Last August, while the rest of his Thunder teammates were down in Orlando fighting for their playoff lives, then-rookie Isaiah Roby was back in Oklahoma City on his own.
While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort and Mike Muscala were preparing for their defensive assignments, working on offensive sets and then playing their hearts out on the floor, Roby was on a Peloton bike and grinding through two-week spurts of the same mind-numbing workouts until he could clear his next hurdle.
Roby had only been with his new Thunder teammates for six weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the NBA. He couldn’t see any of them for months until the re-start, and then had surgery on his right foot due to a nagging plantar fasciitis injury that he had been dealing with for his entire rookie year.
The Thunder training staff had to get creative in the weight room and in conditioning drills to help Roby stay in shape during his rehab. They ensured those lonely days in the Thunder ION and the droll rehab process didn’t result in stagnation, but still, he was the odd man out with his teammates 1,300 miles away.
It was a feeling of remoteness Roby is used to. It’s what he’s used as the fuel to his burgeoning basketball career. In 2020-21, his commitment to who he’s always been as a person is what is propelling him into who he might become as a Thunder player.
Many NBA players hail from larger cities or have basketball sweep them away to major showcases. Throughout his childhood and high school days, Roby lived a small-town lifestyle in Dixon, Ill., where opportunities were few and far between. There were sports, but the Dixon High School Dukes weren’t getting any dates with powerhouse schools like Chicago’s Simeon or Whitney Young.
A pit-stop on the highway two hours west of Chicago, Dixon has stunning historical roots despite its small stature – it was the childhood home of President Ronald Reagan and where President Abraham Lincoln first joined the Illinois militia. Nowadays though, Dixon is a town with a population in decline, down to just 15,000. For an active, competitive kid like Roby who played basketball, football, soccer and baseball with his four brothers, Dixon wasn’t a place where athletes could ignite their professional paths, let alone get a college scholarship.
“Compared to a lot of my teammates and a lot of guys in the NBA who come from big cities, I think it makes me stand out a little bit,” Roby said. “Most these guys grew up playing against high level talent their entire life or playing against NBA guys since they were little.”
“I think I have that small-town chip on my shoulder,” Roby added.
“If he continues to take that consistent approach. We expect his trajectory to stay in an upward direction.”
By the time Roby reached the age where most players get noticed by scouts, it was a scramble just to get to the gyms where he could pop up on collegiate radars. The closest AAU team to Dixon, the Quad City Elite, was a 75-minute drive to the southwest in Moline, Ill, a city of 43,000 residents. Back in the late 1940’s, Moline was home to an NBA team called the Tri-City Blackhawks – the same franchise that eventually became the Atlanta Hawks, but professional sports didn’t help Moline erupt with activity the way the Thunder has with Oklahoma City.
In order to afford the gas money to get down Interstate 88 to Moline, plus the cost of hotel stays and food on AAU trips through the Midwest, Roby sold candy bars. In exchange for sponsoring his trips, Roby gave out vouchers to mow neighbors’ lawns. Necessity was the mother of invention for a teenager just scrapping to get from point A to B.
“I wouldn’t say my family grew up in poverty, but we didn’t have it easy,” said Roby. “It’s never been something easy for my family and I think that’s where I get my work ethic from. Nothing’s going to be handed to me. It’s never been like that in my life. That’s kind of molded my game and molded my work ethic.”
Roby’s rock has always been his mother, Danielle, who during Roby’s childhood worked seven days a week for more than a decade. In order to help pay for all those drives and basketball trips, Danielle worked five days a week at a chiropractic office, then picked up an extra job cleaning houses on the weekends.
“She’s always been a hardworking person,” Roby said. “My mom’s been my biggest influence in my life. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
All that extra energy expended by mother and child paid off in the form of a college scholarship for Isaiah to the University of Nebraska, where he spent three years as a Cornhusker. In his junior season, Roby started all 35 games, averaging 11.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. Afterward, he declared for the pros.
