LAS VEGAS – For Tanner Groves, a low-stress draft day started on the fairways of Wandermere Golf Course in Spokane and culminated with a phone call from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The former Shadle Park standout, who spent four memorable seasons at Eastern Washington before transferring to Oklahoma, gave himself a mental break from basketball, spending a few hours on the links with his mother Tara before learning where he’d start his professional career.
“I did OK,” said Groves, asked to evaluate his round at Wandermere. “I was like 90s, that’s kind of where I’m at.”
Groves spent the evening with family, only checking in from time to time on the two-round NBA draft. But the 6-foot-10 forward made sure to be near his phone when the draft ended, anticipating a few teams would extend an offer to join their NBA Summer League squad.
Those phone calls began filtering in between 11 p.m. and midnight. Groves felt strongly enough about the first offer, partially due to Oklahoma City’s proximity to his college in Norman, that he didn’t need to give thought to any of the calls that came after.
“I had a couple others,” Groves said, “but the Thunder were the first team to reach out so jumped on it early.”
Groves’ first taste of the NBA may have been brief – he played in just one of Oklahoma City’s eight summer league games – but it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience as the Spokane native plunges into his first season as a professional basketball player.
Last week, Groves signed his first pro contract and is set to start his career this fall for Polish club Anwil Wloclawek.
“NBA’s so dialed in and so organized. It’s incredible,” Groves said after one of OKC’s final practices in Vegas. “Then just on the court, just the pace of play is so fast. Like I said, it’s a fun brand of basketball to watch. That’s why the best guys in the world are playing in the NBA.
“It’s just an incredible thing to watch, it’s beautiful. The game of basketball, it’s pretty cool.”
Groves scored two points in his lone summer league cameo on July 14 against the Washington Wizards, but he was still productive in 12 minutes, accounting for six rebounds, one steal, one block and one assist.
During the two-week NBA Summer League circuit, teams usually divvy up minutes between 10 to 12 players, allocating most of the playing time to recent/former draft picks and players the organization prioritized in free agency.
Groves set his expectations accordingly, knowing he’d probably need to make the most of a few short playing spurts in one, maybe two, games .
“I’m just blessed to have this opportunity first,” he said. “Whatever role they ask me, I’ll do. I’ve been every single role in the book. I’ve been a role player, I’ve been the star on the team, I’ve been the guy that sits on the end of the bench clapping. So, I’m used to it and I’m not going to complain at all.”
Groves still got something out of his stint with the team in Salt Lake and Las Vegas. The Thunder did, too.
“He’s a great person. He’s an extremely hard worker,” Oklahoma City summer league coach Kameron Woods said.
“He adds to everything culturally we’re about and he’s on time, he’s early. He’s great with the guys in the locker room. I think as a culture person he’s helped us a lot.”
Having a foot in the door will help Groves if he gets another opportunity with the Thunder.
Sharing the practice court with OKC players who could figure into the team’s starting lineup, such as former Gonzaga standout/No. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren and 2023 Rookie of the Year candidate Jalen Williams, will make the transition easier if he’s fortunate to get another summer league invitation in 2024.
“Then his game has grown a ton,” Woods said. “You talk about how many practices that we’ve had to get in, the amount of time we spend around the team, that’s not only been beneficial for the guys that are playing but for guys like him as well. He’s getting the same amount of film, the same amount of attention and it’s helped his game.”
Groves still has bigger goals in mind, but he can say he fulfilled a childhood dream that’s been looming in the back of his mind since he started playing competitive basketball.
Groves has been on record in the past giving credit to his parents for their support throughout a meandering, at-times turbulent, basketball journey. Wearing an Oklahoma City practice jersey and matching shorts, he did so again while cooling down from a training session on UNLV’s campus in Las Vegas.
“My dad played hoops and he grew up coaching me, so just been learning from him and even my mom too,” Groves said. “My mom holds the all-time scoring record at Whitworth, so she’s a stud obviously, and hoops run in the genes.
“So just been looking up to them ever since I was a kid and they’ve taught me the game, so have to give all the props to them.”
Eastern Washington coach David Riley made a brief pit stop in Las Vegas to follow former Eagles taking part in summer league and caught up with Groves after a July 8 game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Groves’ development and success at EWU allowed him to enter the transfer portal and take advantage of an opportunity to start in 66 games for a high-major program in Oklahoma, but the Spokane native still spends offseasons back home and makes frequent visits to his first school.
“He’s still a part of the family,” said Riley, who occasionally gives Groves a hard time for transferring the same year he replaced Shantay Legans as EWU’s head coach. “He still comes up and works out at our gym, works out with our guys, comes and watches practice. We treat him like an alumni because that’s what he is. He graduated from Eastern and had four really good years with us. He’s an Eagle.”
During his time in Cheney, Groves, who didn’t have any other Division I scholarship offers coming out of Shadle Park, went from scoring 2.8 points per game as a freshman to 5.7 as a sophomore before breaking out for 17.2 as a junior while earning Big Sky Most Valuable Player honors.
He didn’t maintain that level of production in the country’s strongest basketball conference, but Groves still averaged 10.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in two seasons at Oklahoma, earning All-Big 12 honorable mention after the 2021-22 season.
“He puts the ball in the basket, I think he’s really special at doing that,” Riley said. “He rebounds at a high level and he’s a great person. Talking with him … his mindset, his attitude is incredible. I asked him what he’s doing to keep himself busy because there’s a lot of downtime and it sounds like he’s just going through books and reading.
“He’s a great person. He’s going to excel and keep getting better.”