ORLANDO, Fla. — They share the exact same height and weight, the same defense-first mantra, and Thunder rookie Josh Huestis welcomes any parallels between himself and Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, who was recently named MVP of the NBA finals.
“He’s a role model. He plays the right way,” Huestis said Wednesday after his third game in the NBA Summer League at the Amway Center. “I look at him and think, ‘That’s a role I can see myself stepping into one day.’ He’s someone I definitely try to model how I play after.”
The former Stanford forward, who starred at Great Falls’ C.M. Russell High School, has made a promising debut this week for the Thunder, who selected him in the first round with the 29th overall pick in last month’s draft.
As he did at Stanford, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward is building a quick reputation as a defensive standout while also establishing a strong work ethic in his first weeks as a pro.
“I like him because he works hard. Comes in every day and works his (butt) off,” said Thunder center Steven Adams, last year’s first-round pick. “That’s huge, especially coming in as a rookie. He’s a solid defender, really good at defense. He picks up things really fast. He’s got a nice jumper as well.”
Huestis’ offensive numbers have been modest in Orlando — he had two points off the bench in his debut, then six points in 26 minutes in his second game. On Wednesday, he had seven points (5 for 6 on free throws) and three rebounds in a loss to the Pacers. His NBA game will start on the defensive end, then grow from there as he gets his footing in the league.
“He’s showing we can count on him on the defensive end, that he can be a lockdown defender,” said Thunder assistant coach Darko Rajakovic, who is serving as the team’s head coach in Summer League play. “He’s a very smart player, capable of making plays and rebounding. We see a lot of positive things in Josh.”
Huestis, who graduated from Stanford as the program’s all-time career leader with 190 blocked shots, is experienced at age 22 as NBA rookies go, in an era of early-entry college stars. That’s helped his transition, playing in Summer League against teams comprised mostly of other rookies and NBA reserves.
“I really wasn’t sure what to expect, since it’s a totally new experience for me,” said Huestis, wearing No. 14 for Oklahoma City. “I just wanted to come in and contribute. I didn’t know how much I would be used, but I’m really enjoying the process so far.”
As a first-rounder, Huestis’ NBA contract is guaranteed, but Oklahoma City could have him get more playing time with the Tulsa 66ers, their affiliate in the NBA’s Developmental League. A strong week in Orlando can help him make a case that he deserves a spot on the Thunder bench, learning from elite stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as an NBA rookie.
“I’m still learning a lot, but I think it’s coming along,” Huestis said. “My teammates have been real supportive, telling me to be aggressive and believing in me.”