slam dunk contest. Regardless of wins and losses, Rajakovic and his staff were pleased with the attitude, effort and commitment their players have taken to their personal development. All of that energy was put on display this week in Reno.

“For most of our guys on our team, this was the first time to participate in a showcase and to be part of an event like this,” Rajakovic said. “Overall we played good basketball. Offensively I think we did a very good job and we’re improving offensively… What we need to work on is build our confidence on defense and that helps everybody to have less pressure on offense.”

On Tuesday the 66ers beat the Maine Red Claws by a count of 105-93, then the team fell 121-115 to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants on Thursday afternoon. The constant in both games was the play of Thunder rookie Jeremy Lamb, who compiled 25.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game on 51.4 percent shooting.

Throughout this season Lamb has played in 11 games for the 66ers as he’s hopped up I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Over the course of the past few months, Lamb has shown progress and has put up 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 91 percent free throw shooting, all of which have impressed his coaches.

“We can see development in his game every single time he comes from OKC to our team,” Rajakovic said. “He’s working really hard to improve his defense and he’s a really good rebounder. He helped us on both ends of the court and I think that he’s playing faster and he’s making his decisions faster. He’s more physical from the start of the start of the season until now. I think his improvement is huge.”

The Thunder’s other rookie, Perry Jones, scored 11 points and snagged eight rebounds in the 66ers win over Maine on Tuesday and for the season has racked up 14.2 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 47.2 percent from the field in his ten games with Tulsa. Jones was the Thunder’s own selection with the 28th pick in the 2012 Draft, and he has dedicated time and energy both in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to hone a variety of aspects of his game.

“We’re focused with him to improve his defense, improve his rebounding,” Rajakovic said. “It is part of the process and the important thing is that he’s focused and aware of what he needs to work on or what he needs to improve… He’s still learning the NBA game and I think that he’s really getting better and he’s trying to improve.”

Daniel Orton was the third Thunder player to play with the 66ers at the D-League Showcase, and his 25-point, five steal effort on Tuesday against Maine was impressive because of his efficiency (9-for-12 shooting) and physicality on both ends of the floor. The Thunder big man has spent 15 games with the 66ers while still having the opportunity to practice at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center under Head Coach Scott Brooks’ tutelage.

For the year, Orton is averaging 11.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 49.1 percent shooting, but it is his intensity and the way he has been locked in that has impressed Rajakovic the most.

“He’s more focused on his goals and his overall improvement on offense,” Rajakovic said. “He has started to realize all of the benefits of playing in the D-League and also working out with our coaches in OKC. He’s getting better, he’s being more physical.”

Thunder guard/forward DeAndre Liggins was with the Thunder during this week, but has played six games for the 66ers this season. Two of the Thunder’s training camp invitees however, Hollis Thompson and Andy Rautins, both showed their shooting prowess in Reno and have been averaging double figures in points this season. The 66ers roster is full of players who are both talented and dedicated. As a result, Rajakovic has loved every minute of his first year as the squad’s head coach, highlighted by the this week’s Showcase in Reno.

“I really enjoy coaching those guys and seeing their development and how they invest a lot of time on the court and off the court to get better,” Rajakovic said. “We’re watching a lot of video, we’re dedicating a lot of time talking to our guys and trying to develop their game. They’re very receptive and we get results in their overall improvement.”