Tulsa 66ers Vital to Sustaining Thunder’s Success

By all indications, the Tulsa 66ers’ 2012-13 season was a prosperous and beneficial year on and off the court. The team went 27-23 in the regular season and advanced to the second round of the NBA D-League Playoffs, both marks of a positive year.

With regards to what the Thunder hopes to gain from its Tulsa affiliate, however, this year may have been its most successful yet.

The 66ers as a standalone organization has thrived in its own right, entertaining the crowd at Bixby’s Spirit Bank Event Center on a nightly basis while playing “Thunder” basketball thanks to the tutelage of the coaching staff led by Darko Rajakovic.

With a roster that had a balance of veterans like Rasual Butler, Thunder training camp invitees like Andy Rautins and Hollis Thompson and Thunder players like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, DeAndre Liggins and Daniel Orton, the 66ers played an exciting yet disciplined style of basketball all season.

In the eyes of General Manager Sam Presti, the Tulsa 66ers program is also an integral instrument the Thunder can use to tackle the most challenging aspect of running an NBA franchise – sustaining success over time. Finding ways to bring young players along and incorporate them into a high-performing environment while maintaining the organization’s standards on and off the court is crucial to being competitive year over year.

“(Tulsa has) been an invaluable tool for us,” Presti said. “I feel like this season was our best season in Tulsa in terms of the overall process and the overall system, and it’s taken us five years to get it to the point in which we feel like there is a nice replica of what we’re trying to accomplish there.”

Player development has always been a core component to the Thunder’s program, and with the 66ers as a device, the organization has the opportunity to allow young players to get playing time even if they aren’t in the Thunder’s rotation. This season the Thunder’s two rookies, Lamb and Jones, had entrenched players in front of them in the lineup. With the chance to play 21 and 15 games for the 66ers respectively, Lamb and Jones gained valuable game experience in between practices with the Thunder.

“I embraced it,” Lamb said. “We had a good season down there. We ended up making the playoffs and made it to the second round. I think going down there was good for all of us who went because we were able to do the things that we did in the workouts in a game like situation. That was huge for us.”

“I think it was great,” Jones explained. “It had me prepared for a lot of games and when the coaches put me in, I was ready to play. In the D-League there are a lot of older guys. It is just like playing in the NBA. There are a lot of good guys in the D-League. There just isn’t enough space in the NBA.”

While with the 66ers, Lamb averaged 21.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 49 percent from the field in his 32.8 minutes per game, while Jones notched 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 32.5 minutes per game.

That playing time in the D-League allows players to stay ready in case their number is called with their NBA team. A perfect example from this season came in the form of Reggie Jackson, who recorded 28.0 points, 8.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field and playing 38 minutes per game in his three early-season contests with the 66ers.

Shortly thereafter, Jackson joined the Thunder’s regular rotation as the team’s backup point guard. Eventually, he became a starter in the Playoffs after Russell Westbrook sustained a knee injury. In reflecting on the season, Jackson was astonished by just how far he had come in just one season. He noted that his experience early in the year with Tulsa helped boost his confidence, which carried him through the year.

That self-assurance is another real benefit players can gain from playing with the 66ers. Orton and Liggins, who were drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2010 and 2011 respectively, had the chance to see some playing time and get themselves into a confidence-building rhythm.

Orton started all 29 games he played with the 66ers, scoring 12.5 points and adding 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals in 28.2 minutes per game while shooting 53 percent from the field. Liggins, meanwhile, played in 19 games and averaged 11.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 34.2 minutes.

The gritty wing defender had a fantastic debut with the 66ers by recording 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists before going on to play in 39 games for the Thunder. In fact, Liggins got his first career start against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he played a career-high 40 minutes and helped lift the squad to a tough road victory with an 11-point, nine-rebound performance.

“I love what Sam (Presti) did, sending me to the D-League,” Liggins said. “I just went down there and said I was going to play my hardest and whatever happens, happens. The first game I ever played in the D league I had a triple-double. That’s amazing to me.”

Even after working himself into the rotation with the Thunder, Liggins wanted to continue playing for the 66ers when he had the chance. He credited the progress he made on his perimeter shooting with assistant coach Maz Trakh as a rewarding outcome of all of the hard work during the season and found that the balance between the Thunder and the 66ers was one conducive to producing results.

As the Thunder and the 66ers move forward, the teams, coaching staffs and players will work in tandem with one another to live each day on and off the floor in the same positive culture. Upholding the standards of Thunder basketball is a fantastic way the 66ers can aid in the process of young players becoming true professionals, and it’s something Presti and company do not take for granted.

As the organization aims to compete at the highest levels in the NBA for years to come, the work being done in Tulsa will be vital to the lifeblood of the organization, which is the development and integration of young talent into the team.

“We are really appreciative of the fact that is a resource that were afforded and were going to have to continue to find ways to use it,” Presti said. “As we have talked about before, the elite organizations in sports assimilate younger players into their team. That is part of their ability sustain when they experience turnover and unforeseen circumstances.”