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It was a painful summer for Oklahoma Thunder. They parted ways with resident superstar Russell Westbrook in the wake of two blockbuster trades that featured Paul George going back to his California roots with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti found himself on a one-way street; he had no choice but to gut the team, quickly setting in motion a wildly unexpected rebuild. He stockpiled young assets and draft picks while absorbing Chris Paul’s large contract, which the Thunder seemingly expect to unload by the February trade deadline.
But the early returns have been encouraging - especially Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the center-piece of the Clippers’ package. The 11th overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft has been on a tear to start his sophomore season.
During his rookie year with the Clippers, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged a modest 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 26.5 minutes to earn an All-Rookie Second Team nod.
A larger role in Oklahoma has unlocked the potential of the Canadian guard. He‘s put up monster numbers, including back-to-back career-highs in scoring in the first two games of the season.
A point guard in high school and college, Gilgeous-Alexander was initially asked to be the starting shooting guard in the Thunder backcourt alongside Paul. The former Kentucky Wildcat has responded well to the challenge, posting a team-leading 21.8 points-per-game average, on 46 percent field-goal shooting. Coming from just under nine shot attempts per game in L.A, Gilgeous-Alexander has jacked that figure to 17.0 per game, converting 7.8 with 1.8 coming from beyond the arc.
He has passed the 20-point mark in four of their six starts. He could have easily made it five if he didn’t sit out the entire fourth quarter in their blowout win against the Golden State Warriors.
To make his big jump more remarkable is the fact that he’s only averaging 1.8 turnovers per game despite the significant uptick in his usage rate (from 18.7 to 26.2) and having to do a little bit of everything on the court (7.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.7 steal and 1.0 block).
He’s been wired in to the flow of games, looking locked in mentally, an aspect of his play that he attributes to his parents. During a presser before his lone NCAA tournament, he opened up that his competitive fire and mental toughness was cultivated back in his childhood years in Canada.
He said his father, Vaughn Alexander, is "a screamer and was always tough” while his mother Charmaine Gilgeous, a former Canadian track Olympian, sends him brutally honest text messages after games.
That kind of upbringing has had a huge impact on Gilgeous-Alexander’s game; the constant pressure hardened his resolve and strengthened his confidence. He’s been a picture of grace and inner peace on the court.
The Thunder, who are expected to bottom out in the post-Westbrook era, have been surprisingly competitive - largely because of Gilgeous-Alexander’s rapid rise.
When Shai has the ball, good things happen. He has a tremendous feel for the game, and his high basketball IQ allows him to read and react quickly to what’s happening on the floor. His uncanny gap-finding ability allows him to exploit opposing defences, making him an ideal shot creator in the modern NBA.
He’s most dangerous on offense playing off of a screen, set by a teammate. He'll either attack the rim with ease, or drop a dime when the defense collapses around him. His 17.0 drives per game is tied for sixth in the league while 61.7 percent of his makes are unassisted.
If there’s a knock on his offensive game, it’s the lack of a reliable outside jumper, something that he’s been working on since the offseason. He’s clearly trying to expand his offense, as his 1.2 three-point attempts last season have jumped to 4.8 per game this year. So far, he’s made 11 threes through his first six games.
And he’s a willing defender too. His hustle and 7-foot wing span are rare and desirable qualities in this pace and space era.
After his 26-point season debut, Thunder coach Billy Donovan told The Oklahoman that “Gilgeous-Alexander is more than capable of running the point.” Gilgeous-Alexander is exceeding expectations, despite having Paul and another playmaker in Dennis Schroder on the roster, and it will only be a matter of time before Donovan gives him the keys to their offense (especially when Paul inevitably gets shipped to a contender).
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think the greatness of him as a player is one, his humility and his sacrifice and willing to do and play however he needs to play to help our team,” Donovan added.
Embracing his role has been Gilgeous-Alexander’s calling card since being rated the seventh-best recruit in Kentucky from the 2017 class, which included Charlotte Hornets’ rookie PJ Washington, New York Knicks’ sophomore Kevin Knox, and his current Thunder teammate Hamidou Diallo.
He wasn’t even recruited by John Calipari until Gilgeous-Alexander reached out to Kentucky coaching staff. He worked his way up from a second stringer to becoming the alpha on a loaded Kentucky team.
Asked by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch how he took over such a talented team in his lone NCAA season, Gilgeous-Alexander had this response: “About midpoint during the season, I watched a lot of film. I was really taking what coach was asking of me, what this team needed me to do. I just tackled it. Once I cleared that role out, I worked on my game and got better every day.”
It's happening again in Oklahoma.
Presti has an eye for potential supertars (read: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook). So it wasn’t a surprise that he targeted the prized Clippers’ rookie, who was deemed untouchable in any deal, until the golden chance of teaming up Kawhi Leonard with George was too good to pass up.
For the Clippers, the 21-year old guard was their point guard of the future. But for the Thunder, that future begins now.