Training Camp Invitees Trying to Carve Path to NBA

They’re more than just extra bodies or players without guaranteed contracts.

The four players the Thunder invited to training camp – Longar Longar, Elijah Millsap, Jerome Dyson and Demond “Tweety” Carter – were brought here because the Thunder saw something in each of them. While the Thunder already has 15 guaranteed contracts, the league max, there was a lot more time and effort spent in bringing in Longar, Millsap, Dyson and Carter than one would think.

The process for assembling the training camp roster actually began almost a year ago, when the Thunder front office scouted college games, NBA D-League games, international competition and eventually draft combines, workouts and the most recent pro summer leagues. They keep track of hundreds of players and when it comes time to offer training camp invitations, they select from a pool of players who they feel will fit with the organization’s philosophy and core values both on and off the court.

Whether or not their dreams come to fruition, there’s no shortage of confidence amongst all four camp invitees. And, not coincidentally, each believes strongly in their ability to make a mark on the defensive end, which is a big reason why they’re here in the first place.

Here’s a glimpse of training camp from their perspective.

SAGE ADVICE
If Elijah Millsap ever needs an example of how to persevere when the odds are stacked against you, all he has to do is look to his older brother Paul, who has carved himself a nice role with the Utah Jazz after nearly getting passed up on draft night a few years ago.

Through the first week of training camp as an undrafted rookie out of UAB, Elijah Millsap said his older brother gave him one piece of advice that still resonates with him.

“His main message has been to go out and take no prisoners,” Millsap said. “Just attack and don’t hold back.”

Millsap has done just that and then some. And he’s continued to receive a steady stream of advice from Kevin Durant ever since he arrived in Oklahoma City.

“He’s been working with me a lot on my defense, showing me things, little different tricks that he does on the offensive end, how to use your shoulder, how to defend great scorers,” Millsap said. “Things like that. The other day he was in the film room watching film with me and telling me my mistakes that I was making on defense and how he knew what plays to make on offense by the way I was guarding him. He’s been a real inspiration showing me how to defend the better guys in the league.”

Millsap came here wired like the rest of the Thunder in that he enjoys the defensive end. At 6-5, he grabbed 9.5 rebounds per game as a junior at UAB. Asked how he did it, Millsap simply stated that he has a nose for the ball and that he loves attacking the boards.

Defensively, Millsap said he tries to pattern himself after players like Thabo Sefolosha, Ron Artest and Luc Richard Mba a Moute. And Millsap said he’s relying on his defense to make a name for himself at camp.

“What got me to this point, just rebounding, finding the ball, trying to get loose balls and guard guys like Kevin Durant, trying to contain him and make him shoot tough shots,” he said. “You know he’s going to get the ball, you know he’s going to score…You’ve just got to go out here and give it all you’ve got.”

A PROUD DEFENDER
As a junior at the University of Connecticut, Jerome Dyson started earning praise from coach Jim Calhoun for his perimeter defense. By the end of his senior season, after successfully bouncing back from a knee injury, Dyson was named the National Comeback Player of the Year by the Sporting News.

Now, in his first NBA training camp, Dyson has brought that defensive mentality and grit to Oklahoma City.

“I feel like I can go out there and guard pretty much anybody from the one to the two,” he said. “So that’s what I try to bring to practice, just my defensive strength and my quickness and ability to get to the basket and find the open man.”

Dyson came here somewhat familiar with the Thunder organization.

A native of Potomac, Md., he played on the same AAU team, the D.C. Blue Devils, as Thunder forward Kevin Durant. And after playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers Las Vegas Summer League team, Dyson returned to Storrs to attend Calhoun’s annual charity basketball game. It was there that he ran into former Thunder guard Kevin Ollie, who told Dyson what to expect should he come to Oklahoma City.

“He said just to come up here and work hard, (that) this is a great organization and they’re a very defensive oriented team,” Dyson recalled.

Through the first week of camp, the biggest adjustment that Dyson’s made has been on the defensive end.

“The help defense is big in the NBA and we really didn’t have to play that much help defense because you’re able to play zone in college,” he said. “I’ve been learning a lot these last five, six practices.”

