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Thunder Tip Off Tonight in Season Opener Against Kings

The Thunder starting five. (AP) The Thunder starting five. (AP)

Originally Published: Oct 27, 2009 7:52 PM CDT

Oklahoma City Thunder Coverage on Oklahoma Sports
- Thunder Tip Off Tonight in Season-Opener Against Kings (10/27)
- Rumble and Thunder Offer Acts of Kindness (10/26)
- OKC Thunder Fall Short in Final Pre-Season Game (10/23)

Season Preview | Vitals | Recap

Dave Carty
Oklahoma Sports Staff Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It’s difficult to place weighty expectations on a team that finished with just 23 wins. It’s even more difficult when those 23 wins were an improvement over the previous season’s 20.

But, with one of the NBA’s fastest-rising superstars and a core of youth any general manager would covet, the Oklahoma City Thunder are far from being viewed as a doormat.

Leading the franchise into its second year of operation after its move from Seattle is Kevin Durant, who is so good that fans seem to have forgiven his University of Texas roots. The small forward averaged 25.3 points per game last season, up five from his rookie campaign. He’ll turn 21-years-old just days after the season tips off, but that young, still slender frame will be counted on as the rock-solid foundation of the franchise.

Last season, the former Rookie of the Year became a more efficient shooter, while proving he can still hit from almost anywhere on the court. He’s been discussed in basketball circles as being among the top five players in the NBA and a strong effort at the Team USA basketball minicamp certainly didn’t damper that assertion.

Durant’s supporting cast has improved each year he’s played. Along with Durant, 56.5 percent of the Thunder’s point production last season can be attributed to players under 23 years old, best in the NBA.

Jeff Green was Durant’s biggest pivot in the two seasons they’ve played together. The starting power forward registered 13 double-doubles last year and proved he can carry his share of the scoring load, netting an average of 16.5 points per game, including 25 games where he scored 20-plus points.

An equally adept former lottery pick, Russell Westbrook dazzled in his rookie campaign, though he wasn’t without his mistakes. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, yet committed the league’s most turnovers. A dynamic player, certainly, Westbrook will need time to grow into the point guard role, but will still be a reckoning force.

After the three pillars of the Thunder organization, there are some questions. All signs point to James Harden being another dynamic offensive who can add a consistent long-range threat. But, he’s not ready to take the reins yet and will likely yield the shooting guard spot to the notably better defender Thabo Sefolosha, who averaged more than one steal and one block per game in Oklahoma City.

That makes Harden the premiere scoring option off the bench, a role he should fill quite well for the time being.

At the center spot, three players are in the mix to start. The incumbent, Nenad Krstic, the Tulsa native, Etan Thomas, and the banged-up Nick Collison. Krstic is the likely starter, but hasn’t quite shown the same scoring touch he had in his early days with the Nets. The Yugoslavia-born center doesn’t grab a ton of boards and isn’t the same scorer he used to be, but holds the inside track to the job.

Etan Thomas returns to Oklahoma, but was never a primary starter in his seven seasons with the Washington Wizards. He started 32 games in the 2006-07 season, a career-high but missed the following season after enduring open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve. He’s likely to fill the same kind of off-the-bench role.

Former Kansas Jayhawk Nick Collison’s game is more suited to that of a power forward, but will counted on to fill in down low on occasion. Collison has been hobbled much of the preseason by a severe ankle sprain and will likely be brought along slowly.

Coming off the bench, Shaun Livingston is a potential high-reward player. A lottery selection with the Clippers back in 2004 – his knee injury makes Blake Griffin’s look like a scratch after a fall in the playground – Livingston built himself back to compete at the pro level. He’ll need to push that latent talent to the surface to maintain his grip on the backup point guard spot, where Kevin Ollie is challenging him.

Kyle Weaver will come off the bench to relieve Durant and Sefolosha, but the bigger impact players are a little further down the pine. Serge Ibaka oozes physical talent. The 6’10” youngster – even among youngsters – from Spain could appear in the NBA Slam Dunk contest some day. He still needs to put the pieces together and the “raw” descriptor is always used for a reason.

After being one of the top prep players in the nation, B.J. Mullens had mixed results in his lone season at Ohio State. He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, but showed he has a lot of learning to do.

Alike, the Thunder have their share of growing pains to go through, but in a Western Conference that is seeing several teams trending downward, those high expectations are a reflection of everything the Thunder can – and hope – to be.

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