12-Month Process: The Thunder Front Office's Journey to Draft Night
On Thursday night, a life-long dream will get fulfilled for 60 young players – some going through the ringer at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn while others are huddled around television screens across the country and the world, anxiously awaiting a call that may never come. For those whose phone does light up during the 2019 NBA Draft, it will likely be the best call they’ve ever received.
On the opposite end of the phone line, just prior to that number being dialed, is an immense amount of work for a diligent and determined staff of nearly two dozen people. For the Thunder, the approach to the NBA Draft is a year-long process. It involves personnel stationed all over the world, brought together at different points throughout the year to maintain cohesiveness and connectivity.
Helmed by Sam Presti, Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager, the Thunder’s front office is staffed and resourced to the hilt to make the best possible decisions around the draft each year.
“We approach every draft the same way. We want to know the front to the back,” said Presti. “We're going to get to know them as players first and try to understand where their opportunities for growth are – the things that we feel we can help them with.”
Vice President of Identification and Intelligence Will Dawkins heads up the college and international scouting crew, who dig under every rock to find gems at each level of the draft. According to Dawkins, the Thunder’s scouting staff includes 18 people, in addition to a few more consultants.
Some live overseas. Others, like former Thunder center Nazr Mohammed who earned his first draft room appearance in 2018, are back and forth between Oklahoma City and their home regions elsewhere in the United States. The information comes in from far and wide, but the people all converge in Oklahoma City periodically, including in the days around the draft.
“We're very fortunate that (Thunder Chairman) Mr. (Clayton) Bennett and his staff allows us to fill the void that some teams have that we don't have, where we can kind of stretch our resources,” said Dawkins. “We have a robust staff that spends a lot of time getting ready.”
Throughout the course of the season, those scouts are watching games, taking in practices and meeting with coaches at the college level and internationally as well. Once players sign agents and officially declare for the draft, the team is able to meet with each person and get to know them on a more personal level.
Interviews, reports and other assessments are compiled and reviewed, then the staff gets together to compile specific lists – rank ordering players based on several characteristics and in various scenarios. Those breakdowns are then delivered to Presti and company for final decision-making, which includes team-building, strategic planning and both short and long-term goals.
“We put a lot of time into it ahead of time to get those lists right,” Dawkins said. “Then obviously the draft is the draft, and you've got to be able to fluctuate, and Sam does a great job going off feel and making the best decision for the team.”
“You rank the list based on the value of the player to your organization, not just on the floor, but also strategically as well,” Presti noted. “That's why we have such a great group of guys and girls that work together and understand that everyone's got a role that they have to play.”
All the preparation in the world can make for an organized desk and pristine draft board, but once the big night begins, the winds of change immediately begin to swirl. A certain team drafts someone unexpected. A trade rearranges not just the draft order, but also player availability. For an unprepared group, that could prove chaotic. For the Thunder, that uncertainty means opportunity to strike.
“When it comes down to the draft night, we usually have our board set to where we've met with our strategy side, met with the evaluation side, and put our best process together to put a flow on our board to where we have the players ranked, and we kind of go through and knock them off as they're going through,” Dawkins added.
As a result, Presti and his staff are not just prepared for every outcome in terms of draft eligible players, but also NBA personnel making moves on draft night. There’s a game outside of the game on draft night, and over the years Presti has been a master of handling changes in tide.
“You can feel like you've got a really good handle on the draft with respect to who the players are going to be and where they are and who they potentially can be, but then that has to merge itself with like the team strategy with respect to cap and long-term planning,” Presti explained. “All these different aspects now become part of team building and organizations and how you sustain them.”
After selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in three consecutive draft classes, Presti earned accolades as a draft whiz. He’s backed that up with shrewd selections later in the draft as well, as the Thunder’s success has meant picking mostly in the 20’s over the last decade.
In 2011, the Thunder selected Reggie Jackson with the 24th pick. In 2013, he nabbed Steven Adams with the 12thselection. On draft night in 2016, with zero picks, Presti pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis, the number 11 pick. One year later, those players were traded to Indiana to get Paul George. Even last season, the Thunder worked deep into the night to buy into the second round to get Hamidou Diallo, proving once again that every selection matters.
The Thunder has the 21st pick in the 2019 draft, making it the fourth time the team has selected at that spot since 2010. Below is the overall history of the 21st pick since 2000.
Work for the Thunder front office doesn’t end once pick 60 is announced on Thursday night. In fact, there are a few more hours of phone calls to be made to undrafted players as teams compete for their services. Summer League rosters begin to get filled out and most importantly, the organization starts on-boarding any players selected on draft night. Getting players integrated in the Thunder culture right away only accelerates their ability to contribute sooner rather than later.
“I give our evaluators a ton of credit because they do so much work, and they essentially hand that off to the group of people that have to manage not just this season, but four, five, six, seven years down the line as we try to put a competitive performance plan together to help our team and organization,” Presti noted.
After all of that, Presti, Dawkins and their staffs take a deep breath – for about 8 hours – then get right back to work on Friday. It’s time to close the book on 2019 and start getting ready to do it all again, with eyes on June 2020.
“They spend their entire days thinking about the draft,” said Presti. “We have meetings starting (Friday), transferring the evaluations from the amateur group to the pro group, and then we’ll start talking about scheduling for summer scouting for all of the amateur guys. So it's a year-long thing.”