Despite recently becoming the longest-tenured GM in the NBA, Sam Presti and the Lottery are not quite as familiar as you’d think. Since 2007, he’s only had four lottery picks of his own and only two came in OKC. The Thunder have actually traded into the lottery as much they’ve been in it, with moves made in 2010 and 2016.
With that being said, how does Presti fare when actually drafting high? Here is a ranking of all eight Presti draft picks since 2007, way back in the Sonics era.
(Ground rules: this is a ranking of the picks themselves taking into account the longevity/quality of the player, years in OKC, and difficulty of draft position. I’m not ranking the players themselves as that would be a little boring).
8th – Cole Aldrich, C, 2010 (11th pick, via New Orleans)
As a proud owner of a Cole Aldrich jersey (complete with a hand-sewn NBA Finals patch, mind you), this pains me to write. Unfortunately, Cole turned out to be Presti’s biggest bust in the Lottery.
OKC was fresh off a defeat at the hands of the Lakers that largely came down to the interior dominance of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. After watching Nenad Kristic and a young Serge Ibaka anchoring the middle, it was clear the Thunder would need to beef inside. Clearly, if you wanted to win a title, you needed gritty centers, the position of the future.
Of the centers in 2010, Aldrich was the move for adding grit: a 6’11 Minnesotan with a tooth missing is as gritty as it comes. Unfortunately, Cole entered the league as a dinosaur before any of us really knew it.
The small ball revolution hit the NBA just a few years after 2010. Even then, Aldrich was a prospect that needed time to grow behind Kendrick Perkins, who became obsolete himself just a few years later.
Truthfully, Aldrich just didn’t work out. He was shipped out to Houston in the 2012 James Harden trade and spent his career bouncing around the NBA as a backup option at center. While he did have an eight-year career, which is not really that bad, he never got close to matching his #11 status.
7th: Cameron Payne, G, 2015 (14th pick)
After Reggie Jackson’s eventual departure the prior December, the Thunder were in the market for a new backup point guard. OKC’s man was Cameron Payne, who the Thunder saw as a perfect complement to Russell Westbrook.
Which was partially true. In Oklahoma City, the two had some electric pregame dances.
On the court, however, it just never quite materialized. In his rookie year, Payne had flashes of solid play but just wasn’t quite a reliable backup for Westbrook, as Randy Foye was brought in later to fill that role. His sophomore season was more of the same and saw him traded to the Chicago Bulls for Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson.
Payne sort of fell off a cliff from there. His time in Chicago was spectacularly unremarkable: his Wikipedia entry for his time there literally refers to him as the Tank Commander. After, he spent some brief time with Cleveland and Toronto, before getting cut and shipped out to China.
However, Payne’s career made a comeback in 2020, as the Phoenix Suns brought him on for their run in the NBA Bubble. He played well, earning him a second year and is currently playing pretty well as the backup PG we all envisioned.
Maybe Presti was right on this one in the long term?
6th: Jeff Green, F, 2007 (5th pick, via Boston Celtics)
Not gonna lie, this list is pretty damn solid if we are putting Jeff Green at 6. For those of you who weren’t following the Seattle SuperSonics at the time, Presti acquired this pick on draft night in a trade with the Boston Celtics: Ray Allen for #5, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West.
Green’s career in Oklahoma City and beyond has been relatively solid. In OKC, Green was the original third piece in the Thunder’s young big three next to Russ and KD. He made First-Team All-Rookie in Seattle, made both Rookie-Sophomore games, and even had the first walk-off game-winner in Thunder history.
However, the biggest issue with Green can be traced back to draft night. See, when you draft Kevin Durant as your small forward of the future, immediately drafting another small forward isn’t exactly the best move.
The Thunder did everything they could to fit Green and Durant together, even to the point of putting KD at the very unnatural 2 to accommodate Green at the small forward position. As time (and PJ Carlissomo) went on, Durant shifted to small forward and Green shifted down to power forward.
While Green as a power forward doesn’t seem too crazy now, this was a different NBA. Night in and night out, Green was overmatched on a nightly basis. With the 2011 emergence of Serge Ibaka off the bench as a much better fit at the 4, it became abundantly clear that the fit wasn’t working for the roster anymore. Green was traded to Boston in the deadline day deal that brought Kendrick Perkins to OKC.
In a different era, it might have worked for Green and the Thunder. However in 2007, the pick just didn’t make sense.
5th: Steven Adams, C, 2013 (12th pick via Houston)
Remember when I referred to Cole Aldrich as a dinosaur before we knew he was a dinosaur? Well, Steven Adams falls into that same category, except he was actually good.
When the Kiwi was selected 12th in the 2013 draft with a pick acquired in the James Harden trade, there wasn’t exactly much excitement involved. In fact, you couldn’t pick a player more opposite than Harden on the surface: a project center with limited offensive ability doesn’t exactly sell jerseys and inspire NBA Finals conjecture.
Oklahoma City would fall in love with Adams though. His tough, hard nosed play was endearing and the kid seemed funny. By the time Zach Randolph socked him in the jaw in Game 6, he was OKC’s new golden child.
Sure, there were limitations. By the Playoffs, Adams would be so banged up that he looked like a shell of himself. Also, picking Steve-O ahead of Giannis Antetekoumpo and Rudy Gobert is a move that looks particularly rough in the blinding gaze of hindsight.
Even then, Steven Adams was larger than life in Oklahoma City. In many ways, he still is: take a trip down to the corner of Sheridan and Shartel in Downtown and see for yourself.
4th: Kevin Durant, F, 2007 (2nd pick)
Alright folks, before we get controversial, remember the list is about the best picks, not necessarily the best players. Durant would easily top that list as one of the best scorers of all-time and the player that led Oklahoma City onto the international stage.
