Three hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder exhibition game Wednesday at Intrust Bank Arena, Rodney McGruder shot one three-pointer after another.
McGruder, who is hoping for a roster spot after not getting drafted out of Kansas State, was shooting from the right side of the Intrust Bank Arena court when he recognized an ESPN cameraman. McGruder walked over to him, smiling as he shook hands with the man, whom he had run into – literally – under the basket during his time at Kansas State.
“Fond memories,” McGruder said later in the Thunder locker room before the final exhibition game with the Chicago Bulls.
When McGruder, who averaged 15.6 points and 5.4 rebounds for Kansas State in his senior season, went undrafted, it was painful. He had tried to elevate his game, working on improving his perimeter shooting and ballhandling skills to add to his already stellar defense.
He worked out with seven NBA teams in preparation from the draft, only to see his dreams dashed.
“It hurt a little bit,” said McGruder, who is 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. “But God has a better plan for me that no one knows, so I’m going to sit back and relax and let him work.”
McGruder only played in one of the Thunder’s first six exhibition games – for five minutes. He entered Wednesday’s game against the Bulls at the 3:08 mark of the first quarter, then played the entire second period. He finished with two points and a steal in 15 minutes.
The Bulls won the game 104-95. Derrick Rose scored 26 points and Luol Deng added 20 for Chicago, which is unbeaten in seven preseason games. Kevin Durant and Jeremy Lamb each had 22 points for the Thunder.
McGruder’s goal has been simple all along: work hard.
Coach Scott Brooks had assured media before the game that McGruder would play, and when he entered the game, it was to cheers.
It was a moment McGruder had anticipated.
“I’m just excited to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as playing in front of the hundreds of Kansas State fans out there,” he said.
McGruder, who scored on a driving lay-up with 9:46 to go in the second quarter, has no giddiness about being in the NBA. This is where he wants to be, where he wants to stay.
“I’m excited. I’ve waited my whole life for it,” he said. “To make it to this stage, I just want to go out and do what I’ve been doing in the past.”
He played with the Orlando Magic in the summer league, scoring 24 points in five games. His goal was to keep working, keep improving.
“I tried to be myself so, once I got an opportunity, I could make it everlasting,” he said. “… It’s a different game than college. You gotta be ready and decisive about what you want to do with the ball. You can’t really hold the ball in the NBA because you mess a play up. You just have to make quick decisions.”
When he was signed by Oklahoma City, his goal became learning from longtime players like Derek Fisher and, of course, Kevin Durant, who he knew growing up in Maryland.
“We’re from the same area,” Durant said. “I’m excited he’s getting his chance to live out his dream, especially with us. We’ve become real close these last few weeks. I’m glad he’s part of the team.”
McGruder wasn’t solely inserted into the lineup because of his proximity to Kansas State and its fans.
Brooks said he deserved it.
“I think he’s had a great camp,” Brooks said. “He’s a great kid. I like what he’s done. He came in and established how he plays. He’s a hard-nosed player. He plays hard. He does a lot of good things on both ends of the floor.
“He has the potential to be a player in this league. We have to make a decision on a few guys. He’s made an impact on how he’s played in the last three, four weeks. He definitely has a chance.”
Thunder could return — Brooks said in a pregame interview that he has enjoyed having an exhibition game at Intrust Bank Arena in 2012 and 2013.
“We like to come up here,” he said. “I’m probably speaking out of place here, but we’d like to come up here every year. It’s been great the last two years, and it’s right down the road from us. It’s an opportunity to spread our basketball team. I think we play a good brand of basketball.”
CHICAGO (104)—Deng 8-15 3-4 20, Boozer 8-17 4-4 20, Mohammed 2-4 0-0 4, Rose 6-15 10-10 26, Butler 4-6 3-6 12, Gibson 3-9 2-2 8, Dunleavy 3-4 1-2 9, Murphy 1-2 0-0 2, Teague 0-0 0-0 0, Snell 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 36-74 23-28 104.
OKLAHOMA CITY (95)—Durant 6-12 9-9 22, Jones 2-4 0-0 5, Perkins 1-3 1-2 3, Jackson 5-12 3-3 14, Lamb 9-16 3-4 22, Collison 4-9 4-5 12, Adams 4-6 3-5 11, McGruder 1-4 0-0 2, Fisher 2-8 0-0 4, Roberson 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 34-74 23-30 95.
3-Point Goals—Chicago 9-18 (Rose 4-8, Dunleavy 2-3, Butler 1-1, Deng 1-2, Snell 1-2, Gibson 0-1, Murphy 0-1), Oklahoma City 4-17 (Jones 1-2, Durant 1-2, Lamb 1-4, Jackson 1-5, Fisher 0-2, McGruder 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Chicago 52 (Boozer 14), Oklahoma City 38 (Adams 7). Assists—Chicago 23 (Rose 6), Oklahoma City 23 (Jackson 6). Total Fouls—Chicago 22, Oklahoma City 23. Technicals—Chicago delay of game, Chicago defensive three second. A—15,004 (15,000).