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News » Time to assess the young guns

Time to assess the young guns

Time to assess the young guns
LAS VEGAS - After 10 games in two cities and three gyms, certain things have become quite obvious about the strengths and weaknesses of the Thunder's young guns.

If the Orlando Pro Summer League and NBA Summer League in Las Vegas have taught us anything, it's that there is a world of work to be done in the development of Oklahoma City's rookies and sophomores.

It's difficult to judge how performances from summer league will translate to the regular season. Perhaps unwise to even try. But the past two weeks have given us glimpses of talent that will carry over and glances at warts that might not go away any time soon.

Here are 10 things we've learned about the Thunder after 10 games.

→James Harden is ready to contribute immediately. The No. 3 overall pick played with poise, confidence and an unwavering maturity. He impressed with his court sense as much as he did with his knack for scoring. Harden is good enough to compete for the starting shooting guard job from Day One, but he's proven he's the perfect complement to the defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench. Harden will have to do a better job of staying in front of his man defensively, but the whispers of him being a poor defender have been silenced.

→The point guard position could be questionable. With Earl Watson being waived on Friday, the Thunder is now left with a second-year point guard in Russell Westbrook and Shaun Livingston, who's savvy but bouncing back from a career-threatening knee injury. Oklahoma City did a lot of experimenting at point guard throughout summer league, with customary shooting guards Harden and Kyle Weaver seeing time at the position. They were solid but not steady. The Thunder might have to add a veteran point guard this summer to serve as a calming force when things get hectic.

→Post play still is the weakest link. The Thunder's young core was the talk of the town in Las Vegas, but the praise usually was followed by some form of, "They need a big man." And none of the Thunder's young bigs are ready to be an intimidator in the middle. That means the Thunder figures to encounter the same problems it ran up against last season with poor post defense and mismatches stemming from a lack of size and depth.

→Livingston can now handle more responsibility. His left knee looked solid in Las Vegas and Orlando. He's shed a bulky knee brace, is moving more fluidly and, for now, you can pencil him in as the full-time backup. Livingston's mix of mid-range shooting, court vision and passing skills could make him one of the best reserve point guards in the league. The only question is how much of his lateral quickness he'll be able to regain to assist him in man-to-man defense.

→Robert Vaden can really stroke it from the perimeter. The 54th pick out of Alabama-Birmingham wasn't as consistent as he wanted to be this summer, but when he got it going you could see flashes of how the Thunder could use him as a specialist off the bench. The only question is whether Vaden can adapt to becoming an effective scorer while being presented much less opportunities. He struggled in that role in Orlando and Las Vegas, but if he can adapt he could be a great weapon off the bench down the road.

→Byron Mullens is as big of a project as we thought. But the 7-foot-1 center has a nice skill set that had the league buzzing throughout the week. Mullens has a nice shooting touch from out to 17 feet and is always a threat to throw down a lob pass. Westbrook and Mullens would be wise to study Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler. Mullens is clearly a few years away, but if he continues to work on his rebounding and post defensive while adding a few low post moves he could prove to be one of the steals of the 2009 draft.

DeVon Hardin needs polish. But you'll fall in love with his passion and athleticism the first time you see him play. Hardin is the type of player who is all over the court on the defensive end, blocking shots and hustling for loose balls. He doesn't have a post game or a jump shot, but can be effective around the rim with his rebounding putbacks and alley-oops. If the Thunder remains patient, he could develop into the ideal dirty worker off the bench. Think Chris "Birdman" Andersen.

→Serge Ibaka needs time. The 6-foot-10 power forward has been signed and will be on the roster next season. But don't expect much. While he has shown flashes of rebounding, shot-blocking, and shooting skills, he is as inconsistent as you would expect a 19-year-old International player to be while learning the game. Not to mention he is working against a language barrier (he speaks only a little English) and adjusting to a new league. Thunder fans must be patient.

→Westbrook has matured. Last year's No. 4 overall pick played in six games this summer and showed he is ready to take the next step in his development as the team's floor general. Westbrook is largely more patient, no longer forcing the issue and instead looking for options out of ball screens other than his own shot. He's slowed down and is learning how to shift gears rather than keeping the pedal to the metal.

→D.J. White and Kyle Weaver are more comfortable and eager to improve. They were rookies last year but are entering their second seasons looking to contribute more when their numbers are called but committed to continued development in practice. Weaver's versatility has impressed the coaching staff, and White will be a scoring threat whenever he's on the floor.

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: July 22, 2009


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