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There And Back Again: A Rookie's Tale

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

There are 109 miles between Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City and SpiritBank Event Center in Tulsa. It takes about an hour and forty minutes to drive it.

If you're interested in making the trip, you won't find a better tour guide than the Thunder's Andre Roberson. The rookie guard has traveled that road on 16 occasions this season as he's split his time between the Thunder and its D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers.

This isn't a new practice for Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. Last season, the trio of Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins and Perry Jones combined for 58 such trips (29 there, 29 back).

"(Tulsa's) a big part of our organization," Presti explained. "Primarily because the development of players is really essential for our ability to sustain a high level team for a period of years."

Presti uses the word "sustainability" a lot when describing his franchise plan. Part of creating a sustainable product is getting rookies playing time right out of the gate, and Tulsa plays a big role in that.

There are plenty of positives that come with having your D-League affiliate in close proximity, but it can present challenges for guys like Roberson.

Just imagine the difficulty of managing the grind of an NBA rookie campaign. Instead of the 31 games Roberson played last season at the University of Colorado, he's already played in 51 games this year (OKC & Tulsa combined) and the season isn't over.

The workload is hard enough, but instead of getting to settle into his niche on the Thunder, Roberson's role is constantly changing.

One day he might be starting for the 66ers. The next day he could be starting for the Thunder. The next day he might ride the Thunder bench. The next day…well, you get the picture.

And with a role change comes a mindset change. Roberson averages 1.9 points on 1.7 shot attempts to go with 2.3 rebounds per game in Oklahoma City. In Tulsa? Try 16 points on 13 shots while grabbing 9.6 rebounds per game.

In other words, when Roberson is sent to Tulsa, his role transitions from ‘defend, rebound and hustle' to ‘go dominate everyone' in a mere few hours.

"I focus more on my defense," Roberson said of his role with OKC. "That's one thing I'm brought up here for, that's one thing that got me here as well. I focus on my defense, rebounding and give the ball to KD and Russell."

Pretty good plan. The former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year further explained that the Thunder's system allows him to keep his focus locked in his specific job.

"We have the game plan, everybody's pretty much on the same page," Roberson said. "And I know my role on this team. That's one thing we all do a great job of, knowing our role on this team and what we provide for the team, that's how we all work together."

Oklahoma City's constant yo-yo-ing of Lamb, Liggins and Jones to Tulsa last season wasn't by accident. The Thunder's relationship with the 66ers is comparable to an MLB team and it's Triple A affiliate; where young players can receive extensive playing time in order to speed up their development.

This process works especially well with a team as good as the Thunder. OKC already has a roster full of stars and veterans, leaving very few remaining rotation minutes for prospects. In other words, the Thunder often times finds it more beneficial for Roberson to get 30 minutes with the 66ers than five minutes with the big club.

"We have a great situation in Tulsa, we utilize that," Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained. "(Head coach) Darko (Rajakovic) does a great job of developing the players down there, so when we do have call ups they blend in and integrate very well. Andre has gotten opportunities to play down there, he's getting better, but there's still lot to learn. It takes a lot of years to get familiar with the league, team systems, individual players and he's working hard every day."

It's clear WHY this process works. But HOW does it work? Roberson explained in detail what a back-and-forth trip for him is like.

"I usually get called in by Troy (Weaver) or Sam (Presti), one of the head guys comes and talks to me, just telling me they're sending me down," Roberson described. "Not bashing me, just (telling me to) go down there to get reps and take advantage of the opportunity given to me to work on my game."

And as for the trip itself, Roberson says that his turnpike trek isn't as glamorous as some might guess. No party bus, no limousine, just a lot of "me" time.

"I'm pretty much alone when I go, I either drive or (use) a car service," Roberson said. I just listen to music and chill out."

Roberson's role moving forward is still up in the air. He's started 12 games this season in place of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and has averaged a little over 17 minutes in his past nine contests.

But as the playoffs approach, one thing is for sure: Brooks loves what Roberson brings to the Thunder rotation.

"Aggressive defense, activity, chasing them off screens, contesting shots, rebounding the basketball and running back in transition and matching up," Brooks explained. "He gives us activity, no question. He doesn't have a lot of experience, but one thing he has is a motor. He plays hard; knows what we expect."

Even still, it will be a challenge for the 22-year-old to crack the rotation once Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins return to the lineup. Sefolosha will likely slide back into the starting 2-guard position, meaning Roberson will compete with Lamb, Jones, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher for playing time. But that doesn't faze a guy who's spent the past five months experiencing a little bit of everything.

"Thabo's out, we've had a couple injuries on the team, (but) it's been good just getting up here, getting some reps and getting a feel for the team a little bit more," Roberson explained. (I'll) do whatever Scott needs me to do to help this team win a championship."

All the back and forth may seem tedious, but in the long run, it's only moving his career in one direction: forward.

"When you come into this league, very rarely are you going to start and get 20 points per game," Brooks said. "You have to pay your dues."

Roberson is certainly paying his. One toll booth at a time.

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