NORMAN — It was the classic Terrance Ferguson move.
The Thunder rookie sat down at a table in front of a group of reporters for his exit interview. He made a joke about getting a Gatorade. Once the Thunder public relations person beside him handed him one, he went into an impression upon request.
“Woah ... Woah!” he re-enacted, before making another joke and then dropping, “Real smooth.”
The reference, of course, was to a Gatorade commercial the 19-year-old starred in alongside Paul George this past season. Ferguson didn’t play much this year, dropping in and out of coach Billy Donovan’s rotation depending on the roster situation, opponent, and sometimes, just based on how Donovan felt about him on any given night. It didn’t seem to bother his swagger.
No one has ever accused Ferguson of lacking confidence. And the Thunder are reciprocating.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Terrance because of his competitiveness, how hard he works,” Donovan said. “He’s a bright guy and will put forth a great effort in getting himself prepared and ready to play.”
The Thunder started Ferguson for 12 games this past season, none louder than his first-ever start, when he went for a career-high 24 points, including a couple of dynamic end-of-game dunks, at the Los Angeles Lakers.
“[Assistant coach Darko Rajaković] actually told me I was going to have a big game. I didn’t really believe him,” Ferguson remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll play my hardest, and whatever happens, happens,’ and that happened. It definitely surprised me, but I knew I had it in me, and it came out. And the world saw it.”
Though those starts felt like fill-ins — and they were, considering they came at the beginnings of usual first-string shooting guard Andre Roberson’s knee injuries — they meant something more.
This organization believes in Ferguson, who it selected with the No. 21 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. That’s true for a front office that chose him over eventual contributing rookies like O.G. Anunoby and Kyle Kuzma. It’s true for Donovan, who will praise specifically Ferguson’s mind and his quickness at any and every opportunity. It’s true for many of the players, too, including George, who included Ferguson in his commercial and insisted all year that those on the outside haven’t yet seen what the rookie can do.
“It’s a luxury to have a young guy like that that comes in and plays hard and doesn’t play out of his body,” George said. “He keeps everything within himself.”
George isn’t the only one. Thunder players go out of their way to hype up Ferguson.
“I teach him as much as I can, but he’s going to be better than me,” veteran shooting guard Corey Brewer after only a couple of weeks with the Thunder. “He’s way more athletic than I was, and he’s got a lot of upside.”
Ferguson spent most of the season spotting up from beyond the arc, in spite of his lack of dominant 3-point shooting. He finished the year at 33 percent from 3-point land. But he was also one of the NBA’s youngest players, still a teenager (even if he grows a little irritated whenever someone reminds him of that). And rookies often struggle reading the speed of the game.
Ferguson made clear improvements on that throughout the year, especially on defense. He navigated off-ball screens easier, sliding around them instead of impersonating a bicycle riding straight into the Empire State Building. He guarded pick-and-rolls while executing within the team’s schemes with some more success.
None of it was perfect. But it was better. He wants to continue that trend.
“I just want to come back a totally different player. Just working on my skill set, be more confident going into next year,” he said. “I’ve got a whole plan set out. So I’m ready for it.”
The plan includes actually making plays after receiving the ball on the wing. The Thunder want him to use his quickness and his leap. After all, Ferguson is one of the NBA’s best athletes. It’s why the team pushed an internal campaign to get him into the dunk contest, something it would probably do next year, too, especially if he becomes a more prominent player.
If he gets there, watch for some kind of swagged-out routine. And maybe a Gatorade reference.