Sam Presti has made a habit out of relying on rookie scale contract guys to round out his roster. There may be an element of luck to plucking guys like James Harden, Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams out of the draft, but with nearly three-quarters of the cap devoted to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, being cost-effective with the rest of the team is basically a must.
Long a staple as the Thunder's starting shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha was let go this offseason and replaced with a less certain commodity in Anthony Morrow. Veteran hand-holders Derek Fisher and Caron Butler are out. Looking down the road, Jackson's impending free agency is also looming. This is a period of change in the Thunder's perimeter cast, and that means there's a window for the Thunder's omnipresent pool of prospects to come in and make a bid for playing time.
Andre Roberson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones have been biding their time for a rotation spot, and they've each flitted into semi-consistent playing time for brief stretches now and again. But they've never lasted, and it's largely been because of their own shortcomings. There's an open competition for the starting shooting guard spot, and any of those three could win out (Morrow and Jackson are also in the mix). But there's a long list of things they have to improve on, and what they show in training camp and preseason could go a long way towards their role this season.
No one doubts Roberson's ability to defend – in his rookie season alone, he proved he was a real plus defender. He's tenacious, and makes good use of the physical attributes granted to him: a 6'11 wingspan, the strength of a small bull, and impressive balance.
Scott Brooks has already used him against such players as Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Kyle Korver, and Roberson has wowed more often than not. He presses dribblers hard, moves fluidly and has a wide shot-contesting radius. Because of his long arms and athleticism, he does a fine job racking up steals and blocks. Roberson might already have the inside track on the starting shooting guard spot, because of Brooks' preference to have a dedicated perimeter defense specialist in the starting lineup.
But is Roberson really the best choice? He's a non-entity on offense – his first shot attempt of the season was an airballed three-pointer, and things didn't improve from there. This was commonplace (obligatory James Harden defense joke):
Roberson just isn't a threat with the ball. His jumpshot is broken – he shot 2-for-13 from three in his first season, and not a single one of his 33 makes on the season came further than three feet from the rim. Look at his shot chart, via Nylon Calculus:
Any offense with Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka will be pretty damn good by virtue of pure scoring skill. But only one of the three really makes the effort to spot up (Durant and Westbrook have a tendency to step off the three-point line when not actively engaged in a play and reset the offense when the ball comes to them), and the Thunder didn't put up a lot of resistance when the defense threw multiple bodies at Durant or Westbrook. Starting Roberson would mean giving the opposing defense another player they can double-team off of. Any offensive progression he makes off last season's effort will be huge.
He got most of his baskets as a Tony Allen-style opportunistic scorer, feeding off others and running hard in transition. In a half-court setting, you'll usually find Roberson lurking in the corner with an eye on the backdoor lane for a chance to cut and nab an offensive rebound, layup or dunk. Due to a nice combination of power and touch, his finishing ability is much better than his shooting, and for now, Roberson has a tendency to go unnoticed on offense.
There's some interesting potential with Roberson, who played power forward in college. He's a tremendous rebounder on both ends, again making use of his strength and natural leaping ability. Because he isn't a shooter right now, Roberson ends up crashing the offensive glass hard and muscles his way to a bunch of second chance points that way. And in spite of his slow dribble, he has the finishing ability to make something of his drives. They were far and few between last season, but every once in a while, he busted out one of these on the catch:
But the key here is really the outside shot. Roberson might struggle to scratch a league average three-point percentage throughout his entire career, much less make that jump this season. Still, it'd have a hugely positive effect if he could at least enter the realm of respectability as a shooter. Anything that can make defenses stay an extra step closer to him will help. If the replacement of Sefolosha with Morrow meant anything, it's that the Thunder are well aware of their need for three-point shooting to create space for the Thunder's stars to operate.
Roberson isn't a three-point shooter, but he's a major plus on defense, another one of the Thunder's core tenets. As long as he can command a bit of attention from beyond the arc, Roberson should have a strong enough case for the starting role, or at least a stable spot in the rotation. And if the early reports from training camp can be trusted, there's room for cautious optimism.
Was the first half of last season a dalliance with what's still to come with Jeremy Lamb, or was it just a flash in the pan? I've used this graphic before, and I like to recycle it because it's as revealing as any paragraph I could put together on Lamb's season:
See, he started off well enough from three, shooting 39.8% from three in 2013. But then Lamb hit a hard cold streak where his three-point percentage dropped almost ten percent from his hot start, and despite a few good games in April, he returned to suckage in the playoffs (not displayed) where he went 2-for-14 from deep.
There's no way to tell what we'll see from Lamb this season. He finished last season with a 35.6% regular season three-point percentage, which sits below league average. His smooth release and tidy footwork coming off screens are those of a good shooter, and yet, he couldn't get enough shots to go down last season to fill the frame.
Lamb's role is clearly as a three-point specialist. He spends most of his time spotting up, and there's a clear role for a shooter in the rotation. It'll be on Lamb to prove that he's consistent enough to be successful within that role. Beyond that, there's an element of competition between him and Morrow. It's not impossible for the two to split time off the bench, but it's not particularly likely either.
The thing is, Morrow is an infinitely better shooter (currently 8th all-time in three-point percentage) than Lamb, but also a weak player in most other aspects of the game. Morrow's made a hard push to improve on his defense in recent years as it's been pointed out as his biggest flaw. It's shown in his effort (especially last season, where he wasn't even that bad!), but his athletic limitations represent a cap on how good he can be as a defender. Lamb, meanwhile, has a fair bit of defensive potential ahead of him. He has much greater lateral quickness and makes better use of his long arms, something that the Thunder's defensive scheme relies upon.
