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Sounds of Thunder: Oklahoma City’s Semaj Christon, the little Point Guard with High Hopes

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When it comes to staying power, the Winton Woods Warrior is living up to the name.

Layne Murdoch @ Getty Images

Semaj (pronounced Sa-MA-jay) Christon is the back up point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s a fact that seems to befuddle many of his detractors, but it’s a fact none the less. The word heard most when Sa-MA-jay’s game is talked about is “unspectacular,” and that is fair because it isn’t. However, what you don’t often hear are the words that accurately describe his game; solid, steadily improving, fearless, tenacious. And when you do, they aren’t necessarily meant as compliments —when in truth, they should be.

While it may be true that Christon won’t be a regular on ESPN’s top ten plays of the night and will likely never grace the court in an All-Star game, one should still respect the body of work that has taken the 55th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft to a regular rotation spot on a team within 24 games of the NBA playoffs.

Entering that 2014 draft, Semaj was projected anywhere between a late first round to late second-round pick. Miami took him with the 55th pick and before the night was over he was traded.... twice. After finally settling with the Thunder, who took Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis in the the first round, Christon played with the OKC’s Orlando Summer League team. While there, his performance didn’t earn an invitation to training camp, but it did earn him a spot on the Oklahoma City Blue.

Semaj didn’t waste any time making his presence felt:

Thirty-two points at any level will open eyes. Eventually, Christon was selected to the D-League All-Star game and finished his pro debut with 18.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists (#9 D-League), and 1.6 steals (13th) while playing almost 35 mpg in 44 contests. For his accomplishments, the upstart guard was recognized with NBA Development League All-Rookie Third Team honors.

This performance impressed Thunder brass enough to invite Christon to the following year’s Orlando Summer League. And in the absence of Cameron Payne, OKC’s much-hyped #14 pick from the 2015 NBA Draft, the unheralded Christon performed well. Semaj finished the proceedings scoring 15.6 points per game while leading the league in assists with 6.8/gm. But despite that “solid” performance and the praise of coach Darko Rajakovic, Semaj was not offered a contract or invited to Thunder training camp.

Rather than re-signing with the Blue, Christon opted to take his game overseas. He spent the 2015/16 season playing for Consultinvest Pesaro in the Italian League where he produced 14.3 points, 3.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 33.2 minutes in 33 games. Afterward, the resilient NBA-hopeful was again invited to be a member of Oklahoma City’s summer league team.

Cameron Payne, Mitch McGary, and Josh Huestis were the headliners for that summer league roster, yet it was Christon who turned heads in the Thunder’s first two outings:

The 55th overall draft pick out of Xavier in 2014 followed up a 14-point, 10 assist effort against Charlotte in Saturday’s opener with a 12-point, nine-assist performance in the Thunder’s 73-65 win over The Orlando Magic’s Blue team on Monday.

“Semaj was a big part of our success today, our win today,” said Thunder summer league coach Darko Rajakovic. “Semaj had a great game on both ends of the floor.”

Going head to head with Elfrid Payton, the Orlando Magic starting point guard who was taken 45 spots higher, Christon dominated his matchup and controlled the game. Payton finished with just four points and four assists while turning the ball over four times.

“He was great on the defensive end,” Rajakovic said of Christon. “He did a great job on Payton to stop him and helped us stop them as a team.”

Christon, as he did in Saturday’s opener, excelled running the pick and roll. He found shooters when he needed to, hit the roll man on time and with regularity and weaved his way to the basket seemingly with ease.

Darnell Mayberry, NewsOK, July 6, 2016

Those performances unfortunately passed without much fanfare. The why they didn’t attract attention is obvious...the date. July 6th. While Semaj was making his mark in the minds of the Thunder coaching staff, Thunder Nation was burning anything with the number 35 on it in the most spectacular ways imaginable.

(Let’s face it, when someone’s Fourth of July celebration gets ruined, all those fireworks and grill starter fluid has to go somewhere.)

When Summer League was over, Payne grabbed the headlines after leading all scorers with 18.8 pts/gm. What was lost was that Semaj was only 2 points behind, finishing fourth. Though perhaps more importantly, Christon topped Payne in assists, steals, and shooting percentage.

That solid performance finally earned Semaj an invite to training camp. Though still, the Thunder already boasted a superstar PG in Russell Westbrook, a lottery pick in Cameron Payne, and to top it off, proven veteran Ronnie Price, who was signed in the offseason.

Even the news that Payne would be sidelined with a broken foot didn’t offer any guarantees, but Christon approached it just like he has every challenge he has faced, “just work on me, really. You can’t worry about everything else that’s going on around you. Just work on me and focus on me getting better every day.”

