Andre Roberson started his 14th game for Oklahoma City in Thursday’s TNT showdown with the Spurs. It was an unremarkable performance, with no severe flaws exposed and no hidden skills unearthed, a good-natured 5 points and 5 boards in 15 minutes spent alongside several bigger presences. His biggest moment of the night, a semi-transition 3 pointer that put the Thunder up 57-56 early in the third quarter, was emblematic of the modern NBA role player: put your head down, run the right flank, get to the corner, catch and shoot. Thank you Serge for the defensive stop that sent us on our merry way, thank you Russell for finding the open man. I’ll be here all week, unless you waive me for tax purposes.
Roberson solidifying his grasp as the Thunder’s token third perimeter starter for those cold, dark Thabo Sefoloshaless nights is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come. His competition amounts to the tantalizingly inadequate Perry Jones, the Thunder’s previous long-limbed low-risk draft project, as any other would-be contender is preserved for alternate duty. Reggie Jackson can’t simultaneously start games and serve as the second unit’s spearhead, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler are too small and too big, respectively, to stay with the generic opposing starting 2, and Jeremy Lamb has slipped out of the rotation altogether until further notice. For years, Sefolosha has perfectly filled the role of bridging first and second units with his quiet, gluey qualities, and in his injured absence Roberson is a reluctant choice du jour, placeholding for the placeholder.
That said, it’s also possible that by picking him for such duty, the Thunder may be grooming Roberson as a long-term Sefolosha replacement. While the Swiss swingman isn’t on the precipice of retirement, he is about to cross the 30 year threshold, and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. With a league vying for proven 3-and-D contributors and a looming tax line, keeping Sefolosha in tow may be hard for the frugal Thunder.
Roberson is hardly a savior in this regard, as much like his TNT performance, he has been unremarkable for most of his rookie year. While getting real minutes on a contending team as a rookie season is obviously an accomplishment unto itself, Roberson has neither excelled enough to stoke long-term enthusiasm nor disappointed enough to quell it. He has good size for a wing and is damn impressive as a rebounder (his 13.1 rebound rate ranks 4th on the team, behind only the big man trifecta of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins), while being spotted with run-of-the-mill first-year acne in the form of a horrendous turnover ratio. He’s a good finisher at the rim and atrocious when shooting from anywhere else, which coupled with his low free throw rate makes him ineffecient. as a scorer in his limited attempts at being one. He’s an athletic rookie trying to stick; we’ve seen this story thousands of times, with multiple endings, and so far it would be foolish to try and predict which one is Roberson’s.
It should be noted, however, that there are few settings better suited for such a story than OKC. While they have lost some of their developmental luster, as the 2010-2011ish prime of Presti adulation had nowhere to go but down, the Thunder’s track record with wing players is almost unfair. Indeed, while their hand hasn’t been as successful when drafting big man prospects in the Presti era (Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich are the more recent flops, but further down the NBA’s anecdotal history you may find the likes of D.J. White, Mouhamed Sene, Robert Swift, and the NBA’s all-time PER leader Steven Hill), Oklahoma City has consistently done miraculous work with their perimeter youngsters in precisely the two areas Roberson has struggled with the most.
*Eric Maynor was drafted by, and played the first 26 games of his rookie season with the Utah Jazz
This list obviously offers no guarantees – Kyle Weaver didn’t make it despite a glowing endorsement from yours truly, Maynor’s NBA career is slowly fizzling away and the jury is still out on Lamb and Jones. But OKC clearly knows a thing or two about teaching perimeter youngsters to turn the ball over less and put it in the basket more, or at the very least, about not interfering with the development in those areas that comes with natural maturation.
To become OKC’s newest low-usage defensive wing, Roberson needs to be able to make sure the limited possessions that end at his hands end well. Early on in his NBA career, he hasn’t done so, and has been given circumstantial minutes despite it. But with a developmental team tailor-made for those very flaws, Roberson can end up as another solid Presti find in a draft class hideously bereft of long term talent. It may not be enough for unabashed optimism, but it’s definitely in play. It’s hard to ask for more from a 26th pick.