It was the 34th game of the 2018-19 regular season. December 28, in Phoenix against the Suns. Up to that point, Abdel Nader had missed a good portion of the summer while rehabbing a broken right wrist, missed all four preseason games due to knee soreness and played in just 15 total games, but never more than 10 minutes in any of them.
There was a reason to feel optimism though. A few days before, at Houston on Christmas Day, Nader got thrown into the fire during a 4-point loss to battle it out against one of the best teams in the Western Conference. He played 9:39 and missed all three of his shots. Most guys would be discouraged. Nader saw it as his chance to break through.
Against Phoenix, Nader played 33 minutes and 10 seconds, scored 18 points and added 5 rebounds while shooting 7-of-13 from the field and 2-for-4 from three. He only had 2 fouls called against him and the Thunder won decisively by 16 points.
From there on out, Nader played in all but three games the rest of the season. He served as a slasher, cutter and spot up shooter and provided some versatility on the defensive end with his 6-foot-6 frame and ability to guard shooting guards and small forwards.
“I give Abdel a lot of credit, considering the fact that he missed a good portion of training camp and then kind of was able to get back in the rotation some,” Donovan said.
“Physically, it was just getting myself in shape and continue doing the work on the court,” Nader noted. “Mentally, just not getting deterred and allowing yourself to stay in it mentally and keep doing the work that you know you need to do.”
It’s not always easy to stay in basketball shape during the season if you’re a bench player who isn’t seeing minutes. Running on a treadmill and being diligent in the weight room can only go so far. Taking advantage of every practice, getting physical in workouts with assistant coaches and staying sharp mentally were crucial to Nader making the most of his opportunity.
For the season, the Egyptian forward averaged 4.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per game, appearing in 61 contests with one start. He shot 42.3 percent and 32.0 percent from three overall.
Like most young players, the 25-year-old was more comfortable at home. At Chesapeake Energy Arena, Nader’s shooting was better from the field – 45.1 percent – and 9 percentage points better from the free throw line.
Before the All-Star Break, Nader shot 46.4 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three. In fact, in 14 games in January, Nader shot 49.2 percent from the field including 43.5 percent from three while racking up 5.6 points and 2.1 rebounds while playing 13.5 minutes per game.
One of the hardest things for any role player to do is get into a game cold off the bench then immediately go in and knock down shots. It’s no surprise that as he played more minutes, Nader’s shooting percentage rose from both the field and the three-point line.
“It's a rhythm thing, and it's just the way games go sometimes,” Nader explained. “If you’re only getting two or three shots a game, sometimes you're going to make them all. Sometimes you're going to make one. Sometimes you're going to miss them all. You can't really get too deterred about that, and just stick with it. If it drops in practice, it will drop in the game sooner or later.”
One way that Nader plans to stay focused on what he can control in the 2019-20 season is his defense, which can make an impact regardless of whether shots drop. He’s been in Oklahoma City working with Thunder trainers and staying on top of his diet. Even though he wasn’t on the Summer League team, Nader made the trip to Las Vegas to workout with Thunder coaches and to stay sharp.
Specifically, Nader is focused on keeping your hands back while guarding the ball and strengthening his hamstrings and glutes to help with deceleration in the open floor. That helps with being able to stay in front of attacking guards in transition or collecting the ball and finishing crisply on a fast break.
Most of all, with a fully healthy summer, Nader has had the chance to do what he couldn’t during his first offseason in Oklahoma City: be ready to hit the ground running at training camp.
“You try to get runs, try to guard other players you know are good. Try to get in runs with other NBA players, other NBA veterans, try to test yourself against them,” Nader said. “Just strengthening your legs to help you move quicker. If you can gain an inch, why not?”
If Nader enters mid-October with a full preseason workload under his belt, it likely won’t be Game 34 when his number gets called.