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Roberson more than an injury challenge for Thunder this season

It wasn’t so long ago that Andre Roberson was a shy rookie, careful with his words, searching for his place among the world’s best professional basketball players.

Six seasons is a lifetime in the NBA. Now, Roberson is 27. He can confidently detail how he’d defend Portland’s Damian Lillard. Roberson sounds like a resident physician while describing the injury that has sidelined him more than a year. Phrases like "double drag" when talking about screens, or "the revascularizing of the tendon" when talking about his surgically reconstructed knee roll off his tongue with ease yet conviction.

Roberson hasn’t played for the Thunder in 14 months. In that time, his education hasn’t stopped.

"It kind of helped me grow and learn different aspects of the game," Roberson said of the last setback in his rehab from a ruptured left patellar tendon. "… not only the game but myself and grow from that and take it and use it on the rest of my life."

The perseverance Roberson has showed is critical. When the Thunder starts preseason in September, he’ll face a daunting challenge — a return to basketball after nearly 20 months off. It’s not the only challenge Roberson will be facing.

Even when the Thunder has an entrenched starter at a position, it believes in layering its roster with the next potential contributor at a position. It’s done so to ill effect since drafting Roberson and Steven Adams in 2013, missing on numerous first-round draft picks from Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis in 2014 to Cameron Payne in 2015.

But the wing has promising prospects, in part because Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon in January 2018. In his absence, Roberson has helped develop Terrance Ferguson, 20, into a player who could marginalize his minutes whenever he returns.

"We'll just have to see," Roberson said when asked about possibly coming off the bench when he returns. Roberson wants to be ready for training camp, but the Thunder also planned on playing him with the G League Oklahoma City Blue before an avulsion fracture was found in his left knee in November.

"Whatever Coach (Billy Donovan) asks me to do, I'm going to go out there and do it to the best of my abilities, whatever is best for the team. Whether it's T-Ferg or me starting, I'm going to go out there and support my guys either way."

Roberson’s absence also comes with costs.

The Thunder’s defense was one of the best in the NBA even without Roberson last season, fourth in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. But Roberson, and All-Defensive team selection in 2016-17, covered up for either the inability or unwillingness of the Thunder to defend consistently in pick-and-roll. At his apex, Roberson was a one-man pick-and-roll destroyer, allowing Russell Westbrook or Paul George to rest on the weakside of a play and target deflections, and Adams to play deeper off the 3-point line.

Instead, a year-and-a-half without Roberson amounted to two consecutive playoff series of lead guards running wild (Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard), as well as $20 million spent on 39 games of service. It’s a raw, but unavoidable truth for a team paying close to $60 million in luxury taxes following this season.

It’s why the development of young wings is paramount, not just because Roberson’s future is unclear, but it’s cost effective for a team that has struggled to convince wing talent to sign as free agents (Rudy Gay, Wesley Matthews). At $2.47 million, Ferguson will make a quarter of Roberson $10 million this season.

If and when Roberson returns, his shooting will be another question. On a positive, Roberson shot 64.2 percent last season within 5 feet of the rim, third on the Thunder behind Adams (67.7) and Jerami Grant (66.4). But Roberson’s inability to space the floor to 3-point range is well-documented.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti said the team will "look under every rock" in the pursuit of more shooting. The Thunder also likes to look at what a player can provide rather than what he’s deficient at. Roberson excels on defense, and on cutting off-ball on offense.

It’s just been a while since any of those attributes were on the court.

"It definitely took me a little bit of time to accept it, but now I'm in a great place," Roberson said. "I'm at peace with myself and just kind of taking it for what it is. I'm in a great spot to kind of return fully and healthy, ready to go next season. That's all I can wish for at this point."

Related Photos
<strong>Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson cheers from the bench during a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Roberson missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson cheers from the bench during a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Roberson missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-bfa6d2022ff19f64c0c91a10d0a0a5c2.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson cheers from the bench during a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Roberson missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson cheers from the bench during a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Roberson missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson cheers from the bench during a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Roberson missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-426687c3f6c4390a81487fe19999f92e.jpg" alt="Photo - Andre Roberson missed the entire Thunder season with an injury. Roberson said he learned a lot about the NBA game while he has been sidelined. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Andre Roberson missed the entire Thunder season with an injury. Roberson said he learned a lot about the NBA game while he has been sidelined. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Andre Roberson missed the entire Thunder season with an injury. Roberson said he learned a lot about the NBA game while he has been sidelined. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Erik Horne

Erik Horne is in his fourth season on the Thunder beat. Horne joined The Oklahoman as a sports web editor/producer in September 2013 following a five-year stint at The Ardmoreite (Ardmore) – first as a sports writer, then sports editor. At The... Read more ›

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