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With Six Selections, Thunder Primed for 2021 NBA Draft

Date: Thursday, August 29

Time: 7 p.m. CT

Where: Barclays Center, NY

TV: ESPN

In a 30-team league, owning 10 percent of any NBA Draft is nearly unheard of, but that’s the arsenal the Thunder holds heading into Thursday night’s annual franchise-altering evening.

The Thunder’s first selection will be at 6 overall, followed by 16 and 18 in the first round. Then early in the second round the Thunder holds picks number 34 and 36, along with number 55 to round out the night, which features two rounds and 60 total picks. Under Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti, the Thunder’s scouting staff has always been extremely diligent in identifying youngsters in the draft process who not only have the chance to stick in the league, but to be a productive member of the organization and Oklahoma City community.

“It's one thing to identify NBA players. It’s another thing to find NBA players that can thrive in your organization,” said Presti. “A lot of times people talk about fit, and they're talking about basketball fit on a roster. I'm not so sure, especially for the stage that we're in as a team, that fit is the primary driver, or it should be in any draft. But fit relative to your organization, your environment, your ability to help the player reach their long-term potential, creating an environment for them to thrive, you need fit there.”

Sometimes in the draft, the player who might be best aligned for a team isn’t going to be available in the pick slots that organization holds. That’s why over the years, the Thunder has been one of the most aggressive teams on draft night to move up, down or even out of the draft positions it has if Presti and his staff feel the move makes strategic sense to benefit the organization.

"We can be adaptive, we can be creative and we can be opportunistic."-Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti

For example, the Thunder consolidated two selections in the 20s in the 2020 Draft to move up to number 17 and take Aleksej Pokuševski. The previous year, the Thunder moved two spots back from 21 to 23 to get the player it wanted, Darius Bazley, and a 2024 second round pick, the type of asset that can be used down the line to again make moves to get players the Thunder truly wants.

“We always try to move up. If we're 60, we want to be 59. If we're 59, we want to be 58,” Presti said. “We're always looking to move and find ways, but I wouldn't say we're doing that blindly. We have to always assess what's the value proposition, what is it that we are willing to do and where are we willing to get to.”

“It also has to be inverted because we're also as open to moving back based on the value that we see in the transaction,” Presti added. “You never know what's on the other end of that phone, what their circumstances are, what their incentives are, what they're willing to do.”

There are of course times where a player the Thunder likes drops right to them at their position, and at least to start the night, Presti will have six opportunities for that to happen. That’s the beauty of the position the Thunder is in from an asset standpoint. With 36 draft selections over the next seven years, with 18 first rounders and 18 second rounders, the Thunder can stand firm at all six spots, swing a blockbuster trade, chip away at the margins or set itself up with even more picks down the line. The highway is wide open, and the Thunder can pick its lane.

“We can be adaptive, we can be creative and we can be opportunistic,” said Presti. “We're not fixed into one track or another.”

No matter how many selections the Thunder actually makes or how it deploys its draft capital, one thing is clear – the draft position doesn’t matter as soon as the night is over. The days immediately following the draft are filled with quickly-booked flights to Oklahoma City, press conferences and community appearances, but shortly thereafter comes training camp for Summer League and that’s when the work and the true baseline evaluations can begin. While some attributes are innate, there are things that can be honed and refined like skillsets, basketball knowledge and professionalism. It’s up to each rookie to put in the work, stay healthy and be a positive contributor to the team.

“The talent never goes one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” said Presti. “There's so many things that go into it. The player has to stay healthy. Usually, it doesn't matter how you start. Some guys come on later and in their third or fourth year really start to become real impact players and guys that start off fast may not sustain over the course. It's such a long race to be a successful NBA player, and it never is a very smooth or linear process. It's basically who can deal with a lot of setbacks and adversities, and that's a healthy thing.”

As Thunder fans have learned over the course of the past 13 years, Presti’s insight about ability to deal with challenging circumstances is not a platitude. It’s the reality of life in the NBA. That’s why there’s such an intentional focus in Oklahoma City to find the human beings in the draft that are going to be able to withstand the ups and downs, stay committed to their development plans and put the team first. On Thursday, pouncing on the opportunity to get young men like that is exactly what the Thunder will try to do.

“We draft people, we don't draft players,” said Presti. “That's one of the reasons why we've had success over the last 13 years, because the type of people that come in the door every day allow you to withstand the challenges that come with trying to strive to be the best version of yourself and the inevitable tough breaks that come along the way. I'm excited about the people in this draft. There will be some guys that really fit well in our program.”