Full Name: Thabo Patrick Sefolosha
Years in NBA: 8
Contract Status: Just signed with the Atlanta Hawks for three years, $12 Million.
Notable Factoid: DJ Black Coffee is his favorite South African music artist.
Thabo Sefolosha was born to a South African father and a Swiss mother. Thabo has a strong connection to both countries, as he cites both of his parents' cultures as a major influence. However, Thabo grew up in Vevey, a mountainous village in the French speaking part of Switzerland. At 16, Thabo was invited to join the Swiss Junior national team, though he didn't end up playing. The official start to Thabo's career would come a year later. In 2002, he joined the local basketball club, Tege Riviera Basket (now Vevey Riviera Basket). They were a Swiss first-division team, but the league pales in comparison to most other European nations. Still, Thabo managed to impress, averaging a mind-blowing 3.7 steals per game. His other stats didn't slack either, as he averaged 10.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, and 3.7 APG.
It only took Thabo a year to move up in the ranks, signing with French first division team Elan Chalon in 2002. He only appeared in five games for the senior side that year, spending the vast majority of his time playing for the Under-21 club. In the Summer of 2003, Thabo was named to the Swiss national team. Switzerland played 10 games against 5 other European teams, of which the top 4 went to the Eurobasket. Thabo's team finished in fifth, while Thabo didn't play much more than spot minutes.
Thabo's first real role on a major team came in the fall of 2003, when Elan Chalon rewarded him with regular minutes in the rotation. He definitely wasn't a scorer, but would regularly fill up the stat sheet with rebounds, assists, and steals. Some of you might think that was a sign of things to come, but Thabo's game became much more offensive when he was rewarded with a starting role at the beginning of the 2004-2005 season. Elan Chalon had qualified to compete in the European-wide second tier as well as the French first division during that year. This gave Thabo much wider exposure, and a higher level of competition to prove himself against.
Thabo's numbers from that season are just silly. One game stands out in particular. Against Valencia, Thabo scored 20 on just 6 of 9 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished two assists, stole the ball four times and blocked the ball three times. Valencia are no slouches, either, as they ended up beating Elan Chalon and sweeping the group that year. At this point, it was apparent that Thabo was no joke. If those numbers weren't enough to wow you, consider that he shot 56% on the season and had a positive impact in almost every single game he played.
Eventually, Thabo was named to the French All-Star team and became a hot commodity. He returned to the Swiss national team that Summer, but only for two games. In those two games, Thabo was basically the best player in the floor and forced to create shots. His turnovers were high, but his numbers were laughable. 30 points on 11 of 13 shooting and 6 steals against Slovakia, and 20 points on 7 of 13 shooting against Ireland. Switzerland won both games, but the team went 2-2 otherwise and failed to win their group. (The format changed between years, don't blame me!)
In the fall of '05, a contract dispute reportedly surrounding semantics between Thabo's agent and Elan Chalon sent Thabo to Italy. There, he signed with Angelica Biella, a first division Italian club. He wasn't the team's star, but he continued to post efficient performances and saw a bit more responsibility than he did with Elan Chalon. Angelica Biella ended up barely making the Italian League playoffs that year, bowing out in the Quarter-Finals.
Struggling with the Bulls
After the 2005-2006 season, Thabo declared for the NBA Draft. He had generated a lot of interest with his stat-filling games, and was regarded as a capable scorer and athlete that could do damage wherever he went in the NBA. No one was expecting him to score copiously, but many were expecting a world class lock-down defender. Chicago loved that about him, so much so that they traded a second round pick and cash to move up three spots for him. Thus, at #13, Thabo was selected and went off to Chicago.
Thabo's rookie season kicked off with a bang. He was given bench minutes, and posted big stats in a few early blowouts. That prompted the highest of praise, as written by Blog a Bull back in November of 2006:
"Like it was suggested before the draft, being 22 and a professional overseas means that the transition to the NBA should be relatively smooth. Sefolosha already has NBA playmaking ability, using his long reach to finish around the basket and court vision to complete several nice plays Monday night. And even if his jump shot still looks shaky, his ability to slash to the basket in transition is a great complement to what is still primarily a jump-shooting team."
Thabo's season hit reality after that, though. Thabo would have flash in the pan games occasionally over the next few months, but most of his big lines would come in blowouts. Part of this was due to his role, as coach Scott Skiles was notoriously difficult on rookies and gave Thabo a few DNP-CDs. There was even a good deal of lamenting on Blog-a-Bull regarding Thabo's limited minutes, due to the undersized nature of the Bulls backcourt at the time.
