Young players often come into the most competitive league in the world after a decade of playing wild and free. After all, they’ve been the best player on every team they’ve been on since they were 10.
Unless they’re a generational superstar and they are immediately handed the keys to drive their NBA team’s style of play to their liking, young players have to fit into roles. All of the sudden they get to the pros and they have to play inside a box. They have to be precise. They have to be conscientious and deny themselves the shortcuts and small thrills of going off-script for a quarter or a minute or a play.
Somehow, at 20 years old, Terrance Ferguson managed to do all of that for the Thunder in the 2018-19 season. In just his second season in the NBA, his third as a professional after a season abroad in Australia instead of college, Ferguson fit into a system where he had to nail specific tasks and focus in on minute details every game. On top of that, he played nearly three times the total minutes he did in his rookie campaign.
Ferguson emulated predecessors at the shooting guard position in the Thunder’s offensive and defensive schemes by being a committed defender, chasing around one of the opposition’s premier scorers for over 25 minutes each night. With 2017 All-Defensive Team performer Andre Roberson sidelined for the entirety of last season, Ferguson stepped up to the plate and delivered in his own way. He even got an assist from Roberson himself, who led some film sessions and stayed in Ferguson’s ear during the year.
“Where Terrance went from one year to the next is pretty impressive,” Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti said. “Ferg showed that he has the makings of being an elite defender at 20 years old. Once he gets through the officiating gauntlet and they understand he's going to be here, he's going to learn the tricks of the trade a little bit, just like Dre did. He has a chance to be a really good player. He's got a good mindset about it.”
“Watching him grow over the year was great. Seeing him take on a role, especially at such a young age and grow, just shows where his future with this organization is going,” Roberson added. “He has a lot of years ahead of him, and he's going to be just fine.”
WATCH: Terrance Ferguson talks offseason
On offense, Ferguson stayed in his lane. He hung on the wing, relocated to the corners and jetted down the baseline when his defender lost eye contact for an instant. He knocked down three-pointers at a 36.6 percent clip. He dazzled in the open floor and brought the house down with windmill dunks. He hammered home backdoor lobs, including an outrageously acrobatic one where, against the Memphis Grizzlies, he contorted his body in mid-air and whipped in an alley-oop with two hands just before descending back to earth.
Ferguson doubled his points and minutes per game, tripled his assists per game and increased his shooting percentages from the field and the three-point line. He finished the season with starts in all 74 games he played and averages of 6.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists. He showed off an ability to attack a closeout with a couple hard dribbles and a nice pass to the next open teammate.
In order to keep pace with an up-tempo Thunder offense and the gauntlet of stop-and-start pursuit on the defensive end, Ferguson got into tip-top cardiovascular shape ahead of the 2018-19 season. That behind-the-scenes effort paid dividends and continued to lay a foundation of professionalism that the Thunder values.
“Playing three times the minutes I played last year, if I didn't stay in shape and work on my body, it definitely would have taken a toll on me,” Ferguson reflected. “In the weight room, our strength coaches, our training staff, they were always protecting my body.”
The strides Ferguson made between his rookie and second NBA seasons were crucial to making the Thunder a top-5 NBA defense and a Western Conference playoff team. Conventional wisdom is that the offseason between year 2 and year 3 is even more important to the long-term development of an NBA player, and that’s why Ferguson has once again heavily invested in himself over the last few months. With a newly-formed roster, opportunity is within grasp for everyone on the team to step up. Ferguson hopes to seize his chance.
“I'll just work my butt off this summer, add to my game, add to whatever I did this year, watch film, see what I can do better, and come to year three with the mindset of ‘I want to take off’,” Ferguson said.
With another year of physical maturation and time devoted in the weight room, Ferguson hopes to bulk up. The added muscle would not only help him stand his ground if he’s called upon to switch onto small forwards or power forwards, but also minimize the whistles blown against him throughout the year.
The depth of talent at the guard spot on the Thunder’s roster is impressive – with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schröder, Hamidou Diallo, Roberson and Ferguson all vying for minutes at the guard positions. At 6-foot-7, Ferguson is also plenty capable at small forward, thanks to a combination of length and quickness that has been the hallmark of Thunder basketball since the team arrived in 2008.
Wherever he plays, Ferguson will fill his assigned role. This year though, that disciplined box he plays in might get a little bit bigger.