Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The OKC Thunder a.k.a. San Antonio Spurs, Jr.

Serge Ibaka and the Thunder are catching up to the Spurs. (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty)

As basketball has increased in popularity around the world, the NBA has experienced an influx of foreign players making hoops careers stateside. A record-tying 84 international players were on rosters when the NBA season tipped off last fall, with the San Antonio Spurs setting a single-team record by including eight such athletes. While the Spurs have long been a bastion in this regard, the Oklahoma City Thunder are quickly establishing themselves as a franchise that's not shying away from a reliance on talent from overseas.

Although Oklahoma City was nowhere near the top of the list at the season's start, rosters have changed and the ranks of NBA players is thinning even more as the playoff race heats up. Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet continue to get meaningful minutes and they form one of the more domineering combinations of international players in the Association.

Three players isn't many, in the scheme of things, but considering the talent acquired by the Thunder, this trio is an exception to the rule. While Thabeet gets what is essentially clean-up time, that amounts to nearly one quarter of play each game. Sefolosha and Ibaka, who has quickly become one of the best shot blockers in basketball the world over, are both starters. Trotting out two of these players to begin a game puts Oklahoma City on par with San Antonio, where Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter are starters.

The Thunder haven't quite accrued the depth to rival San Antonio, but it is not out of the question. OKC general manager Sam Presti was once a part of the Spurs organization, working his way up to assistant GM from a video intern position. Having worked with the franchise for more than five years, Presti knows the inner-workings and machinations of prospecting foreign talent. He is also familiar with finding the specific players internationally to mesh successfully within a system, having been in the Spurs' front office during five division titles and three NBA championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007, respectively.

Shortly before the trade deadline, the Thunder acquired the rights to Georgios Printezis, a 27-year-old Greek forward currently playing overseas. Whether or not he will turn into an asset for Presti's resume is tough to call, as four other teams held Printezis' rights before the Thunder since his name entered the league in 2007. He was selected with the No. 58 overall pick in the 2007 draft by — you guessed it — the Spurs just a few months before Presti left the organization to join the Thunder.

More recently, Printezis dismissed a minimum contract offered by the New York Knicks last summer around the same time he buried a game-winning shot against the defense of Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved's CSKA Moscow to earn the first Euroleague title for his club, Olympiacos, since 1997.

With the success he is experiencing in Europe, Printezis could be satisfied playing out his career there. Or he could be taking the Ricky Rubio route and taking time to develop (or, in Printezis' case, to ensure his rights belong to a franchise of which he approves) before making the leap over the Atlantic. If he waits much longer, though, this could turn into the Pablo Prigioni route and we could see a 30-something-year-old NBA rookie.

Printezis' future cannot be predicted. He is playing in Europe right now, as Ibaka is swatting shots and improving his jumper in the red dirt of Oklahoma, being a key role player for Presti's highly regarded Thunder squad — one full of youth, and possibly soon, enough international talent to surpass the Spurs as the premier destination for players making their way to the NBA from overseas.

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