The moment when Roby’s name was called in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft must have been extra sweet given all the long nights in the car, the tired legs after a long day’s work and the pressure of a young kid having to turn himself into an entrepreneur at a young age. After all that, Roby was an honest to goodness professional basketball player.
Roby spent his rookie season with the Dallas’ Mavericks’ G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends. On January 23rd, the Legends came up to Oklahoma City and battled the Oklahoma City Blue in an absolute shootout – a 144-140 Legends victory. Roby had 10 points and 9 rebounds in 17 minutes of play – nothing spectacular – but did happen to notice a few of the Thunder’s front office personnel sitting in the stands.
“All of us have kind of been through that - whether it be AAU tournaments and you look in the stands and you see a college coach or now at the pro level, you look in the stands and you might see a top executive, or a scout,” Roby said. “It’s a pressure that we all have dealt with and at the end of the day you don’t really think about it while you’re playing. We’re all basketball players and we all came here to do a job, and that’s to hoop.”
The next day, January 24th, Roby was a member of the Thunder.
After making plans for a film session later that day with an assistant coach, Roby received a call from Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson saying that he’d be making his third trip up I-35 in as many days. This time he wouldn’t be on the Legends’ team bus, but on his way from Dallas to Oklahoma City to begin an entirely new professional chapter.
“(The Thunder) wanted me bad enough to take me in a trade. It was great to know that,” said Roby. “It kind of hurt initially to get traded, but it’s great to know that I landed somewhere I’m wanted and somewhere I want to be.”
While the confluence of circumstances of the entire 2020 calendar year conspired against the Thunder and Roby actualizing their new partnership, the start of the 2020-21 season offered a completely fresh slate. After that arduous rehab work, a buildup in training camp and a handful of preseason games, the open highway of opportunity was squarely in front of Roby.
“It was very hard to be able to finally say I’m in the NBA, but not be able to work like it,” said Roby, thinking back on his surgery and rehab. “I had to limit myself and take care of my body and make sure I could get back to 100% healthy. The quarantine gave me that time. So, I’m grateful for the opportunity this year to go out there and play at full strength. Battling injuries is tough but it reminds you to be appreciative and never take days for granted.”
At 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, Roby has the frame of a power forward but has shown the versatility of a player who can guard at least four positions. He’s spent time battling All-Star centers like Nikola Jokic and All-Star wings like Giannis Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam and Kristaps Porzingis. He’s been disruptive too, leading the team in steals and blocks combined during the season with his length and activity.
“The value of an NBA player is who you can guard and how many different people you can guard,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “We've been discovering him and the number of guys he can check. It makes him more switchable. That's a disruptive tactic.”
Roby has bullied opponents on the glass as a small forward and then used his quickness as a small-ball five-man to attack off the bounce, like when he dropped All-Star center Nikola Vucevic with a nasty cross-over on his way to a slam dunk. The 23-year-old has driven right on through that open lane in front of him, earning starts in 25 of the his 45 games while averaging 8.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists while shooting 49.8 percent from the field.
“I look at his season so far it's textbook development,” said Daigneault. “He’s taken every single experience and has learned from it and improved from it. And as a result of his approach, it gives us a lot of confidence to throw him in.”
“If he continues to take that consistent approach,” Daigneault added. “We expect his trajectory to stay in an upward direction.”
There’s plenty for Roby to improve upon in his NBA journey. His handle can get tighter on his drives and becoming a reliable jump shooter will open up his game. His defense can be sturdier and more physical with an understanding of personnel and work in the film room. Like every young player, consistency will be key.
“I have a lot of room to grow still, but I think that I've been doing a good job of attacking this season, this opportunity ahead,” said Roby.
Even making it into the Thunder’s rotation, though, let alone starting half the games he’s played is an unlikely outcome for a second round draft pick. This NBA dream seems even more implausible for someone who sold candy bars for gas money to get to Moline. But every NBA journey starts somewhere, no matter how small the dot on the map.