Two summers ago, the Thunder was high on its second-round draft pick from 2014. After a strong showing at the 2015 Orlando Summer League, the thought was that Semaj Christon was NBA ready.
Less than a month later, Christon signed a contract to play in Italy as the chance at minutes in the OKC backcourt looked slim. That same summer, the Thunder was coming off a season of injury and had a rare opportunity to draft in the lottery. It picked Cameron Payne. D.J. Augustin was still on the roster. That Russell Westbrook guy, too.
So, Christon elected to go overseas and wait for his opportunity to crack the Thunder rotation in a year.
After another summer in which Christon showcased NBA-caliber skills, the 23-year-old is still on the fringe of the big league roster.
“My goal is to stay here,” the soft-spoken Christon said Thursday at a Thunder community event in Oklahoma City. “… but if it happens it happens.”
With Christon at the Book Bus event at Sequoyah Elementary was Payne, the young left-handed sparkplug who is ahead of him on the depth chart at point guard. The two shared laughs, Christon saying he and Payne have always been cool on and off the court. “He’s always been goofy,” Christon said of the bond. “I’m kinda goofy, too.”
The two have never been on the roster together for the Thunder or even the D-League Oklahoma City Blue, but they excelled in the summer league this past July. In four games, Payne (18.8) and Christon (16.8) finished first and fourth, respectively, in points per game. Each was in the Top 10 in assists per game. They lined up alongside each other, sharing ballhandling responsibilities.
With Augustin traded earlier in the year and Randy Foye signing with Brooklyn in free agency, buzz built about Christon being able to come in as the No. 3 behind Westbrook and Payne. Then, the Thunder signed veteran guard Ronnie Price on a two-year guaranteed deal.
Now, it looks like Christon is either headed back to the Blue, where he was a D-League All-Star in 2014, or overseas again. Christon’s deal is reportedly partially guaranteed for this season for around $543,000. Unless the Thunder gives up his draft rights via trade or by cutting him in camp, his only current path to the NBA is through Oklahoma City.
It’s a route he’s willing to take. He went home to Cincinnati, Ohio, a few times, but hasn’t ventured far from Oklahoma City this summer. Christon chose to stick around and work out with his Thunder teammates as much as possible. It’s a mature mindset that he said carried over from his 30-game stint in Italy.
His biggest focus point this offseason: shooting. Though he shot 47.1 percent in summer league, Christon’s 3-point shot is still a work in progress. He made just 19 percent (12-of-63) of his 3s playing for Consultinvest Pesaro last season.
But the slender 6-3 guard didn’t call shooting his only ticket to the NBA. It’s important, but “being consistent, being a point guard, being a leader” takes precedent.
“I don’t have to score the ball or do a lot of different things … just getting guys open and getting them in the right position where they’re comfortable,” Christon said. “That was the biggest thing for me, and playing defense, being a lockdown defender.”
His future unclear, Christon continues to operate as if he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. Though he’s entering his third professional season, next Saturday is lining up to be his first training camp with the Thunder.
The first year, Christon was sent to the Blue for development, similar to how the Thunder handled 2015 second-round pick Dakari Johnson and will this season with 2016 second-rounder Daniel Hamilton. In Year 2, Christon chose to go to Italy for more seasoning and an opportunity to make more money.
Now, with two seasons of development, Christon in a better position to make an NBA team, be it with the Thunder or elsewhere. He doesn’t know where he’ll be playing his basketball this season, only what he’ll be doing in the meantime.
“You wake up and keep playing ball,” he said. “It’s not a big deal, but I’d love to be here.”