When final-cut day came, it was assumed that Semaj and Mitch McGary —whose off-court transgressions had left the former 1st rounder the odd man out— would be the final reductions to OKC’s training-camp roster. But after struggling to a lackluster 16.7 percent shooting performance in the preseason, as compared to Christon’s solid 47.8 percent, it was Price and not Christon that joined McGary on the cutting-room floor.

Billy Donovan’s remarks to NewsOK.com:

“We got a chance to see him for the first time in his career be a part of training camp, play against NBA players, and play in preseason games,” Donovan said.

“He grew a lot more than a lot of us maybe anticipated or expected.”

Christon started the season behind Westbrook, and the former Xavier guard’s bench play helped improve the second-unit. However, once Payne’s foot healed, Semaj was benched in favor of the higher profile lottery pick. After Payne’s exceptional Summer League, OKC brass hoped the bench would receive a substantial lift with Payne’s insertion. Unfortunately for Payne, that vision never came to fruition. Not only did Payne fail to regain his shooting form or display any sense of court awareness, the overall play of the bench deteriorated as well. Therefore, on Feb 23rd and the trade deadline approached, Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne were traded to the Chicago Bulls for veteran PF Taj Gibson —the #11 pick in the 2014 draft— Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second-round draft pick.

This is not to say there was a major drop when Payne replaced Christon, but on a team that is scratching and clawing to regain its identity after the loss of a generational talent, every point comes at a premium, every missed assist is painful, and every turnover is amplified.

For lack of a better way to put it, Semaj was playing point guard, while Payne was trying to be another Russell Westbrook. A worthy aspiration, but pointless if one lacks the juice.

Looking at some adjusted numbers, per 36 minutes, Payne was taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game, Semaj, 2.5. Payne was averaging 4.5 assists, Semaj, 5.6. Nothing mind blowing, but enough to tip the scale in Christon’s favor in an atmosphere that as J.A. Sherman put it to me, a back-up point guard’s mantra should be, “just don’t eff things up.”

That seems to be Semaj’s primary strength. He does what he has to do to get the job done. He steps up when needed, but his primary focus is to let the light shine on his teammates. In many ways his game is a throwback, and thus harder to equate to the modern-day Westbrook, Curry, and Kyrie Irvin types.

Many of his detractors point to Christon’s shooting percentage, especially beyond the arc. A fair enough criticism, but what gets missed, and is the likeliest reason he is still wearing a Thunder uniform, are the quiet assets he brings to the party. For example, Semaj is currently sitting 8th among NBA rookies at 2.3 assists per game, seventh on the adjusted list of assists per 48 minutes, and even more impressive, sits 4th among his peers with a 3.0 AST/TO ratio. Cameron Payne’s asst/to ratio sits at 2.22. WTLC contributor Mark Bruty pointed out that Cameron Payne’s struggles can be attributed to limited playing time: only 1100 minutes. But Christon can counter with only 600 minutes himself, and the argument for Payne’s struggles is diminished.

After Thursday’s trade with the Bulls, a trade unanimously viewed in varying degrees as a win for Presti and the Thunder, NewsOK’s Berry Tramel made this comment comparing the young lottery picks involved, Payne and McDermott:

The Thunder traded Payne, the 14th pick in the 2015 draft, for McDermott, the 11th pick in the 2014 draft. Payne is a little younger and contractually obligated for one more year than is McDermott, but McDermott possesses a skill, 3-point shooting, that is more valuable to this Thunder team than Payne's chief asset, play-making, and McDermott has shown much more of that skill than Payne has shown of his.

Both players were brought to the table with warts: McDermott and his defensive woes, Payne and his yet to be realized play-making skills. Meanwhile, solid and steadily improving Semaj Christon gave Presti the opportunity to move his team a step forward without the risk of taking a step back.

In the final analysis, while Christon’s game is not spectacular, the list of young Thunder players he has left behind is actually quite impressive. When Semaj was selected 55th in 2014, he was preceded in that draft by Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis. McGary was cut along with Ronnie Price before this season and Huestis was just re-assigned to the D-League... again. We’ve already discussed Cameron Payne, but on the Thunder roster at the time Semaj was drafted were Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb.

And now both of those first-round picks in the NBA draft are gone.

Semaj Christon’s story isn’t finished, but there is something about the kid that gets your attention and keeps it. He got Darko Rajakovic’s attention in the summer of 2015 and then Billy Donovan’s in training camp 2016. Now, he is set to write a verse or two in the Thunder’s 2016/17 playoff run. He’s a survivor, and as J.A. Sherman put it to me, not a piano player, but a piano mover. He’s the ant Old Blue Eyes sang about. The ant that moved a rubber tree plant with a lot of determination and a lot of high hopes.

There will be those that will push for Presti to make another move, that Christon is not the answer, and maybe he isn’t, but Semaj should always keep in mind haters hate, and mutts bark, that’s what they do, and remember the feeling he had after February 23rd.... oops there goes another rubber tree plant. Good luck Se-MA-jay.