Andre Roberson’s 2 1/2 Year Journey Back to the NBA

Andre Roberson was living the NBA dream: playing in the NBA alongside Russell Westbrook, having a successful career, making millions of dollars. Life was good for the OKC shooting guard. But that all changed on January 27th, 2018.

Roberson elevated for an alley-oop and when he landed he had ruptured his patellar tendon in his left knee. That marked the beginning of a long, grueling journey back to the court which concluded on Friday.

For the first time since rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee in 2018, Andre Roberson played in a game for the Thunder. It was only a scrimmage, but simply getting back on the court was a success. That process of Roberson returning to basketball, and the growth of the man, took two-and-a-half years.

On the NBA timeline, two-and-a-half years is a lifetime. Prior to Friday, the last time Roberson played an NBA game, Carmelo Anthony was still the Thunder’s starting power forward, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a freshman at the University of Kentucky and Darius Bazley was a senior in high school. Chris Paul and the Rockets were rampaging through the regular season. Jason Kidd still coached the Milwaukee Bucks. LeBron James was still in Cleveland.

When Roberson landed on the floor of Little Caesars Arena with 4:33 left in the third quarter, the Thunder were ahead by 25 points and playing their best basketball of the season. It was truly the high point of the Thunder season, until Roberson came crashing to the floor, turning it into a low point instantly.

The Thunder’s demeanor changed, the rest of the players sleepwalking through the blowout win that felt like a loss. Their season would later end on a low, eliminated in round one.

The visual of Roberson dragging himself to the baseline, in excruciating pain was the last time the team and the public seen him down and on the brink of being out.

No matter the night or circumstances, Roberson was a consistent presence on the Thunder bench. Roberson would pop into the locker room with a smile on his face to grab his iPad or get dressed for an individual workout. While working on an exercise bike, Roberson was coaching up young players.

Only those closest to Roberson saw the struggle.

“I remember one of the first nights, it was very painful,” Lisa Roberson, Andre’s mother said. “We could just see the agony he was going through, but he didn’t complain.”

“I don’t ever remember Dre complaining. I’ve heard him say that as far as his injury, instead of complaining about it, he’s said he loved it. I think that mindset, for him to say that, says a lot about him.”

What Andre Roberson is doing now looks a little different than before his injury.

In his first scrimmage, coach Billy Donovan had him mostly operating on the back end of the defense rather than at the top against ballhandlers. But Donovan also knows if Roberson can continue to progress, the Thunder will have one of the smartest defenders in the NBA to throw at the All-Star wings of the Western Conference, a player who can compensate for losing a step in athleticism with his intelligence and positioning.

“Is he at the level he was at defensively before the injury? No. But can he get there? I believe so,” Donovan said. “You can see when he’s out there he understands when to switch, he understands positioning, he understands things that are happening before they happen.”

The biggest thing for the Thunder and Roberson was him being able to play again. The rest is just icing on the cake considering there was real reservations about Roberson ever making it back to the hardwood.

But now that he’s back, Donovan is already thinking about using Roberson in high leverage situations. It speaks volumes about the trust Donovan has in Roberson, and vise versa.

“One of the things that’s happened for us is we’ve missed having a long, rangy, athletic, smart defender like Andre,” Donovan said. “Not only does he have great feet and he can slide through screens, but it’s very difficult to play over Andre. When you look at the West in particular with guys like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, even the size of the guys tomorrow with Philly … LeBron James, (Jayson) Tatum last night, there are a lot of big-time wing players that have a lot of size, and Andre is accustomed to playing against those players.”

Prior to Roberson’s first in game action on Friday, his teammates who never played a game with him noticed his abilities and admitted he has impacted practices.

“First thing I noticed about Dre is he’s the smartest defensive player I’ve been around,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeouos-Alexander said. “He’s always in the right spot. He knows where the next pass is going to be. It’s like he’s always doing the right thing defensively.”

“I’ve seen just how his presence on the defensive end affects the game in that way,” Thunder forward Abdel Nader said. “There’s not many players like that so it’s cool to see.”

Few players sit out as long as Roberson has and still have a place in their former team, particularly if that player isn’t a superstar. But with Roberson and the Thunder, things are different. The franchise has long loved his game and just as he was finding his voice in the locker room, the injury struck.

He was 39 games into a three-year, $30 million contract and was coming off his first NBA All-Defensive team selection. He developed confidence through the years playing with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams.

With Westbrook and Durant no longer in OKC, Roberson and Steven Adams, both drafted in 2013, are the longest-tenured Thunder players. To his credit, even while not being on the floor, he’s grown into that mentor and leader role. And that’s hard to do when you’re not taking the floor every night, but he has the respect of the young guys in the locker room so to works.

An example of his leadership can be seen in the exit interviews following the 2019 playoff loss to the Portland Trailblazers that gutted the franchise. Roberson didn’t play in the series as he was rehabbing, but he stood tall and held everyone in the locker room accountable.

“I think each and every one of us has to look ourselves in the mirror and hold each other accountable,” Roberson said in 2019. “Enough pointing fingers, we’ve got to look at ourselves, what could I have done better, what could I have brought extra, what could I have done more, and next year come back hungrier and stronger.

Fast forward to the game on Friday, Roberson’s leadership was once again on display.

When Roberson was subbed out for the final time in his return to the court, he had daps and hugs for every person on the Thunder bench.

“Everybody, they’ve been through a little bit of this process with me, knowing how hard a struggle it was to get back out on the court,” Roberson said Friday. “Everybody played a role and I appreciate everyone doing so. That was basically showing my gratitude and appreciation.”

Before Friday, the last time Roberson left a game, it was on a stretcher surrounded by teammates. This time, he was strong enough to pick them up, to give meaning to a game that otherwise wouldn’t have mattered.

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