Thunder Identity Emerges As Summer League Concludes
ORLANDO – Selfless, physical, aggressive and quick team basketball is the Thunder’s identity, but it’s rare for a team’s style to emerge so strongly in a Summer League game. Continuity and commitment to develop players is why that personality gleamed in the Thunder’s final game in the annual offseason tournament.
Despite falling behind 11-2 to start Friday morning’s third-place game, Summer League Head Coach Mark Daigneault’s squad turned on the jets towards the end of the first quarter. Relying on its principles, the Thunder cruised to an emphatic 86-72 victory over the Miami Heat.
Leading the way was Thunder point guard Semaj Christon, who scored 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting while also dishing out four assists. Over and again, Christon was able to get a step on his man to get into the rim or score on mid-range jumpers.
A standout for the Oklahoma City Blue, Christon spent last season playing professionally in Italy. There’s no defensive three seconds in the Italian league, meaning Christon had to expand his game and hone his strengths of attacking the lane. That showed this week, including his dominant performance on Friday.
“Today was pretty consistent with what he’s done,” Daigneault said. “He’s really gotten his defense into the game and he’s matured his offense. He’s running the team really well, has a clear understanding of what we want and he hits the paint. Guys who hit the paint put pressure on the defense.”
“I was just staying aggressive,” Christon said. “My teammates spaced out for me so I could get into the lane. Nobody stepped up so I just finished the play.”
On multiple occasions in the second half, the Thunder posted up Christon on a shorter opponent and simply threw the ball in over the top to get an easy layup at the rim. The spacing that the Thunder’s hot three-point shooting (6-for-13, all after the first quarter) created left the lane wide open.
“I’m just reading the game,” Christon explained. “Coach has given me the leeway if I have a smaller guard on me that I can go to the block and play.”
That spacing and the threat of the outside shot also generated opportunities for others, as Cameron Payne and Mitch McGary found teammates on back cuts for wide open layups. Generating those types of high-percentage looks in the flow of halfcourt offense isn’t easy, but the Thunder shot 54.2 percent from the floor because of it.
“A lot of it was out of the post,” Daigneault explained. “You throw it in there and space the floor behind it. If they try to help, you cut behind them. A lot of our stuff was on that. We were able to open the floor up.”
While the victory was obviously a plus, the more important aspect of this week’s Summer League was the game action that players got as they continue their growth and development. To put these players in realistic roles while asking them to try different strategies or test out certain skills against quality opponents in a live setting gives the organization a chance to assess where each player is heading into the rest of the offseason.
“We got a good look at what they can do. We were able to put them in some different situations,” Daigneault said.
Christon, Payne, McGary, Josh Huestis and Dakari Johnson headlined a group of players who have been with the Thunder and Oklahoma City Blue program previously before this Summer League. Guys like Marcus Lewis, Tomislav Zubcic, Richard Solomon and Reggie Williams rounded out the squad and provided a sense of unity amongst the group, which helped propel the squad to a 4-1 record and third place finish for the week.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) July 8, 2016
“We all played together at one point in time, so we had a bond coming in,” Christon said. “Everybody kind of knew how each other played, so we were just getting out there and competing, staying together.”
“One thing we have a lot of pride in as an organization is 11 of the 15 guys on the roster had been in the organization at a different point. That’s how you create culture,” Daigneault noted. “You come in the first practice and you’re able to pick up where you left off. Guys know what is expected. They walk the walk. They know what it means to wear the logo.”