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Josh Huestis is proof that a good mind can be more powerful than a good jump shot

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A year ago, people were up in arms over the Thunder's drafting Josh Huestis. Now? The move looks brilliant.

When you look at me, what do you see?
When you look at me, what do you see?
Nick Laham/Getty Images
(Update: Huestis-Roberson paragraph updated for readability)
***

The Oklahoma City Thunder stunned the NBA world when they chose Josh Huestis with the 29th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Why would Sam Presti waste a first round pick on a marginal second round player?

When the news broke that Huestis would become the first domestic D-League draft-and-stash first round player and would not sign the CBA mandated rookie contract, shock turned into outrage. SBNation's Tom Ziller called on the NBA to force the Thunder to pay Huestis his first round money and wrote the Thunder were "duping" a Stanford graduate into helping them avoid the luxury tax. He said Presti was the genius behind it all and that he used a promise to pick Huestis in the first round as "bait" to convince him to agree to this "lunacy."

I agree that Presti is a genius, Huestis is a Stanford graduate, and the Thunder avoided the luxury tax as a result of this arrangement. However, according to this post by SB Nation's Mike Prada, it was Huestis and his agents, Mitchell Butler and Toby Bailey, who brought the idea to Presti and not the other way around. Presti's genius in this case was simply being smart enough to take the deal.

Now that Huestis has signed his rookie contract and getting the money Ziller championed for, I thought it would be interesting to look back at some comments made by Josh's agent Mitchell Butler to Prada and Grantland's Zach Lowe shortly after the 2014 draft:
"We didn’t know if he would even get picked in the second round, a lot of really good players didn’t get drafted. We wanted to think creatively to get his name called..."
If this was a murder trial and the prosecutor was looking for motive, then look no further. As pointed out by WTLC's Marina Mangiaracina in this post in MayDraftExpress listed Huestis at #47 in their 2014 mock draft and NBADraft.net excluded him entirely.
"We were less inclined to do the European option. We feel like you have no control over it..."
In his interview with Prada, Butler explained that Europe was not a good option because "that club would not develop Huestis into the kind of player the Thunder wanted." He pointed out that Oklahoma City saw Josh as a wing player and there was a concern that a team in Europe would attempt to convert Huestis into a stretch 4 or use him in a way that would stunt his long-term development.

At the time, NBCSports.com writer Dan Feldman posted a tweet from Lowe which revealed that Huestis did not want to go to Europe and would only agree to play in the D-League for Oklahoma City or San Antonio. In his post, Lowe added that, contrary to popular belief, the European option did not come with any significant payday. According to Lowe, various executives and agents predicted Huestis would be worth about $80,000 overseas.
"This was the perfect team and the perfect storm, this isn't for everyone...."
Translation? Late first round rookies have little value to fully stocked and established teams and usually spend their first season in the D-League. What made the Thunder's situation unique was that they also had a payroll hovering just below the salary cap. Huestis and his camp were betting they could increase their value over more statistically appealing first round choices if they could offer Presti an opportunity to avoid the tax and still get a player he liked. A safe bet when taking Presti's history of making value based decisions into consideration.

When asked what guarantees the Thunder offered, Butler replied:
"There's no guarantee [they do it next year], and that was part of the risk/reward we had to embrace. We know they really like Josh and we believe it should work out."
I really love this comment. Of course there were no guarantees either offered or asked for, that would have sunk everything. The deal had to come with no risk as well as no cost to the Thunder in order for Josh to jump over at least 20 higher ranked players... and yes, there was good reason to believe it would work out. Josh is a defensive specialist that Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress compared to Thabo Sefolosha.

He lacks touch but has nice shooting form and Huestis blocked a gaudy 1.6 shots per game for the Blue last season. If he can bring that skill to the next level it is an excellent compliment to the rebounding prowess of current Thunder defensive bulldog Andre Roberson. Neither player will likely ever be considered offensive juggernauts and defense will always be their primary asset, but Josh's 66% from the free throw line last season compared to Robes 48% may show that Huestis could eventually become the more reliable 3 and D player many teams covet.

Josh signed his rookie contract on July 30th, and Roberson's injury late last season may have provided the catalyst to make that happen. The departure of Sefolosha to Atlanta combined with Roberson's ankle sprain left a gaping hole in the Thunder's perimeter defense and Presti is expecting Huestis to fill that void next year if necessary.

The reward outweighed the risk.
(emphasis mine)

The pièce de résistance!

I have pondered a question for over a year now... what risk was Butler talking about?

From purely a basketball perspective, Josh Huestis had absolutely nothing to lose here and everything to gain.

HUESTIS' CHOICES-

Offer the deal and...
  1. Neither team accepts the offer and being no worse off than before (remember, only the Thunder and Spurs were offered the deal).
  2. The Thunder or the Spurs take the bait, he plays 2 years in the D-League, gets hurt, or doesn't develop and the pick is renounced.
  3. One of the teams bites, he plays 1 or 2 years in the D-League, and then cashes in on a guaranteed 2 year deal worth at least $2 million.
Or don't offer the deal and...
  1. take his chances in the D-League with no guarantees (Huestis already said Europe was not an option)
  2. go back to school, or
  3. get a job
Unless I am missing something here, if Josh wanted to play pro basketball last season, it was the D-League or nothing. The only difference being, if he proved himself, he had a guaranteed contract waiting for him, rather than a big fat question mark.

Whether one approves of Huestis' on-court game or not, there is no other way to look at it. The draft-and-stash deal was a brilliant move. Obviously Huestis wanted to play in the NBA and altering Presti's perception of Josh's value from a D-League project worth only $80,000 overseas to a possible first round NBA pick was the perfect way to make that happen.

Ziller was right, there was a genius at work here... but the question now becomes whether that genius was player turned sports agent, Mitchell Butler, or the "duped" kid from Stanford that holds a degree in Psychology set to make as much next season as his fellow grads will earn in 15 years?

Psychology helps to measure the probability that an aim is attainable.
- Edward Thorndike