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Sounds of the Thunder: Josh Huestis is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Self-made man

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Self-made? Literally. In 2014 we couldn’t even pronounce his name!

J Pat Carter @ Getty Images

In just 3 years, Josh Huestis has parlayed a controversial domestic draft-and-stash first round selection into a full-time gig in the NBA.

And like most self-made men, it was all his idea.

For the vast majority of Oklahoma City Thunder fans, this was their introduction to Josh:

JOSH HUESTIS?!? Who in the heck is Josh Huestis? Some quick research revealed that Huestis was a senior forward out of the University of Stanford and haled from that Mesopotamia of Hoops, that bedrock of the hardwood, that perpetual fountain of basketball talent.... Great Falls, Montana.

Folks, it doesn’t get much more obscure than that.

At 22, almost 23 years old, Josh was too old to qualify as the prototypical 1st round selection, and a .319 career 3-point shot didn’t exactly scream “Pick Me, Pick Me!” either. For Thunder fans it was official, the cheese had definitely slipped off Thunder GM Sam Presti’s cracker.

The logical choice with the 29th pick in the 2014 NBA draft was Kyle Anderson. A 6’9” sophomore that literally set the nets on fire at a .483 clip in his second year at UCLA, not..not... what was that kid’s name again?

Anderson went next to the San Antonio Spurs and is growing into a nice player that hit a respectable 37.5% of his 3-point attempts last season and even started in 14 games. That was the safe pick. The logical pick. The pick that filled a need.

Huestis was billed as an athletic defensive specialist with weak offensive skills. The Thunder already had that — his name is Andre Roberson. What the Thunder didn’t have was a reliable backup for Kevin Durant. The shine on Perry Jones ever filling that spot had begun to lose its luster by that time, and Anderson had skills.

Just how off the first round radar was Josh Huestis in 2014? DraftExpress didn’t bother to do a pre-draft video on him; that’s how far Josh was out there. A quote from DraftExpress’s Jonothan Givony just months before the 2014 draft:

The rest of Huestis' offensive game is nothing to write home about, as he's not a particularly skilled or talented player at this point in time. He struggles to put the ball on the floor and rarely gets to the free throw line, even if he's able to overpower smaller college opponents with his back to the basket inside the paint at times. To his credit, he looks like a smart player who doesn't force the issue too often and rarely turns the ball over, which bodes well for the role he is projected to play in the NBA.

The best thing that Huestis brings to the table, and the key attribute that makes him a NBA prospect, is his defense.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The sad truth is this. The NBA future for a second round pick is slim and almost non-existent for players that go undrafted. Josh Huestis and his people knew this, so they came up with a plan to stack the deck in Josh’s favor and the rest is NBA history.

The Plan

After the Thunder shocked the NBA world with the Huestis pick a wild scramble ensued to find out the story behind the selection and the initial reports weren’t pretty. Phil Naessens even invited WTLC’s J.A. Sherman on his show to talk about it:

It’s fun to go back and listen to things said in the past and compare that to the results we see today. First of all, the name is Huestis, as in Houston, not Heist-us, as in cat burglar, but that mispronunciation was just another indication of how out of left field this selection was.

Further, Huestis didn’t turn down a million bucks to play overseas. A little over a year after the 2014 draft, Huestis signed his 1st round rookie deal and in the write-up covering that milestone we learned that projections had set Josh's earning potential overseas at $80,000. Still more than the $25K he banked in the D-League of course, but also lacking the control Huestis gained with the domestic draft and stash deal.

Fortune Favours the Bold

Oh to have been a fly on the wall and see the look on Sam Presti’s face when this unknown kid and his agent made this offer. Was he shocked? Did he have to stifle an initial reaction to laugh them out of his office? Or did he immediately recognize and admire the pluck it took to make the proposal?

Obviously, the offer was intriguing. Late first round picks’ chances of making it in the league aren’t much higher than second-rounders, but they generally cost a team at least a minimum two-year contract. Now there is this kid in front of him saying he knows he is not the prototypical 1st rounder, but here’s the deal: pick me and send me to the D-League. If you promise to give me a fair chance to prove myself, I’ll delay signing the guaranteed contract for at least a year and relieve you of that tax burden. If I fail to cut the mustard, the deal is off, I thank you for the opportunity, and we both walk away. If I improve, we sign the deal and move forward.

Wow, that takes a pair of these:

In this day of multi-year guaranteed contracts and player options, here stood a young man willing to take all the risks. To gamble his future on nothing but the faith he had in himself and a handshake. Bold? You better know it was bold. Enough so that it told Presti all he needed to know about Josh’s character, something Sam places tremendous value in, and in the end, he took the deal.