The season didn't end in a ho-hum fashion for Thabo, though. The Bulls finished fifth in the East that year, earning a matchup with the Miami Heat. Dwayne Wade was in the midst of his prime, and Chris Duhon and Ben Gordon weren't exactly good defensive options for the Bulls. In stepped Thabo, who helped hold Wade to 21 Points on 44% shooting in the opener. Sefolosha's role would fade as the playoffs went on, but he did hold onto a regular rotation spot until the Bulls were eliminated by the Pistons in the second round.
The Summer of 2007 would see Thabo return to the Swiss national team, this time for three of their six group games. Thabo had managed to improve his handles since 2005, and went on to post more ridiculously efficient statlines against bad teams. No one game sticks out, but his averages of 21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block speak for themselves. Amazingly, Switzerland won their other three games without Sefolosha, and the team earned a playoff with Great Britain for a spot in the 2007 Eurobasket. Had Switzerland won, it would have been the first time the Swiss had been allowed to enter a major international tournament since 1955. Unfortunately, Great Britain was gearing up for the Olympics, and they had secured their first major NBA star in Luol Deng. Ironically, Sefolosha and Deng were teammates at the time. Deng ended up leading the arguably superior Team GB to two easy victories, though Sefolosha was extremely efficient in both losses.
In 2007-2008, the Bulls pretty much fell apart. Luol Deng and Ben Wallace's nagging injuries combined with extremely inefficient offensive play from the guards (notably Hinrich, Duhon, and Gordon) led to a bad record. Scott Skiles, meanwhile, continued to give Sefolosha only the smallest of minutes Skiles was fired about 25 games in, though. Once Jim Boylan replaced Skiles, things started to open up for Sefolosha. Thabo saw starter's minutes over half of the time, though there would be occasions where his minutes numbered in the single digits. Thabo saw a lot more offensive responsibility, but it was pretty apparent that he wasn't an NBA-level scorer. In all, Thabo's stats were basically identical to those of his rookie season, and he had lost some luster in the eyes of Bulls fans. From Blog a Bull's roster evaluation:
"Sefolosha: I'd see if he has any value and have him the primary 'sweetner' in a deal, although probably doesn't have much value outside of the BaB community's crush wall, and Mike McGraw's screensaver. He has some skills from the backcourt that the team lacks, but they can be found fairly cheaply in the free-agent market and thus Thabo shouldn't be seen as untouchable. Out of the team's younger players, he's the one I'm least attached to."
The 2008 Draft brought Derrick Rose to the Bulls, and that was the beginning of the end for Thabo. With Hinrich, Gordon, and Hughes all battling for minutes around the burgeoning superstar, there just wasn't room for them all in the rotation. Thabo spent most of his time with the Bulls in pretty much every role imaginable, sometimes starting and sometimes registering DNP-CDs. Eventually, by the time February rolled around, the Bulls were anxious to make transactions. They gave up on Sefolosha ever being the all-around player they had hoped him to be, and eventually shipped him to OKC amidst a slew of trades on February 19th, 2009.
The Bulls only got a late first rounder (eventually Taj Gibson) for Thabo, which pretty much indicates the state of his career at that point. Chicago was simply happy to have his guaranteed money for next season off the books, and Thabo had been pigeonholed as a sometimes-there role player. Of course, Thabo had never gotten a fair shake either, because he had played on three teams that were either dysfunctional or stacked against him in one way or another.
Success in OKC
The Thunder weren't much of a sight for sore eyes, though. Despite a rabid fan base and promising talent, the team had a losing record and were in desperate need of help at a lot of positions. The key difference, though, was this: Management trusted Sefolosha. After one game coming off the bench, Thabo Sefolosha was named the starting shooting guard for the Thunder. He would hold that role (save for injury) for more than five years, only relinquishing it to Reggie Jackson in 2014.
The end of that season was fruitful, though. Thabo was able to score over 10 points in 8 of 9 games, a period during which the Thunder went 6-3. It was easily the best run of Thabo's career, and went a long way towards proving his long-term worth. Once the Thunder had finished well out of the playoffs, it was time for Thabo to return to Switzerland. His stint with the Swiss team was unmemorable, though. A poor offensive performance against Albania cost his team the game, and another 1-7 shooting night from three nearly cost a game against Belarus. Thabo went 3-1 and the Swiss went 5-3 overall, but it wasn't good enough of an effort to get them into the Eurobasket that year. It was the first time in two tournaments that Thabo didn't get to play alongside his brother on the national team, so that might help explain the decrease in performance.