Lamb did make some strides defensively as the season progressed, especially in his ability to play the passing lanes. Like most other young players developing under Brooks, he pays attention to his defensive positioning, and he's been taught to take advantage of his wingspan by blocking off and deflecting passes. But Lamb isn't a good defender yet, and the question lies with his effort and attention to detail. He doesn't rotate on a string and sometimes ball-watches, giving up what can be valuable half-seconds to the opposing offense.
As a man-to-man defender, Lamb doesn't do a great job of staying in front of his man. He's mobile and he has long arms, but his focus constantly comes into question. His footwork and reaction time are shaky, and ball-handlers can get him to bite on simple crossovers. Even a so-so slasher can get past him with a run-of-the-mill move. Though it's ultimately a shot clock violation, watch how easy it is for Ray Allen to shed Lamb after a jab fake:
But Lamb was beginning to approach averageness as a defender late in the season, and there's plenty of hope going forward. He will never be the defensive specialist that Brooks likes to have in his starting lineup, but if he develops well, Lamb could at least put on the appearance of a two-way player.
He shows the makings of a player that can create offense at times and will sometimes impress with a drive, even if he can't always finish through contact (some extra upper body strength would be nice). His handle isn't bad, and he has deceptive speed and bounce to go with nice touch around the rim. Even where he can't get to the rim, Lamb has a smooth looking jumper off the bounce.
Here's Lamb using an in-and-out dribble in the pick-and-roll to beat his man, and then finishing with an impressive floater finish over Rudy 'Half Man, Half Arms' Gobert:
The potential is there, for sure. Lamb could turn out a whole lot better than the rest of the pack contending for the starting shooting guard spot. It just isn't likely to happen, or at least any time soon. There's just a long way for him to go in his development. For all he flashed last season, Lamb has much to prove after an up-and-down year.
The Thunder will look for him to return to consistency as a shooter, and to continue developing on defense. Those are the first priorities for Lamb this season. The rest – shot creation, transition play, rebounding – can come later, and they represent the considerable upside still ahead of him.
There was a time when Perry Jones was a fascinating NBA prospect, a player with an intriguing blend of athleticism, size and skill. But two years into his NBA career, and he still has no real identity as a player. There was a point in March of last season, when Sefolosha went down with an injury, where Brooks made PJ3 his first look at his fill-in starting shooting guard. But Jones disappointed thoroughly, going 9-for-24 (.375) over five games before Brooks turned to Roberson.
When you watch Jones, it's clear there's something in the making there – whether it's a super-sized wing or a Lamar Odom-style power forward. Brooks has made a habit of using Jones as a bit of a utilityman, a player who can float across positional designations and fulfill a mélange of duties. Sometimes Jones operates as one of two bigs within horns sets, and other times he's spotting up in the corner. Sometimes he defends a guard, sometimes he defends a big.
And that'd be fine and well, if Jones didn't look like lost on the floor so often. He was fine at the start of the season, but his confidence dissipated quickly. His actions seemed second-guessed and delayed more often, and he started to make common errors in his positioning. Especially prevalent among those positioning mistakes: Jones had a tendency to stand in the short corner instead of behind the three-point line, allowing his man to easily help off of him and clog the lane.
This is the sort of problem that usually plagues non-shooters lacking confidence in their shot, but Jones wasn't even that bad as a shooter last season. He shot a respectably average 36.1% from three on 61 attempts, a small sample size but one that should've inspired more confidence in Jones to take shots. His shooting form isn't particularly smooth, but it looks fundamentally solid and he shot pretty well from the corners. It's unlikely he'll ever be a specialist, but Jones can be good enough to make his defender think twice about ignoring him Roberson-style. If he'd only stay behind that darn three-point line.
Right now, Jones looks his best when he can play off others and follow basic impulses: run, jump, dunk. He's a springy run-and-jump athlete, and fast break dunks were a dime a dozen. It's fun to imagine how effective someone with his physical profile could be, if he could find a feel for the game. At 6'11" with a 7'2" wingspan and his level of mobility, Jones could go far.
Brooks has already made a pretty solid defender out of Jones. His size and arms suck up space easily, and his body moves easily enough to put him on perimeter players. Jones' best performance from last season came in a late January game versus the Miami Heat last season, where he held his own defending LeBron James in an effort that culminated with a successful comeback win. LeBron James!
Ironically for someone with his measurables, Jones struggled more when he played in the paint. Scouts slammed his toughness coming out of college, and while he wasn't soft per se, he was missing an edge on the boards and in defending the rim. His defensive positioning was better than on offense, and like Lamb, he shows the signs of having been taught by Brooks to watch his lane positioning. Still, Jones clearly lacks a feel for what he's doing and often looks unsure. That translates into helping a second late, or not helping at all, and giving up easy chances at the rim.
Here, Jones waits too long to roll into the lane as a help defender, and gives up deep position to Timofey Mozgov:
The main problem with Jones is purely mental. It comes down to things like his developing fundamentals, a lack of experience, and questionable intensity. Most of his problems are fixable over time if he learned to position himself better, make snappier decisions and simply play harder.
It's intriguing to think of what Jones could become, if his potential was fully realized. He's a tad unconventional, mostly because of his skill level for his size. He's one of those forwards that has the physical and skill capability to rebound an opponent miss and immediately capitalize with a fast break score. His ball-handling is decent, although it currently lacks the polish to be helpful in the half-court.
Time will tell. Jones is one of the hardest prospects to read, partly because of his uniqueness. The progression on his three-point shot was nice to see last season, and he's becoming a pretty good perimeter defender. But there's still so much missing to his game, and he might never round out if he doesn't show the motor needed to do so. That'll be what to watch for this preseason.