Isaiah Roby made his first NBA start on Tuesday night, and boy did he take advantage of the opportunity.
Though the Thunder lost to the Orlando Magic, Roby started at center and played 28 minutes, totaling 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting (1-of-2 from 3), seven rebounds (four offensive), two blocks and one steal.
As a rookie last season, Roby played a grand total of 11 minutes spread across three games, missing his only shot attempt and grabbing two rebounds.
Roby’s journey from Dixon, Illinois, to Tuesday night in Oklahoma City has been a long one. Roby was the 45th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and a draft-night trade sent him to Dallas to start his professional career. He did land a multi-year guaranteed contract, which was great to see for a mid-second-round pick, but he never played a game in a Maverick uniform.
Roby bounced back and forth between the big club and the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends. He played nine games for Texas and didn’t exactly light things up, averaging 9.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks and 2.3 turnovers in 21.0 minutes per game. He shot 50.8% from the field overall including 5-of-14 from 3.
In January, Roby got traded to Oklahoma City for former Creighton Bluejay Justin Patton. The Mavericks cut Patton, but the Thunder held onto Roby. Like in Dallas, he bounced back and forth between the Thunder and the Oklahoma City Blue, playing eight more G League teams. Roby came off the bench and played slightly less than in Texas, averaging 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 turnovers in 19.4 minutes per game.
Oklahoma City was one of the teams that went down to Orlando for the Bubble when the league started back up again following the COVID-19 shutdown, but Roby had been dealing with a plantar fascia issue and opted to get surgery to address the problem rather than joining the team in Orlando.
The surgery seems to have been the right move because he certainly looked healthy on Tuesday night. Roby did not play in Oklahoma City’s first two games as the Thunder rolled with veterans Al Horford and Mike Muscala as the center rotation while sophomore Darius Bazley and rookie Aleksej Pokusevski handled most of the power forward minutes. New coach Mark Daigneault decided to rest Horford on Tuesday for the second day of a back-to-back, and instead of starting Muscala he decided to let Roby show what he can do.
What would that be? This.
AIR ROBY pic.twitter.com/LNHJYb14jb
— Thunder Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) December 30, 2020
Pump-faking out of open 3-point shots was one of the most frustrating things Roby did throughout his career, but every now and then it led to some incredible highlights like the one from Tuesday where Roby snatched Nikola Vucevic’s ankles and slammed them through the rim. It reminded me of this play against Minnesota.
isaiah roby poster, set to "i believe i can fly." pic.twitter.com/FRKqXS1176
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) December 7, 2018
Roby didn’t drop Matz Stockman like he did to Vucevic, but he did blow by him and then bodied Jarvis Omersa at the rim on the dunk. Good times.
Life as a second-round pick or two-way player in the NBA can be difficult. Horford will likely return to the starting lineup for Thursday’s game against New Orleans, and that could mean Roby goes right back to the back of the bench. Or perhaps Daigneault saw enough from his first start to give him a rotation spot. Only time will tell, but either way things could change game-to-game, week-to-week.
The Thunder have seven players under the age of 23 in their top 11, and they also have three guys over the age of 29 in Horford, Muscala and George Hill. Horford and Hill could get some rest days throughout the season, and they both could be trade fodder leading up to the deadline as well. Either way, that could open the door for Roby to prove to the Thunder that he’s worth keeping around and continuing to develop. The third year of his contract is not guaranteed and he’s set to earn more than the minimum, making him an easy cut if the team needs cap space.
I enjoyed covering Roby throughout his three years in Lincoln. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but root for, and I’ll continue to follow his career closely. For those that live in Nebraska, Oklahoma City is blacked out on NBA League Pass and NBA TV, which makes following the Thunder a bit tougher (just ask Hail Varsity’s resident OKC fan Derek Peterson). However, the local Fox Sports Network still picks up some Thunder games (including Tuesday’s), so that channel is worth monitoring for those hoping to catch Thunder games when Roby plays.
With a compacted schedule and the danger of COVID-19 restricting portions of the active roster (see the Houston Rockets to open the season), depth will be more important than ever before. Roby should get plenty of opportunities to show the Thunder he’s worth developing alongside the other young, intriguing prospects like Bazley, Luguentz Dort, Pokusevski and Théo Maledon, and if he plays like he did in his first extensive game action, he should have a long NBA career.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.