Andre Roberson will be with the Thunder and traveling to Orlando for the conclusion of the 2019-20 NBA Season. Roberson’s presence indicates he could actually be in line to return to the court during Oklahoma City’s final stretch of play, which would be his first game action in over two years.
Presumably Roberson and the Thunder’s medical staff wouldn’t subject himself or the team to the burden of travel and quarantine required to attend the “bubble” for up to three months if there were no hope for him to play in the near term. While both a two-way (Kevin Hervey) and substitute (Devon Hall) player have pushed the Thunder’s total roster count to 17, there is still an urgent need for depth in what could become a war of attrition between teams battling the spread of COVID-19 and injuries from ramped up basketball activity during the restart. Beyond raising the warm body count, a healthy Roberson should also have opportunity to earn meaningful playing time on the wing where the Thunder are thin.
An unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, Roberson may never have played another game for the Thunder if he had not returned.
Maligned for his shooting woes by many, Robes’ brilliance on defense was undeniable. Uniquely skilled in bothering the best perimeter creators in the league, he was a key part in the Thunder’s best efforts to slow historic offenses during the playoffs, like the Warriors in 2016 and the Rockets in 2017. The depth of his value wasn’t fully appreciated until Oklahoma City lost him to that gruesome injury in 2018. OKC had been hitting their groove with the Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony trio, thanks in large part to the complimentary battery of Roberson and Steven Adams anchoring the defense and playing understated but steady roles on offense. The Thunder’s ceiling crashed with Roberson’s absence that season, and they were eliminated in a blaze of Anthony defensive exploitations in the first round of those playoffs.
The long road back
Roberson hasn’t played since January of 2018, when he planted for an alley-oop and tragically crashed to the floor with a ruptured patellar tendon. The injury was severe and had been career-ruining for others before him; multiple setbacks made the already-daunting recovery process more so.
After describing himself as a “full go” on media day before this season, Roberson was extremely limited as a practice participant and never close to being activated for games before the season was suspended in March. As the early season ticked by and his DNPs racked up, Roberson eventually separated from the team for nearly three months, opting to rehab in California before reuniting with the team in late February. The delayed conclusion of the 2019-20 season added hope for fans rooting for his return, which Roberson fueled on a podcast appearance in mid-April by saying (again) that he was ready to play.
Not there yet
Roberson has yet to practice. Even if completely recovered, the risk for injury–related to his patellar tendon or not–could be even more pronounced for him than other players’ accelerated activity due to his lengthy time away. Another factor far from certain: that the restart actually holds together through July and produces NBA games for the Thunder to play.
If he does return, it’s unrealistic to expect him to replicate the physical prowess he once had as a defender. He did have mental acumen on that end of the court, and has been credited by teammates as something of a defensive coach helping them learn the craft (most recently by Lu Dort, who also said Roberson appears “ready to go”).
When Roberson’s contract expires at the end of this season, whether the Thunder–or any other NBA team–is interested in signing him to a new deal is unknown. Seeing how he performs during the restart should go a long way in answering that question.