As we all know, 2009-2010 was a dream season for Thunder fans. The team went from plucky underdogs to real contenders, and they fought valiantly for a playoff seed all year. Thabo underwent a few changes as well. For one, he signed four year, 15 million dollar deal to take effect after that season, which is why he's still with us today. For two, he got rid of the cornrows, which was really disappointing. But in terms of basketball, Thabo was finally able to find his niche. He scored in transition and from the corner. Because he no longer had to create his own shots in the half court (KD and Westbrook took care of that), his offensive efficiency went up. In turn, he could focus on the defensive end, which is where his real talent shined. He thrived against the stars of the day at his position, like Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Thabo's reputation as a defensive stopper grew, and those who watched the Thunder regularly clearly realized his value.
Case in point: During the first round series with the Lakers that year, Thabo was able to hold Kobe to 23.5 PPG, 41% from the floor, 4.0 RPG, 4.3 APG and 3.5 TOPG. Compare that to his playoff averages that year of 29.2 PPG, 46% from the floor, 6.0 RPG, 5.5 APG and 3.5 TOPG. Granted, Thabo wasn't on Kobe the entire time, but his effectiveness during his time on Kobe is well-documented.
2010-2011 saw Thabo continue to improve his offensive effectiveness. His three point percentage was down, but his overall percentages had improved, along with his shot selection. The team was undergoing changes, though. James Harden has a break out sophomore season, and the trade of Jeff Green cemented the team's trust in him as their third leading scorer. By this point, it was apparent that Harden was the better player, but Harden's inconsistency and inexperience kept him in a constant battle for minutes with Sefolosha. Thabo's starting role was never in question, but who was going to be playing at the end of the game definitely was. Harden usually won out, but a strong performance from Thabo would occasionally land him in crucial situations.
The Summer of 2011 would be Thabo's last with the Swiss national team. He only made a single appearance for them that year, which turned out to be a complete disaster. That's right, Thabo Sefolosha shot 1-9, committed five fouls, dished no assists, and turned the ball over five times in a 29 point win against Cyprus. I mean, he nearly tanked his home country....while playing against Cyprus.
Thabo would have a chance to regain his international honor that fall, though. With the NBA in the midst of a lockout, players were free to sign with any non-NBA team they wanted. Thabo chose Fenerbache Ulker, a first division European and Turkish team based out of Istanbul. The Euroleague is the world's biggest stage for club basketball (next to the NBA), so the challenge for him there was real. Thabo only ended up playing in 7 regular season and group games, but his impact was very positive. He finished his tenure in Turkey with 11.4 PPG on 59% shooting, 7 RPG, and 2.1 SPG. It can easily be considered his best tenure with a European club team, however short it may have been.
Anyway, back in Oklahoma, the lockout had ended and it was time for Thabo to return for the shortened 66 game season. Thabo would start off with quite a few capable performances, no doubt fueled by the confidence gained from his recent success with Turkey. A sore right foot caught up with Thabo at the end of January though, and he missed about 6 weeks of action. Thabo's minutes were decreased for a while upon his return, but he saw increased burn as the Thunder battled for a playoff spot.
Once the 2012 playoffs started, Thabo had settled back into his regular role. Through the first two rounds, he didn't affect any game tremendously. Still, I do remember cursing Thabo's 0-3 performance from three in Game 3 of the second round against the Grizzlies. His real impact came in another Game 3, though. During those 48 Minutes, Thabo was able to play out of his shoes and help the Thunder to the most critical victory in franchise history. There's great video evidence of the entire thing online, and it's easily the best game of Thabo's career.
That game was only the beginning of Thabo showing what he could do. The strong performance carried over into the next season, which saw Thabo post the highest averages of his career. The uptick in stats is easily explained away by Kevin Martin replacing James Harden in the rotation. Still, aside from a slight dip in three point percentage, Thabo was able to improve in every statistical category over the course of the 2012-2013 season. You'll also find more of his career-best performances from that year, like a 28 point career high against the Rockets, or a 12 rebound, 5 assist, 2 steal, and 3 block performance against the Nuggets.
It's not like Thabo was able to do those things on a nightly basis, though. He never hurt OKC, but it was obvious that he couldn't be asked to do too much offensively. That's what made his terrible post-Westbrook playoff performance all the more painful. I'm pretty sure we all understood that Sefolosha's success was based entirely around the presence of Durant and Westbrook in their primes, but we didn't have to have that fact rubbed in our faces for 9 straight games. You see, Thabo averaged a ghastly 30% from the floor while throwing up a crapton of threes. Thabo didn't single-handedly lose the Thunder anything, but he was part of a larger post-Westbrook collapse.
