NBA exhibition games come and go without much notice, unless they represent your chance to join the list of the young and talented with a future.
For former Kansas star Cole Aldrich, his chance begins Wednesday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder opens the exhibition season against Houston in Hidalgo, Texas. With Thunder starter Kendrick Perkins recovering from wrist surgery, the Thunder center backups will get major minutes during a seven-game preseason that ends with a game at Intrust Bank Arena on Oct. 24.
Aldrich, who played in 44 games in his first two NBA seasons, is competing with former Connecticut player Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton. One will emerge as Perkins’ backup. The other two face uncertain futures.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, no question,” coach Scott Brooks said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “Cole will definitely get good opportunities.”
Aldrich (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) has done little since being drafted 11th in 2010 by New Orleans, then shipped to the Thunder. As a rookie, he averaged 7.9 minutes in 18 games. Last season, he played 6.7 minutes in 26 games and appeared briefly in five of Oklahoma City’s playoff games during its run to the NBA Finals. He averages 1.7 points for his career.
The Thunder doesn’t need him to score. He came out of Kansas with a reputation as a defender and knows he can earn minutes with his shot-blocking and positioning. His top priority is improving defending the pick-and-roll plays so important in the NBA.
“My job is easy,” he said. “Rebound, set good screens. Get the hustle plays. Block shots. Easy buckets when they come to you. Run the floor.”
He doesn’t need to look far to find a role model. Nick Collison, another former Jayhawk, does those things and is a significant part of the Thunder rotation. He can play center when the Thunder goes small.
“You look at a stat sheet and Nick may have six points, three rebounds in 18 minutes, but the impact he had on the game is so much more,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich and Collison, as well as Thunder players Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, joined a group of NBA players who went to South Africa in September as part of the Basketball Without Borders program. The players held basketball camps and talked to youngsters about issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, health and education.
“Unbelievable,” Aldrich said. “You see the way people live, the way people’s culture is different from ours. It was really heartwarming to be able to go over there and help people out. I’ve always loved to go and do charity things. Going and actually seeing the people there and the way they live and touching the kids and seeing everything you see, it’s crazy.”