When July 29 rolls around, it will be just 253 days since the last time the Thunder was on the clock at the NBA Draft. This year, the Thunder has six selections to work with, including three first rounders (all in the top 18) and five of the first 36 overall picks.
The COVID-19 pandemic rearranged everyone’s schedules over the past 16 months, meaning that the Thunder’s scouting staff has been preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft in a more compressed timetable than usual, but will be ready to utilize all the assets at its disposal as it usually does.
Last year, all 30 teams had a few extra months to plan as the NBA pushed everything back until well after the 2020 Playoffs inside the Orlando bubble concluded. Back on November 18, 2020, an 18-year-old Aleksej Pokuševski sat at a table with his family, all staring into a laptop through blurry eyes. The Thunder traded up to the 17th selection and selected the young Serbian, who had played in Greece professionally since he was 13 years old. It wasn’t quite 8 p.m. in Oklahoma City as the Thunder draft room made their choice, but Pokuševski and his family celebrated at around 4 a.m. their time.
“I wasn’t expecting what happened. I didn’t know it was going to happen like that,” said a fondly reminiscent Pokuševski. “Just being able to experience that is something amazing, getting picked by the Oklahoma City Thunder.”
The previous year, in 2019, guard Ty Jerome was already on cloud nine, fresh off his junior year at the University of Virginia. After losing as a 1-seed in the first round of the tournament during his sophomore year, Jerome kept his chin high and led the Cavaliers through the NCAA tournament bracket to a national championship the very next year. The feeling of holding the trophy was made all the sweeter from the adversity he faced, but still Jerome said that getting selected 24th overall by the Phoenix Suns a few months later was 1a and 1b alongside the NCAA victory.
“Draft night might be up there with the most special in my life just because I was with all my family and that’s what I dreamed about since I was a kid,” said Jerome. “That’s what my parents made sacrifices for. Seeing their faces, seeing my dream come true; just flashbacks to all the hard times, all the great times, the long journey along the way.”
About an hour later on June 20, 2019, forward Isaiah Roby was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 45th overall pick but was subsequently traded to the Dallas Mavericks. The whirlwind didn’t stop there for Roby. His hometown of Dixon, Ill., which has around 15,000 people in its city limits, hosted a parade and rally the very next day to celebrate their native son’s remarkable achievement of becoming the town’s first player ever drafted in the NBA. After driving through town with the top down, Roby took the mic in front of the fire department and gushed about all that genuine small-town support as hundreds of people cheered him on.
“I was surrounded by my family and friends in my hometown,” said Roby. “Looking back and thinking, three years ago I would have never pictured myself here. Now I’m sitting here waiting for my name to be called in the NBA Draft. It was a very special night for not only me but for everybody who was there who helped me get to that time and to that point in my career. It was definitely a life-changer.”
On June 27, 2013, almost six years earlier, Thunder forward Mike Muscala was, like Roby, also being linked the Dallas Mavericks. The news then broke that the Atlanta Hawks had made a trade for Muscala, putting some finality on a long and arduous pre-draft process where Muscala flew across the country for weeks to work out for various teams. Muscala was selected 44th overall and even though he played overseas in Spain for a year and a half before joining the Hawks’ roster officially, his draft night marked the start of a new, unforgettable journey.
“I was just ready to see what was going to happen,” said Mike Muscala. “When the Hawks ended up trading for the pick for me, it was really emotional and I was just really excited to get to work and for the opportunity.”
While Muscala’s journey was more conventional before the draft and much windier afterwards, Thunder forward Darius Bazley’s was the complete opposite. A dynamic prospect who eschewed college to spend his year between high school and the draft working out with trainers and former NBA players in a variety of cities while also completing an internship at New Balance in Boston. Bazley was able to call himself a professional and Oklahoma City home after the Thunder traded for the 23rd overall pick in 2019 to get him.
“The feeling of being drafted was unbelievable,” said Bazley. “It’s so many emotions at once. It’s really good to have your loved ones there to share that with.”
"Once you get drafted, that’s when the real work begins. We’re all back in line for the same race.”
Thunder guard Théo Maledon took the same perspective as Bazley on draft night. While in some ways being selected by an NBA team on draft night is the culmination of so much hard work and the realization of a dream, in many ways it is just the start of the next journey. It was close to 2 a.m. in Paris when Maledon was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers at number 34 overall, though he knew he would be headed to Oklahoma City in a trade. The mental fortitude and steady outlook he showed his rookie year was on display even in the moments after his life changed forever.
“As soon as I heard my name, all I wanted to do is go out there and get with my teammates and coaches and prove to them that I deserve to play some minutes, to try to gain the coaches’ confidence, not to take one day for granted and always have that mindset that getting to the NBA is the hardest thing to do, but then it gets harder – so be ready for that challenge,” said Maledon.
In a few weeks, when the Thunder’s youngsters get together for a brief training camp prior to Summer League in Las Vegas, the slot where each player was drafted in the 2021 NBA Draft won’t make a difference. The impetus will be about the work done on the floor, the skill sets being honed and the approach to the game that determines both playing time and success at the NBA level.