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Are Thunder skirting NBA protocol by sending first-round pick Josh Huestis to D-League?

Jul 21, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

Josh Huestis Josh Huestis

Beyond Bruno Caboclo (No. 20 by the Raptors), Josh Huestis was the most surprising first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

Huestis, selected No. 29 by the Thunder, was expected to go in the 50s.

Why did Oklahoma City reach for the Stanford forward? Maybe the Thunder had a plan all along.

Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Two Thunder draft picks remain unsigned, and the arrival of the 66ers in Oklahoma City stands as confirmation that they’re likely destined to spend the year competing in the D-League.

For guard Semaj Christon, the 55th overall selection out of Xavier, it’s a natural landing spot.

But with Josh Huestis, a first-round selection, the Thunder could be on the verge of breaking ground.

As the 29th overall pick, Huestis would become the first player selected in the first round to forgo his rookie season to sign in the D-League. In other words, he’d be the first-ever domestic “draft-and-stash” player.

By taking Huestis with the second-to-last selection in the first round, the Thunder secured another critically cost-effective rookie scale contract. The difference is that standard four-year deal — two guaranteed years and two team options in the final two seasons — would come on the back end of a preliminary year in the D-League and ensures the Thunder would have Huestis developing in its program for at least five seasons.

It’s not clear why Mayberry believes Huestis will decline to sign his rookie-scale contract and sign in the D-League instead, but Mayberry is extremely plugged-in. I doubt this is pure speculation.

If I were speculating, though, I’d guess the Thunder and Huestis made this arrangement before the draft. Maybe Oklahoma City drafted the best player willing to defer his rookie contract.

Such a plan would have advantages for both the Thunder and Huestis.

The Thunder wouldn’t use one of 15 roster spots on Huestis and wouldn’t count his salary against the 2014-15 payroll if he doesn’t sign. Next year, they could sign him to the rookie scale when they’re further from the luxury-tax line. Or if Huestis doesn’t pan out, they’re under no obligation to sign him (though they would lose his rights if they don’t tender him an offer).

For Huestis, this would probably have been the most direct path to a guaranteed contract. If he went in the second round as expected, he could have been sent to the D-League regardless. This way, presumably, there’s a larger promised offer at the end of the road.

However, such an arrangement would have probably violated the NBA by-laws, which state (hat tip: Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders):

Prior to the annual NBA Draft, Members may have preliminary discussions with players eligible for the Draft, but may not discuss the matter of compensation.

Perhaps there are ways around the rule with careful wording in pre-draft negotiations, but that’s dicey. The NBA generally enforces the spirit, not the verbiage, of its rules.

Brass tacks, here are the numbers involved.

If Huestis signs his rookie-scale contract as nearly every first-round pick does, he’d make between $734,400 and $1,101,600 this season with a guaranteed second year paying between $767,520 and $1,151,280.

Various unofficial salaries have been reported for the D-League, and I’m sure some of the confusion can be attributed to rising rates. But the very highest figure I’ve seen is “a little over $30,000 per year” from Matt Moore of Eye on Basketball.

For Huestis to give up so much money was either pre-arranged or is a huge favor on his part for the Thunder. The NBA – or more likely the National Basketball Players Association – might want to look into what happened here. The union certainly doesn’t want a precedent of first-round picks voluntarily sacrificing salary for owners to save money.

Huestis – unless he and Oklahoma City arranged this scheme before the draft, which would cause its own set of issues that might be outside his control – might want to give this deal another look, too.

If he believes the D-League is the best way for him to develop, he could sign his rookie-scale contract, and the Thunder could still assign him there. He’d make his full salary and count against the parent club’s 15-man roster. But that’s the Thunder’s problem – not his.

To keep Huestis’ rights, the Thunder must have offered him a contract already worth at least 80 percent of scale ($734,400 this season and $767,520 next). He can accept that at any time.

Oklahoma City drafted Grant Jerrett in 2013 and didn’t sign him until late in the season after he played in the D-League. This offseason, the Thunder rewarded him with a multi-year contract.

That show of faith should give Huestis some confidence, but there’s a major difference in the situations. Jerrett, a second-round pick, didn’t get a guaranteed contract on condition of being drafted. Huestis, if Oklahoma City wants to retain his rights, does. That gives Huestis much more leverage.

We’re moving toward a 30-team D-League where every NBA team has its own affiliate. Then, a new set of rules will govern roster and cap limits.

For now, though, with the rules in place, something appears to be amiss. Maybe the only issue is Huestis’ logic, but if it’s anything deeper, the NBA and players union might get involved.

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