The Journey

As promised, Huestis accepted his assignment to the D-League and, as expected, he didn’t exactly set that league on fire. The team had a new coach, Mark Daigneault, a former assistant at Florida University. In addition, Huestis was learning a new position. In college he played SF/PF for the Cardinal. One of the primary reasons Josh and his agent, Mitchell Butler, didn’t want to go overseas was their fear that Huestis would be made into a stretch 4.

At the time they felt his 6’7” 230 lb frame wouldn’t make it as a traditional power forward in the NBA, thus their motivation to find a way to buy Josh time to develop into a 3 and D perimeter player. Ultimately, the plan worked, but not quite for the reasons they thought. (more on that later)

In his first season in the D-League, Josh maintained his shooting numbers from college and grew as a perimeter defender and signed his rookie contract on July 31st, 2015. Huestis didn’t fair as well in his second season in the D-League however. His weak .316 3-point shot dropped to .313 and his free throw shooting dipped below 50%. There were also drops in his rebounding, assists, and blocks/gm and jumps in both his turnover and foul numbers.

In spite of his sagging numbers, the Thunder gave Josh his first taste of NBA action near the end of the 2015/16 season, and the experience was a confidence tonic. From WTLC’s Bobby Chancellor’s player grade:

On March 24th, against the Utah Jazz, Huestis saw 5 minutes of garbage time action scoring 3 points on 1-1 shooting from deep. He would appear in 4 more games, scoring a total of 14 points on 5-12 shooting, 4-6 from deep, and 0-4 from the FT stripe. Additionally, he pulled down 10 rebounds.

Bobby added:

It's hard to know what to expect for Josh Huestis in the future. When he came into the league, many fans expected him to be gone quickly. However, with very little NBA action to go on, fans still don't know what kind of player he could be.

However, Huestis remains an intriguing prospect. His athleticism and length make him a natural defender, and his smooth shooting stroke shows potential, if not results.

Huestis improved in almost every traditional stat last season, and most importantly, that all important 3-point shooting percentage that blossomed into a much more utilitarian 38.5%. Josh carried that momentum right into the Summer League:

That performance on and off the court said it all. He has put in the work, he knows it and the shy kid that couldn’t look at the camera 3 years ago is replaced by a man that plays and speaks with confidence. J.A. Sherman and I spoke about that confidence recently:

Ironically, a shift in the way the game is played today may also play a role in that renewed confidence. As the game moves more and more toward small ball, the spread-four position Josh and his agent tried to avoid in 2014 may well be the perfect role for Josh today. Suffice it to say, no matter what turn of fate may have helped, Huestis is where he believed he would be three years ago, and he is ready to take on his next challenge. The NBA.

Moving Forward

Although his potential is exponentially more clear today than that lazy June evening when Adam Silver introduced him as the 29th pick in the 2014 draft, Josh still has work to do. Now that he has earned an invitation to the party, it’s time to refine his table manners so to speak.

From Fansided’s Lawrence George’s Player Review:

Much of his game draws similarities to starting shooting guard Andre Roberson. In all combine metrics, Huestis registered superior ratings in tests of height, wingspan, standing jump, moving jump, strength, quickness, and max speed. On straight line drives, Josh Huestis is an absolute force and can throw down. His athletic ability sees him as an excellent cutter along the baseline and a force in the open floor.

George went on to write:

What separates Huestis rom Roberson however, is his shot. He can convert open looks and teams won’t show him the same disrespect Dre gets. Against the Denver Nuggets in preseason, Josh Huestis had his best overall performance. He posted 15 points, 9 rebounds and 1 steal in 22 minutes on 5/16 shooting including 4/9 from 3. Although a poor free throw shooter, he does hit at least 58 percent of them compared to Dre’s 49 percent.

Most noteworthy of Huestis’ limitations is his inability to pass the rock. Passing doesn’t come naturally to him so he can be left wondering at times if he is stuck with the ball at the top. Improving his IQ on this end will certainly assist him in earning more minutes.

(Inability to pass the rock? Where did that come from?)

My response to any issue Huestis has moving the ball is that he should grow out of it quickly. From the indications we have seen thus far, Huestis and Carmelo Anthony are developing a bond and one of the things Billy Donovan noted about Melo was his underrated passing ability. And we learned from former Thunder Lance Thomas’s Player Tribune letter to Carmelo shortly after the trade that the former Knick is a tremendous mentor as well.

Passing may not come naturally to Josh today, but neither did taking 3-point shots 3 years ago. If it is a weakness, Huestis will fix it. Yesterday it was shooting, today it is passing, tomorrow may be setting better screens or creating his own shot, but one thing is clear, Huestis is one of those rare people who doesn’t believe in “can’t”.

No self-made man does.


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