Inside Look at the Thunder’s Draft Process

Brett Dawson, (

There was no shot at the kid from Indiana.

Oklahoma City held the 12th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and he would be off the board long before that. By the second pick, as it turned out. There was never a chance he’d fall so far.

But at the Draft Combine in Chicago that spring, the Thunder met with Victor Oladipo anyway.

“Because you never really know what’s going to happen down the line,” said Will Dawkins, OKC’s director of college player personnel.

In 11 days, the Thunder will make the 21st pick in this year’s NBA Draft. In a blink, it’ll be over, the result of more than a year of scouting, debating, inspecting and projecting basketball players from all over the world.

The draft can be a crapshoot, but draft prep is a critical element of roster building, for personnel decisions on draft night and beyond. The draft comes and goes in one night, but NBA teams spend immeasurable time the other 364 days a year building toward it.

“It’s exciting,” said Troy Weaver, the Thunder’s assistant general manager. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work throughout the season.”

Doing homework

There’s a science to the draft, but the Thunder isn’t splitting atoms. Its process is much like every team’s.

It starts with the year-round scouting – at college tournaments and international competitions and summer camps – that gives Oklahoma City’s scouts a picture of players’ athleticism and skill.

The Thunder has four regional scouts to evaluate players in person across the country. Dawkins is on the road about 20 days in a typical month watching games at U.S. colleges and abroad, whittling a long list of priority prospects so that Weaver and general manger Sam Presti can see scouts’ top targets in person.

But that’s only the start.

“One thing we say around here is we draft people, not players,” Weaver said. “It’s really important that we get to know who we’re drafting and not just the player.”

Unlike Major League Baseball teams, which effectively can recruit top prospects with in-home visits and interviews, NBA teams face significant restrictions in contacting prospective players.

Often, an NBA team doesn’t meet a player until the pre-draft process in the months before he’s selected. Even then, the opportunities are limited to events like the Combine or pre-draft workouts at a team facility.

That puts a premium on those meetings, but it also means teams focus on getting to know a player through those around him.

The Thunder will talk to a college prospect’s coaches, but also his high school teachers. Maybe some teammates. On a college campus, Dawkins said, Thunder scouts and front-office staff will “talk with everyone who will sit down with us” to get some insight into a player’s work ethic and personality.

When a player visits Oklahoma City for a workout and interview, he meets with most every corner of the organization. Front-office staff and coaches, sure, but also the medical and analytics staffs, the public relations department and more. And every employee who meets a prospect is encouraged to share with draft decision-makers the impression he made.

“We like serious basketball players, guys that are serious about the game,” Weaver said. “Guys that work hard. Guys that are good teammates. We can (figure out) all the other stuff, skillset and all that. Those three things are the main pillars.”

The process is geared toward finding a player who fits the Thunder’s team needs and its culture. All that research is in the name of building “the board,” the blueprint that dictates who the Thunder will select on draft night.

The great debates

For this year’s draft, Dawkins said, the Thunder built profiles on about 300 players, some far more detailed then others. Only 60 players will be drafted on June 22, but Oklahoma City’s draft board probably will have twice as many names as that.

The data remains on file, updated for players the Thunder might pursue in free agency or via trade, like Oladipo. In the short term, it’s for building the board.

From the probable No. 1 pick to prospects unlikely to be drafted, the Thunder will rank dozens of players precisely. Each time a player from the board is drafted, his name comes off. Whoever’s at the top of the list when it comes time for OKC to pick will be the choice.

There are no variations, no draft-day debates. The order is set in stone, preferably days before the draft.

So while there might be trade calls on draft night that force quick decisions, the process of picking a player is “not like in the movies,” Weaver said. There’s no back-and-forth banter about a last-minute change of plans.

Those debates happen long before, during the process of building the board. Presti encourages them.

Periodically throughout the year, the Thunder’s scouts have conference calls with Dawkins. Presti and Weaver join in when they can. In those calls and in meetings in the weeks leading up to the draft, there’s no holding back allowed.

You have an opinion on a prospect, you voice it – even if it’s a dissenting voice against the majority.

“There’s a respect factor every time we have these conversations in meetings,” Dawkins said. “But there’s an understanding that you can be yourself and you can give your opinion. So there’s times when it gets heated and guys go at it.”

Finishing touch

All the year’s scouting and research comes into play in those meetings. The goal is to reach a consensus, to rank the players as accurately as possible. And even with all that work, it’ll go wrong sometimes.

The Thunder has draft-night hits – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson – from all over the first round. It’s also swung and missed on names like Cole Aldrich, Perry Jones and Mitch McGary.

Even with all the time and effort teams devote to the draft, finding a quality player is no given. Teams are “making our best educated guesses,” Dawkins said.

The Thunder learns what it can from the process and starts it again.

“Literally the day after the draft, we’ll be meeting with our scouts – even before that, honestly – planning out our summers,” Dawkins said. “Where do we need to go? Who do we need to see? What are the priority schools? It really is all year round.”

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