One thing Dyson is sure about is that he’s the fastest player in camp.

“Russell’s the only one that might give me a problem,” he admitted.

A POINT GUARD’S PERSPECTIVE
Imagine getting invited to training camp to serve as the third point guard behind the likes of Russell Westbrook, a gold medalist and former lottery pick, and Eric Maynor, a first-round pick from a year ago.

Imagine the team going through offensive sets on the court and when it’s finally your turn to run the show, there can’t be any drop off, any slippage. Imagine trying to be the guy who doesn’t stick out for the wrong reasons.

Demond “Tweety” Carter is that guy in training camp, and the only way he’s been able to fill in for Westbrook and Maynor is by putting in extra time with the playbook. When he returns to his hotel room after each practice, his playbook comes with him.

“I take some plays home to get used to the plays, just to see them,” Carter said. “When Westbrook is running them and it’s my turn to come up, I’m not behind. I’m not wondering where to go. I know where to go already. Him running it helps me see it more but the night before is very important for me.”

After becoming the all-time scoring leader in U.S. history for high school basketball players – Carter played varsity both in seventh and eighth grade in his hometown of New Orleans – the 5-11 guard had a successful four-year career at Baylor, where he was named to the coaches All-Big 12 Third Team, the Big 12 All-Improved Team and a fourth team All-American honor by the Sporting News.

In the span of a few months, Carter went from going up against the best guards in the Big 12 to facing Westbrook on a daily basis.

“It’s a big difference,” Carter said. “You’re seeing the pros. And like I said, just being able to pay attention to detail and the spots on the floor, knowing where to be on the floor, it plays a big part on this level.”

Whether he’s on or off the court, Carter said there’s a certain comfort level he feels with his teammates. Here’s how Carter described his first impression of the organization:

“The family atmosphere, the love that you feel when you walk through those doors – you don’t find that too many places,” he said. “I haven’t been to too many places but coming here is a family atmosphere. It’s fun to be around. And they make you to learn, make you want to come here and work hard.”

THE LOCAL GUY
First he was stunned, then he felt a wave of excitement come over him. When Longar Longar’s agent called to tell him that the Thunder extended an invitation his way to training camp, the former University of Oklahoma center couldn’t believe it.

“I’m only 25 minutes away,” Longar said. “I just drove up here and checked in. It was great news. I thanked them for a great opportunity to come in and compete with these guys, be able to just learn things that I don’t know about, the NBA game. And I’m trying to pick it up as fast as I can.”

In a three minute interview with reporters earlier this week, Longar used the word “intense” about half a dozen times when asked to describe the various components of his first NBA training camp.

When he entered the Thunder’s practice facility for the first time, it was like walking into a factory. Everyone was hard at work.

“You don’t see guys sitting around,” Longar said. “It’s either you’re on the treadmill, in the weight room or on the court. It stood out real fast and it rubbed off on me real quick and I was able to follow whatever they were doing, so I’m real excited about that.”

At 6-11, Longar prides himself on the defensive end. He led the Sooners in rebounding as a junior and in blocks as a senior. He played 11 games in the NBA Development League last season, splitting time between the Los Angeles Defenders and Bakersfield Jam, finishing with averages of 7.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.

With Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic nursing injuries through the first week of camp, Longar has found more opportunities on the court.

“Everything is intense. Even the assistant coaches, they’ll grab you right before practice, working on your hook shot, your jump shot, everything,” Longar said. “It’s just an intense environment. I couldn’t ask for anything more than this.”

While Longar, Millsap, Dyson and Carter each share the same dream of making an NBA roster, another sentiment they share is their fondness of the Thunder organization. Millsap, for one, wasn’t sure how he would be received in the locker room as a training camp invitee. Like Dyson could attest, it really wasn’t much of a concern shortly after they arrived here.

“It’s a great place,” Dyson said. “Everyone gets along. I’ve made some relationships with a lot of people. It’s very team-oriented. You just see everybody get along and everybody comes to work every day.”

Contact Chris Silva