After the Oklahoma City Thunder were waived off the court by a Damian Lillard 40-foot, stepback buzzer-beater in the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the direction of the franchise changed completely.
The loss marked the Thunder's fourth-consecutive first-round exit, struggling to replicate the deep playoff runs of the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook era. More than just a move or two away from competing with the top teams in the NBA, the Thunder's front office elected for a hard reset, despite not being far removed from pairing Westbrook with seven-time All-Star Paul George.
It all started that offseason, sending an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year finalist in George - who had just signed a four-year extension in OKC the year prior - to the LA Clippers in return for their first rebuilding piece in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with Danilo Gallinari, five future first-round picks (four unprotected, one protected) and two first-round pick swaps.
The draft compensation return was unlike anything the NBA had ever seen before, surpassing the three future first-round picks and one pick swap the Boston Celtics famously landed from the Brooklyn Nets for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett back in 2013.
Shortly thereafter, the Thunder made one of the toughest decisions in franchise history, trading a nine-time All-Star and former MVP in Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in return for an injury-riddled Chris Paul, two future first-round picks (both protected) and two first-round pick swaps.
There was clearly a trend taking place, as Oklahoma City's front office began to hoard as many draft picks as possible to build for the future.
Turns out that trading for Paul would actually put the rebuild on hold for a year, as the then-34-year-old returned to his All-Star ways and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Along with getting new franchise cornerstone Gilgeous-Alexander more playoff experience, as well as the emergence of a defensive stopper in Luguentz Dort, the season bolstered Paul's trade value, once again being viewed as a ceiling raiser for teams with championship aspirations.
So what did the Thunder's front office do? Turn him into another first-round draft pick.
Those three deals started a snowball effect for Oklahoma City, sending out more than a handful of other deals to eventually tally 36 (!) draft picks - 18 first-rounders and 18 second-rounders - over the next seven years.
The 2021 NBA Draft was the first to unlock its treasure chest of future draft pick compensation, stepping up to the plate with the No. 6 pick, preparing to make the first of seven years worth of swings for the fences, hoping to hit more than a few home runs along the way.
With the sixth pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder select... Josh Giddey, from Melbourne, Australia and the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia.
Giddey going off the board that early may have come as a surprise to most, but when you have as many future draft picks as OKC does, you can take a risk to reach for the player you want. And the player they wanted was the 6-foot-8, playmaking point guard with a ton of untapped potential and a season of professional basketball under his belt at just 18-years-old.
The 2021 NBL Rookie of the Year averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 28 games with the Adelaide 36ers, leading the entire league in assists. He became the youngest Australian player in NBL history to record a triple-double in a game, then followed that performance with another triple-double, becoming the first-ever Australian to achieve the feat in consecutive games, flashing his well-rounded ability to do a little bit of everything on the floor.
But aside from bringing pro experience to a young roster, the reason the Thunder sought him out with their first selection of all of their future draft compensation is because they believe he's the type of mouldable and versatile player who can get the most out of, and fit seamlessly next to, any future prospect they select down the line.
"First and foremost, he makes other people better. That's a really important trait. As we continue to add other players to our team, I think he's someone who can amplify his teammates' present and future," Oklahoma City's general manager Sam Presti stated after the draft.
"I think everybody understands the way he sees the floor and the way he processes the game," he continued. "With the way that the game has developed over time, people that can recognize patterns and read situations in advance and really anticipate things are of great value. He's someone that does that at a very high level but also does other things.
"He can play all over the place, but at every position he plays, he's making others better and just helping you play good basketball."
With the Thunder's current roster, Giddey gives this developing team options. He can run point next to Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort. He can play off-ball as a forward in a smaller lineup alongside that duo and 2020 first-round pick Theo Maledon, who showed promise in his rookie campaign. He could also initiate offence in a jumbo lineup with other forwards and bigs like Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby.
But more importantly for the future, Giddey is the type of flexible player who allows Oklahoma City to draft without needing to target a certain position.
The Thunder only made two of their three first-round picks in 2021, the other being No. 18 overall pick Tre Mann, a shifty scoring guard. They turned their other first-round pick - No. 16, which they acquired just weeks before in a deal that sent Al Horford back to the Celtics - into two more future first-rounders when the Rockets were desperately trying to move up to draft Turkish star Alperen Sengün.
That brings their future first-round draft pick tally back to 17 over the next six years, a staggering number of chances to build this team back into a title contender down the line.
It will be interesting to see how this unique rebuild pans out, but it speaks volumes of the player Oklahoma City believes Australian star Josh Giddey can become by taking him with the first big swing of this historic project.
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