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Return to the Rotation: Isaiah Roby's Recent Surge and his Perplexing Place in Play

Following a starting gig in his sophomore season, Isaiah Roby opened the season outside of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s rotation.

Isaiah Roby has returned to the rotational ladder.

Roby was Mark Daigneault’s Swiss Army knife last season. With a 6-foot-8 frame along with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Roby’s sophomore campaign saw the former Cornhusker waver between both forward spots while primarily operating at the five. As an additive, the load management placed upon day-one starter Al Horford led the 23-year-old to receive ample opportunities, wiggling his way to 34 starts across 61 games, averaging 8.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in his 23.4-minute sample.

Entering this season, the presumption had rested in Roby returning to his small-ball five role, as with centers Moses Brown and Tony Bradley out — a center-less Thunder would source center minutes from the Nebraska alum. Thus far, that has not been the case.

As to why Roby received a stark minute cut — look no further than second-round pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

Following a draft-day deal that saw the Thunder move picks No. 34 and 36 for Robinson-Earl with pick No. 32 — the bar was set high for the Villanova product. He’s exceeded all expectations thus far, biting into Roby’s role in the process.

After starting the season in a bench role, JRE has surpassed Roby in the rotations, etching out a starting small-ball five role similar to Roby’s — games into the season. As a result, the 20-year-old forward has placed averages of 7.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 0.9 assists, funneling into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey’s drive-and-dish game for pick-and-pop-scores (34.8% 3PT) and catch-and-shoot opportunities at a 36.7-percent clip.

So, where has this left Roby?

As of late, it’s kept the forward minute-less with Daigneault’s crew — prompting the big to a gig with the Oklahoma City Blue. In the G-League excursion, Roby has capitalized on the opportunity, building his stock back to NBA play in the process.

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In a pair of appearances for the Blue this season, Roby has played above the competition, logging 16.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in 29.0 minutes while holding down a primary center role under Grant Gibbs.

Roby’s G-League play resembled much of last year’s regular assignment, keeping center’s weary up top with his pick-and-pop game for triples while blowing by bigs and undersized matchups for interior finishes. On the defensive end, Roby’s frame didn’t look to be an issue, either.

As a result of Roby’s latest play, the Thunder opted to recall the big on Nov. 21, 2021. Since, it looks as though the former second-rounder has turned the corner.

In seven games back with the Thunder, Roby has emerged as one of Bricktown’s lone bright spots off the bench, averaging 7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists across 15.3 minutes. In his most prominent game post-recall, Roby placed 17 points and 7 rebounds off an 8-of-10 shooting clip.

With centers in Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala shifting in-and-out of the injury report, Roby’s position within Daigneault’s system has yet to be established. But, with his recent play, he’s made himself part of the equation.

Now, Daigneault will be faced with a predicament. With Roby on the up-and-up and minimal minutes at the rotation’s disposal, Daigneault will look to appease the big while keeping tabs on veterans in Favors and Muscala, a budding rookie in JRE, and youthful forwards in Aleksej Pokusevski and Darius Bazley.

Roby’s recent tenure has been a point of interest; however, it will be up to management to decide whether he’ll be in for the long haul or a short-term solution.

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