'I belong in this league': How Lu Dort ended up with the Thunder
Thunder general manager Sam Presti compares the second round of the NBA Draft to the experience of the stock market floor.
The conference room in the Thunder practice facility was full and bustling last summer. As the conversation shifted from how to acquire another pick, to potential undrafted free agents, Presti yielded the floor to his scouts.
When it came time for Brandon Miller to speak, his colleagues already had a good idea of who he was going to lobby for: Luguentz Dort.
“Brandon was as consistent as he had been throughout that he felt like Lu was the right person for us,” Presti told The Oklahoman earlier this year.
Whether the season resumes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or not, Dort’s rookie season will be remembered for him out-performing his contract. Of all of last summer’s undrafted free agents, Dort is one of five who played over 600 NBA minutes this season. Of those five, Dort and Warriors rookie Ky Bowman were the only two on two-way contracts, which are less expensive than standard NBA rookie deals.
Before the hiatus, the Thunder was expected to sign Dort to a full-time contract before the end of the season, in order to make him playoff eligible.
“Right now, I’m just staying patient,” Dort said at the end of February. “I know it’s a great organization, and they know what they’re doing. ... I can’t wait until it happens, for sure, and that’s my goal, but right now I’m really just staying patient.”
Two-way contracts, which allow players up to 45 days of NBA service, are an item on a long list of things the league will need to address as it charters a path forward. For now, two-way contacts are functioning as if the players are with their G League teams. Naturally, with play suspended for both leagues, two-way players are not engaging in basketball activities with their NBA teams. Depending on how many regular season games the NBA plays if and when the season resumes, Dort may not even use all 45 days.
Either way, OKC doesn't have to worry about losing Dort over the summer. Even if the season is cancelled, Dort becomes a restricted free agent, giving the Thunder the opportunity to match any offers from other teams.
The Thunder couldn’t have predicted that Dort — who has averaged 6.2 points and started 21 games as a rookie — would claim a spot in the starting lineup halfway through the season.
Miller did, however, see a future NBA contributor in the Arizona State freshman early on in the evaluation process process.
“Brandon had done a good job throughout the year convincing people that Lu deserved a lot of investment on our part with our time,” Presti said.
But the first time Presti saw Dort play in person, the trip didn’t go how Miller might have hoped. The Sun Devils were playing Princeton, a “challenging, unique” matchup, according to Presti.
Dort committed two fouls in the first 12 minutes and shot 1-of-8 from the field.
“I could almost feel Brandon sensing that it wasn’t going Lu’s way that night,” Presti said, chucking. “We’ve all been there. … But as we know, and Brandon knows, it’s a much bigger body of work than just one game or one practice.”
That fact was fortunate for both parties.
Dort was projected to be a high second-round pick last summer. But as the draft progressed, teams reached out to see if he'd be interested in a draft-and-stash arrangement.
“I felt like I was a better player than that,” Dort told The Oklahoman during Summer League last year.
Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, the Thunder’s efforts to land a second-round pick were coming up short — Charlotte owned OKC’s pick due to a draft-night trade a year prior. So, discussions turned to undrafted free agents.
“There were some other names that people had raised," Presti said, “but I think just in the spirit of the group, and the special dynamics that we have within that room, and the people we have as evaluators, everyone seeded the floor to Brandon and really were able to get behind Lu as the consensus person.”
Midway through the second round, Dort said, he got the news that OKC was interested in signing him to a two-way contract. He left Barclays Center before the draft ended, knowing he wanted to join the Thunder.
“It was definitely tough,” Dort said of going undrafted. “... I was really disappointed and sad, but I’m tough enough. And I know that all I can do is move forward, and know I belong in this league. So, I’m just going to work hard and get there.”
Soon after he got back to his room at the Grand Hyatt New York, Dort received a call from Presti. The future Thunder guard flew out to Oklahoma City the next day.
As Dort and Presti talked over a meal in the practice facility dining room, Presti jotted down on a note card a list of things to remember.
The first topic: Draft night is not the end of anything; This is the beginning of everything for you.