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After spending a year with the Tianjin Ronggang Golden Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association, former preps-to-pros point guard Sebastian Telfair will reportedly return to the NBA next season, joining the Oklahoma City Thunder on a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum of just over $1.3 million.
CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes first reported the deal, with the onetime lottery pick himself later confirming, according to Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. Jeff Zilgitt of USA TODAY Sports reports that the deal is unguaranteed. That doesn't seem to be bothering Bassy very much:
God so good!
— Sebastian Telfair (@BassyS31T) July 3, 2014
The Thunder will be the eighth NBA team for the 29-year-old Telfair, who came into the league as a highly touted high-school point guard from Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High, the Coney Island power that produced Stephon Marbury, Telfair's cousin, and would later yield Lance Stephenson. (Other prominent alumni include Harvey Keitel, Arthur Miller, Neil Sedaka, Lee Mazilli and, most notably of all, the great Marv Albert.) The Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the No. 13 pick in the 2004 NBA draft — ahead of the likes of Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen, Kevin Martin, Anderson Varejao and Trevor Ariza — with an eye toward bringing him along as the point guard of the future behind veteran Damon Stoudamire.
He was elevated to the starting lineup for the scuffling Blazers late in his rookie season and began his sophomore year as the lead point man, but turned in an unimpressive start to the season — 10.8 points and 4.3 assists per game on 38.3 percent shooting — before injuring his thumb, losing his starting job to Steve Blake, and eventually getting shipped out along with veteran center Theo Ratliff to the Boston Celtics in exchange for center Raef LaFrentz, guard Dan Dickau and the No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft. The Blazers would use that pick on Villanova guard Randy Foye, but would later trade it to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the draft's No. 6 selection, Washington guard Brandon Roy. That worked out pretty well (although, y'know, not as well as Portlanders might've hoped.)
That trade kickstarted what would become a nomadic NBA existence for Telfair. His one-year stint in Boston was more memorable for his postseason arrest for speeding with a handgun and a suspended license than it was for any contributions he made on the court; after the season, he was included in the package the C's sent the Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Garnett. Telfair got more burn with the 'Wolves, making 94 starts in two seasons in Minnesota, but the 6-foot guard still struggled with his shot, finishing over NBA size and contributing on defense.
Come the summer of 2009, he was on the move again, this time to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a package that sent Quentin Richardson to the Twin Cities; he scarcely had time to unpack his bags before getting re-routed at the 2010 trade deadline to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the three-team deal that sent Antawn Jamison to Cleveland to help bolster the Cavs' shot at winning an NBA championship and keeping LeBron James in town past that summer. (It didn't work.) Telfair made just four appearances in Cleveland before being shipped back to Minnesota in the summer of 2010 with Delonte West in exchange for Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins and a future second-round pick.
Thirty-seven mostly nondescript games later, he was a free agent with precious few suitors, as close to washed up as a 26-year-old can seem in the NBA. Then he signed with the Phoenix Suns prior to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, though, and began to rehabilitate his value in the desert, providing fairly steady (if unspectacular) backup point guard play behind Steve Nash for Alvin Gentry's .500 club. The Suns brought him back for the 2012-13 season, but wound up shuttling him to the Toronto Raptors along with reserve center Hamed Haddadi in exchange for a future second-round pick amid an overdue rebuild in Arizona.
Telfair didn't cover himself in glory in his 13-game audition for Dwane Casey, shooting just 29 percent from the floor and 27 percent from 3-point land, but he'd shown himself to be a steadier hand as a backup at the point — 5.8 assists versus 2.6 assists per 36 minutes over the course of his nine-season career — to suggest that he might get a crack at caddying for another club on the cheap as an unrestricted free agent. When no such enticing offer came through, Telfair followed in his cousin's footsteps and opted to head to the Far East.
"We wanted to make a move from a position of control, and allow Sebastian the chance to run a team this season before coming back [to the NBA]," Telfair's agent, Andy Miller, told Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski last October.
Telfair averaged 26.1 points, six assists, 4.5 rebounds and two steals per game for Tianjin this season, starring alongside fellow former NBA lottery pick Shelden Williams and firing up just below 10 3-pointers a game, connecting at a 37 percent clip. Whether that allowed his agents to negotiate from a "position of control" this summer isn't clear, but Telfair does appear to have found a promising opportunity in Oklahoma City, where head coach Scott Brooks might be looking to slot emerging reserve Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup alongside All-Star Russell Westbrook, and finds himself in need of a reliable veteran third point guard after watching Derek Fisher retire and take over as the new head coach of the New York Knicks.
“I want to be in the playoffs, chasing a ring,” Telfair told SLAM's Ryan Jones last July, before he headed over to China. “That’s my goal right now. I want to make some kind of a mark.”
It remains to be seen whether he'll be able to do so in Oklahoma City. As ProBasketballTalk's Dan Feldman notes, the Thunder already figure to have a crowded roster, with 11 players under contract, a pair of 2014 first-round picks (Michigan big man Mitch McGary and Stanford wing Josh Huestis) ready to be signed, a qualifying offer already extended to 2013 second-rounder Grant Jerrett, and Oklahoma City potentially in the market for more free-agent help of greater consequence. As such, it's no sure thing that Telfair breaks camp with OKC or plays meaningful minutes for Brooks' squad, but for the time being, he's back in the mix a decade after he made the leap, and for all the cries of "bust" he's heard over the years, that in and of itself is a pretty strong statement about Telfair's staying power.
“There’s no middle ground for me: You’re either an All-Star, or you’re nothing,” he told SLAM's Jones. “Some people would cave to that. But I’m out here playing basketball every night for nine years. I’m in the NBA right now. You know what I’m saying? My personal goals, I’m still chasing. But I’m playing in the NBA. I’m still here. My story is definitely not over.”
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