by Brendan Bowers / @BowersCLE

The Championship-or-bust Oklahoma City Thunder are not giving roster spots away this season.

With such a deep and talented roster those minutes come with a price. You must earn your way into the rotation that currently leads the NBA at 21-4 overall.

Quietly signed to a three-year contract by General Manager Sam Presti this offseason, Hasheem Thabeet has cracked that rotation. He is earning both minutes and trust from his new team right now while adding depth to the OKC frontcourt.

Thabeet is averaging 12.3 minutes per game in support of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the defending Western Conference champions through Wednesday.

Last season, Thabeet appeared in a total of 20 games combined as a member of both the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged only 6.9 minutes per night last year in total and less than eight minutes the year before that.

Heading into Thursday’s matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thabeet has already exceeded that number with 23 games played to date.

“The practices here are different than the other teams that I’ve played on,” Thabeet told SLAMonline. “That’s not a knock on the other teams, it’s just a difference here in OKC. The level of competition is just higher, so is the intensity. Guys come in here every day to work.”

Four seasons after being selected second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, that competition has helped fuel Thabeet’s first double-double of his career. On November 26, Thabeet played 26 minutes against the Charlotte Bobcats scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

“I just want to come here and help the team,” Thabeet added. “It’s a blessing to be in this situation right now. To be with these coaches and this organization, I just want to do the best I can with my role and contribute where I can.

“What’s great about this group, with guys like KD and Russell and Perk, is that everybody does everything together. We hang out off-the-court and I think that carries over to the games.”

Thabeet is not only the tallest player on the team at 7-3, but he’s also someone who could be needed in a big moment as the season continues. Cole Aldrich served as that insurance big last season for the Thunder and he’s since moved on to Houston.

More than any other time in his NBA career, though, Thabeet seems to have found a place where he can embrace a role and be productive.

“I like it in OKC,” said Thabeet. “It’s like one big family, everyone is here doing their job and we help each other. Playing with guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, learning from guys like Kendrick Perkins, it’s just going to make me better. Coach just tells me to do what you do, just wants me to bring energy to the team, have fun and compete with the guys.”

Thabeet will never be that superstar he was once thought to be with the second overall pick. But don’t sleep on the likelihood that his role only increases in OKC.

In the process, the native of Tanzania, Africa continues to inspire a generation back home who’s now able to follow his new role with a winning team.

“I look at it as motivational for young guys back home, that they can dream and do this too, play basketball in the NBA. So every time I go back [to Africa] we look to do clinics and give back anyway we can,” Thabeet says.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Thabeet is on pace to set a career high in games played this year. He just might walk away with a ring too by season’s end.