In 2010 Kyle Singler, the willowy small forward who played for the Duke Blue Devils, led his team to an entirely probable championship run by holding off the Butler Bulldogs in the NCAA championship. The game featured some familiar faces along with Singler, including Utah Jazz star Gordon Hayward (and Hayward’s hair) as well as current Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. But it was Singler who won the day, winning Most Outstanding Player honors in the victory, and flirted with entering the draft after his junior season.
Kyle chose to stay at Duke for his senior year, was named as a pre-season All-American, and appeared on his way to cementing a solid spot in the NBA Draft. However, this decision eventually became a tactical mistake as the 2011 draft turned out to be heavily stacked (e.g. Kawhi Leonard at #15, Jimmy Butler at #30, with Singler’s Duke teammate Kyrie Irving going #1 overall), while the 2010 draft was decidedly unspectacular (OKC got Cole Aldrich at #11). Singler went in the 2nd round at pick #33 to the moribund Detroit Pistons, and from that point on he was a decent player on a bad team.
The Thunder acquired Singler during the lost 2014-15 campaign that was more notable for everything that went wrong (Durant’s injury, Sebastian Telfair’s heavy involvment, Russ’ broken face) than what went right. In the midst of it, the Thunder acquired Singler from the Pistons, primarily to shed malcontent Reggie Jackson, but the trade also netted Enes Kanter (and the now departed D.J. Augustin and Steve Novak), which seemed to point OKC in the right direction whenever they returned to health. The Thunder signed Singler to a 5-year, $25 million extension, which while seemingly too much in 2015 dollars, in the midst of the new NBA TV deal it would likely prove to be an absolute bargain for a valuable bench player.
Aside: I have a working theory about Sam Presti. Along with always being a forward thinker trying to recognize and capitalize on value ahead of others, I think he sees certain kinds of value in other players that he feels are necessary to be a contender and then goes to find his own version of them. The easiest example of this is the drafting of Andre Roberson. Over the years, and especially in 2011, OKC has been terrorized by the Grizzlies’ defensive maniac Tony Allen. TA’s defensive acumen is well acknowledged, as is his sometimes disastrous forays to the rim. Regardless, he has been a key cog in the Grizzlies’ aspirations, he’s a team-first guy, he offers great value, and can alter some games all by himself. I think Presti watched him take apart Durant and said, “I need to find me one of those.” Well, he did with Roberson, right down to the shaky offense, but I digress.
Another player that I think Presti saw and said, “I need one of those” is Shane Battier. Battier, now retired, has long been lauded as one of the most cerebral players in the game, a defensive genius, and coincidentally also a championship member of a past Duke Blue Devil team, and maybe also not coincidentally, another player who nobody seemed to like very much. But his value was unquestioned as he was integral specifically in the Miami Heat defeating the Thunder in the 2012 Finals. My theory is, Presti thought he might have found himself another Battier in Singler.
Well, Presti can’t win them all, can he?
Anyway, that’s not quite what we wound up with. Instead, more than anything else, I see in Singler a player who is not at all comfortable in his role or his game with OKC. He does have talent that a team could use - he understands floor spacing well, he’s a solid passer, shoots decent from 3-point range, and he understands defensively what OKC is trying to do - but his downside is so glaringly apparent (dribbling, for example) that it raises the question, not only if Kyle could ever fit within the Thunder’s Westbrook-led freight train of an offensive system, but if his OKC experience might damage his personal stock so greatly that it could cast him out of the league completely. Because right now Singler is 28 years old, the theoretical athletic zenith, a place where the peak of his athleticism is combined with his mental mastery of the game. This is as close to as good as he’s going to be. Yet that combination of talent and skill led him to literally be the worst player in the league for a spell last season, and if he can’t figure out his role for the Thunder this year, Presti is going to have to figure out a way to unload him, and likely for pennies on the Singler-buck.
I think coach Billy Donovan knows this too. He knows what it means from his college days to squeeze out everything you possibly can from a player’s limited upside to help your program win, and the NBA is no different. If you cannot recognize value out of every player, there may not be a next season to do better. That’s why Donovan kept using Singler during the regular season last year right up to the playoffs, where Kyle unsurprisingly vanished from the rotation. Donovan was searching for some possible way to get some value out of Singler, but he couldn’t find it in time.
Will there be more time offered this season? We are about to embark into the great unknown this year, stare into the abyss and find out what is looking back up. Is it a lottery team? A low-seeded playoff team that gets bounced in the 1st round? Or a feisty/angry team that finds a brand new identity and figures out how to put the fear into their opponents? There will be plenty of time for experimentation, just like there was last year. But at some point, the question will have to be asked: does Billy ride with Kyle?
Well, at least Kyle has the Billy-D hairstyle down now:
There is time left, but it is running out. Could it be as simple as making shots? Newcomer Victor Oladipo seems to think so after Singler scored 17 points in the Thunder’s pre-season loss to the Mavericks:
"Kyle has so much potential to be a really good player," Victor Oladipo said. "I’m there everyday. I see how he works. He works on his body. He works on his game. He’s improved a lot. So, all he needs is a little bit of confidence. It’s all mental for him."
There you go. It’s all mental.