"Well, he's there." I think that's the attitude most people took towards Thabo Sefolosha. He's a player that's impossible to hate, because you know he's always playing great team ball and giving it his all. Thabo also plays completely stone faced and emotionless, rarely breaking his concentration. In fact, you'd be forgiven for completely forgetting that he graced the floor at all.
Yet, at the same time, Thabo has so many issues. He fell flat on his face during critical points of the playoff stretch. He can't handle the ball outside of transition. He can't nail open threes regularly enough. Even Thabo's defense seems to have sagged a bit in importance, especially given the lack of scoring shooting guards in the current NBA.
At the end of the day, Thabo's performance rarely effected the result of a game, positively or negatively. And that's mostly what you look for in a role player on a championship caliber team. He helps you rarely, but he hurts you rarely, too. The same couldn't be said of countless guards who have graced our roster, like Daequan Cook, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, or Kevin Martin. I'm not necessarily trying to knock those players (since the nature of being an offensive role player is quite different), but I'm throwing out their names to make a point. Up until the drafting of Josh Huestis a couple of weeks ago, the Thunder had no legitimate Thabo Sefolosha replacement.
So I suppose this season was a bit of a test for Thabo. We were going to see whether he could fulfill his role on a fully stocked squad, and whether he was truly worth keeping for another go around into 2014-2015.
Regular Season Grade: D+
The first game of the season saw Thabo start next to Reggie Jackson, as Westbrook was still recovering from injury. Thabo scored 14 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and dished 4 assists. The Thunder narrowly won the game over what would be a terrible Jazz team, but Thabo's game was easily one of the best of his career. It was so good that I wrote this article, hopeful that Thabo was FINALLY ready to take on some playmaking responsibility.
As it turns out, that would be Thabo's best game of the season and the playoffs. That's not to say that the rest of Thabo's season was horrible, though. He still had occasional double digit games *mostly during blowouts), and continued to grab rebounds. But his totals were down while his minutes weren't, and his three point shot had seemed to regress between seasons.
Once Westbrook went back out with injury after Christmas Day, Thabo's role increased significantly. He had two consecutive double-digit nights in the wake of the event, and went on to see better marks and minutes across the board. Thabo's numbers were still less efficient than those of the previous season, but he was a definite asset in Westbrook's absence.
Upon Westbrook's second return on February 20th, Thabo managed to keep his role for a few games before succumbing to a strained left calf. The injury kept him out for over a month, and had the undesirable effect of forcing him to return from injury while the team was gearing up for the playoffs. Thabo's role was heavily reduced upon his return, and from the limited sample size, you could tell that Brooks was justified in doing so.
Post-Season Grade: D
With all of the negative energy surrounding Thabo, it might seem like no surprise that his 2014 playoff run turned out to be just as bad as his 2013 one. But I really thought he had a chance to shine. The Memphis series saw him matched up with Mike Conley a lot of the time, the Clippers series saw him face Chris Paul, and the Spurs series saw him get matched up with Tony Parker. All of those defenders are much smaller than him, and could have been beaten by simple post moves or good positioning. I mean, it's the ultimate irony. Thabo's original purpose was to stop the league's best scoring guards, and in the most recent round of the playoffs, he could have made himself useful by doing the exact opposite.
Unfortunately, Thabo wasn't really able to haul the mail. He had a couple of decent games against Memphis, but he registered DNP-CDs in Games 6 and 7. The Clippers series looked to me more of the same at first, as Thabo registered just 15 minutes in a blowout.
But then came Game 2, which was easily the best of his playoff campaign. Channeling his earlier performances against the Clippers in the regular season, he was able to steal the ball three times and chip in 14 points. He was a big part of keeping the Thunder ahead in the second half, and that backcourt steal has to be one of the best plays of his career. It was a fitting final hurrah to a player who's such a big part of who the Thunder are today.
But all good things must come to an end. Thabo wouldn't post more than 8 points in any subsequent game, and he would only grab one more steal. He basically continued the rest of the Clippers series in a reduced role, and then followed it up with two offensive 0fers in Games 1 and 2 of the Spurs series. By Game 3, Scott Brooks had enough of Thabo, and his career with the Thunder was effectively over.
So, now that it's over, who was Thabo Sefolosha?
Stars will always stick out in your mind, as their great performances stand out above all others. Peripheral characters like Perk and Thabeet stick out in your mind too, just because of their unique dispositions and personalities. But Thabo? He was the glue. No one ever sees or appreciates something like glue. And once the glue is dried up and no longer useful, people tend to forget about it.
But when you look upon the foundations of the great careers of KD, Westbrook, and Ibaka, you'll see the defensive intensity brought to them by none other than the Swiss Mister.
I'll never see a fast break in the same way again.
What do you think of Thabo's departure? Let us know in the comments!