Around the league, clandestine phone calls will still be made. NBA front offices, agents, prospects and reporters will all be pinging the satellites. Deals will be wheeled and the lives of young men and their families will be changed forever. NBA organizations will, as they do each season, be welcoming in fresh faces to their rosters.
This year however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum won’t be striding to a podium and players won’t be walking across a stage in New York City. Tonight at 7 p.m. CT, the prospects will be camped out in their living rooms, while Silver and Tatum will be parked at ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., ensuring that the players, family, agents and NBA staff who are normally at the draft are safe from the threat of COVID-19. There will be no green room and less glitz than a typical NBA Draft, but teams like the Thunder will make Wednesday night’s event just as meaningful as any other year’s draft.
For Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti and his front office, the draft marks one of a handful of annual occasions to make the team better. Along with the 25th and 53rd overall selections in the draft, the Thunder has a trove of other draft assets in its back pocket. At the start of Wednesday’s night’s draft, the Thunder will likely have at least 14 other first round draft picks over the next seven years through the 2026 NBA Draft, with the chance to swap to a better spot in three of those drafts.
When Presti said “The next great Thunder team is out there somewhere, but it will take time to seize and discipline to ultimately sustain,” back in the summer of 2019 in an op-ed for The Oklahoman, he was referencing the cavalcade of assets above and the thoughtful and resourceful deployment of them.
“This method is not guesswork or a convenient message that miscasts other’s good fortune as a repeatable skill,” Presti also wrote in the aftermath of the July 2019 trades of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Jerami Grant for Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, eight first round draft picks and four pick swaps.
“To build true excellence in any industry, and then sustain it, requires trading on time and playing the empirical odds,” Presti continued. “This will require strategic discipline and thoughtful patience, but these are values our organization has always held high.”
Typically, the NBA Draft is held in late June, a week or two after the coronation of a new NBA champion. An unforgettable and unprecedented 2019-20 season included a nearly four-month hiatus, seeding games, a play-in tournament and the NBA playoffs inside of a bubble in Orlando. All the while, the Thunder’s staff in Oklahoma City stayed nimble and prepared for all possibilities. That means a quicker-than-usual run-up between the draft and start of the 2020-21 season hasn’t changed the organization’s big picture outlook.
“Anybody that knows us knows that we're not going to be driven by short-term restraint. We're not going to let that drive our decisions in any way, shape, or form,” Presti said last week after the hiring of the Thunder’s new head coach, Mark Daigneault. “We're going to do what we think is the best thing for the franchise long-term and deal with whatever disruption that may exist in the short-term in order to get the long-term benefits we want.”
As a result, the Thunder front office has kept humming over the past six months during the hiatus, adjusting and adapting to the new paradigm. Scouts are spread throughout the country and the world as it is, and the Thunder utilizes efficient organizational and reporting procedures to ensure all crucial scouting information is funneled to those who need it so that the best decisions can be made. Still, during the pause the Thunder utilized the unusual break to take a fresh look at how it operates and where enhancements could take place. Every step of the way, the front office has consulted with the Thunder medical staff to ensure safety and effectiveness, including in the arrangement of Thunder ION on draft night.
“Having a little bit of unpredictability, I think it's good for us,” Presti continued. “If you have the right people, you solve the problems effectively. I think we'll do that.”
“The whole organization has continued to work and do good work, and stay ready,” said Daigneault.
One of the ways that this year’s altered look to the draft could be beneficial to the Thunder is that the man Presti tapped to lead the team from the bench was the one who typically led draft workouts. In normal years passed, prospective draft picks made the rounds across the country to meet with various teams. When they stopped into Oklahoma City, it was Daigneault choreographing the workouts, curating them so the Thunder could get a sense of each player’s attributes. That familiarity with the prospects and their skill-level will serve Daigneault well as he assembles the Thunder for training camp starting in early December.
“He leads the draft workouts and works pretty closely with the scouting group to design those workouts in a way that we can see things that we're looking to try to uncover,” Presti explained. “It's your first introduction to a young generation of players when they're here, whoever is running those draft workouts.”
Not only will any players the Thunder select on Wednesday have a head coach who is very close to the pre-draft process, they’ll also have a group of Thunder players ready to welcome them to the team. Soon they’ll start building camaraderie together on the court, and in just a few short weeks, it’ll be time for training camp as the Thunder gets to work for the quickly-approaching 2020-21 season.