As a pick though? Durant at #2 was a no brainer.
The discourse around the 2007 draft was making the decision between Greg Oden, Ohio State’s star center and the next big thing in big men, or Kevin Durant, the slender assassin from Texas. As it was 2007, star centers were a dime a dozen and could get you over the top to title contention. Not only that but Portland, the team with the number 1 pick, already had a star wing in Brandon Roy. Plus, Durant was a liability: he apparently couldn’t bench press 185 pounds, which was a big deal for some reason.
They went with the better fit and “safer” pick and drafted Oden. The Sonics had the easy pick of taking Durant.
If the Sonics and Presti drafted Durant #1, that would top the list easily. However, having one of the best players in history gifted to you isn’t draft prowess, it is luck.
Maybe I am placing too much weight in the draft position here, as Durant turned out to be an absolute revelation. However, it is hard to call it a genius Presti move when it was just too obvious.
3rd: Domantas Sabonis, F, 2016 (11th pick, via Orlando)
Now, this was a genius Presti move. In the trade that would launch a thousand trades, the Thunder sent Serge Ibaka (who had one year left on his contract) to Orlando for Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick in that night’s NBA Draft. While most of the attention on draft night was circling around Oladipo, the selection of Domantas Sabonis would be one of his smartest picks ever.
Sabonis only spent one year in Oklahoma City, but the makings of the player he has become showed through early. His playmaking ability is a rarity at his size, making him the perfect modern center. While his rookie season had its ups and downs, eventually falling out of the lineup in the playoffs against a hyper-small ball Rockets team, he showed great potential for a young player picked in the late lottery.
Domas wasn’t long for OKC, however: he would be dealt to the Indiana Pacers a few months later with Oladipo in exchange for Paul George. Since then, Sabonis has blossomed into an NBA All-Star as one of the most promising young players in the league.
Where the Sabonis pick’s real value will actually partially be seen today. After his lone year in Oklahoma City, he was sent to the Indiana Pacers, with Oladipo, for Paul George. I think you know the rest: George signs a deal in OKC, gets traded for a treasure chest of picks and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. Without Sabonis being the player he was in OKC, this deal doesn’t happen.
Even though Sabonis wasn’t in OKC long, the effects of his selection will echo for years to come.
2nd: James Harden, G, 2009 (3rd pick)
In a world where he doesn’t leave OKC early, James Harden is at the top of this list. This was an extremely tough draft, filled with major hits (Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozen, Blake Griffin) as well as some massive busts (Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio were all picked over Curry). Most mock drafts had Oklahoma City taking Rubio, as the “Russell Westbrook is a 2” conversation was a thing, so picking Harden was honestly a bit of a surprise.
Surprise or not, it became evident very early that Harden was the correct pick fit wise. While his rookie year did not produce gaudy numbers (9.9 pts. 1.8 ast. and 3.2 reb. is pedestrian at best), The Beard had a tendency to show up in big moments and worked great along Durant and Westbrook.
Harden improved even more in 2011, so much so that he was starting to replace Jeff Green when people talked about OKC’s young Big 3. When Green was sent to the Celtics midway through the season, Harden flourished with his new role as sort of a discount Manu Ginobli. He was a key piece in the Thunder’s first real playoff run, providing a spark of offense when Kevin or Russ would hit a wall.
Then, the lockout season happened. While most of Oklahoma City was optimistic about Harden’s growth, what we would see over the next few months took us by storm. Harden steadily improved over the year, hitting star-level milestones at an astonishing rate. By the end of the year, he was no longer just a third option, he had equal footing with his other two Thunder stars. An electric playoff run, culminating in a major shot over Ginobli solidified it: he was a star.
Unfortunately, this actually was a problem. Harden got too hot too fast. I don’t need to rehash what happened (just pick a random episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast since 2014 and you’ll get more than enough info), but after a financial game of chicken, Harden was on his way to Houston. Presti’s brilliant pick turned into his most dubious trade.
If Harden would have stayed longer, he’d likely have been #1 on this list. However, this is a tough list to top, and there is one player who has the perfect blend of being a difficult pick, with success, and longevity in Oklahoma City.
1st: Russell Westbrook, G, 2008 (4th pick)
How could it not be? Russell Westbrook was an absolute wild card of a selection back in 2008.
If you ever wonder where Russell Westbrook’s chip on his shoulder came from, I’ll go ahead and rewind things for you. Russ was a late bloomer in high school, only truly getting elite attention in his senior year. When he made it to UCLA, he wasn’t even the main man in the backcourt, backing up Darren Collison as sort of an off-the-bench spark plug. He would start his sophomore season, but only after an injury to Collison.
Russ was a solid player, known for his electric athleticism and stellar defense, winning the Pac-10’s Defensive Player of the Year award. However, most didn’t even remotely consider him to be the best UCLA prospect on the board; that would be his roommate, Kevin Love. Westbrook was good, but #4 good?
To be honest, the critics had a point: Westbrook, for all his bright spots, wasn’t quite polished on offense just yet. The prospect of his as a point guard was in doubt, at best. However, Presti chose Westbrook for his motor, his drive to improve.
(Side note: a lot of credit here also has to go to Troy Weaver, who advocated strongly for Russ after noticing him asleep in his car, two hours before a draft workout; props to Presti for listening to his team!)
Westbrook grew into his role as point guard, taking the mantle after Scott Brooks took over early in the 2008-09 season. It would take a small novel to recap Russ’ full career in OKC, but through it all, Presti stuck by his guy. He passed up Rubio in ’09, supported him through his bad stretch in late 2011, and when Westbrook wanted to leave in 2019, he granted him his wish. Russ rewarded the organization’s faith in him tenfold over the eleven years and remains an icon to this day.
The riskiest pick on this list also ended up the most valuable.