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How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's bond with Chris Paul helped fuel breakout season

Lessons from the former Thunder guard continue to 'resonate' amid Gilgeous-Alexander’s star turn.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is OKC’s star now, but not long ago, he was learning the ropes alongside Chris Paul.

Their time together in Oklahoma City was brief, only a season, which was interrupted and squeezed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a season of being teammates with Chris Paul in your ear and by your side doesn’t really end. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander says they haven’t been apart since.

“We talk all the time,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He and I are super close. We really built a brotherhood.”

Mentorship is like that. Once the bond is formed, it becomes cemented, and in this case, projects to last a basketball lifetime. Advice is given, lessons are learned, experiences are shared and then the protege takes that wisdom on his solo journey to the next level.

And that’s where we find Gilgeous-Alexander today, making the transition from being very good to potentially great, dropping plenty of compelling evidence that will get him serious consideration for the All-Star team in a few months. He leads the NBA in 30-point games (17, tied with Luka Doncic), ranks third among all scorers (31.3 ppg), is shooting 50.6% overall and has raised several aspects of his game.

What’s impressive is his level of consistency, a necessary trademark of young players — he’s just 24 — who seem poised to be among the league’s best in due time. This is what Ja Morant, who will host Gilgeous-Alexander and Oklahoma City on Wednesday (8 ET, NBA League Pass), went through the last two years — as did Donovan Mitchell and a few others. This is the leap Gilgeous-Alexander is creating for himself, provided he can stretch this breakout through April and, either this season or next, help the Thunder rise in the Western Conference standings.

This is certainly what Paul, back in 2019-20, saw in a 6-foot-6 second-year guard who had the promise and the makings of a good player who only needed seasoning and some direction. And what better leader could Gilgeous-Alexander find than Paul, already an all-time great and a point guard who mastered every aspect of the position?

“He was a great teammate, a great example to follow, especially that time in my career,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.

It was a period of transition for Paul, for Gilgeous-Alexander, for the Thunder and truthfully the league as well. In the summer before the season, Paul and James Harden had reached a crossroads as teammates in Houston and a split was necessary. Paul and several future Draft picks were shipped to OKC for Russell Westbrook, a drastic change in terms of team dynamics for Paul. He went from a title contender — those Rockets lost to the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs in back-to-back postseasons — to a team being rebuilt.

Six days before Paul arrived in OKC, the Thunder acquired Gilgeous-Alexander (and more future Draft picks) in a trade that sent Paul George to the LA Clippers. OKC was essentially starting over, playing without Kevin Durant, Harden and Westbrook for the first time since the franchise relocated from Seattle.

In that scenario, Paul had every reason to mope. He hadn’t reached the NBA Finals in his career at that point and, at 34, wasn’t getting any younger. For the first time in a decade, he lacked a star teammate. And he had the added chore of serving as a teacher and leader to a young team. Actually, that was the enjoyable part … the part that kept Paul fresh, focused and motivated.

Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right), shown here in 2020, forged a close friendship as teammates on the Thunder.

Paul called his stint with the Thunder “one of the most enjoyable years of my career” made even more satisfying when Paul took them to the 2020 playoffs, which was far beyond expectations.

The season paused in March because of COVID, then resumed in the Orlando bubble. It was there that the Thunder became a pleasant surprise, pushing the Rockets to a Game 7 in the first round. Houston was spared when Harden blocked Lu Dort’s buzzer-beating attempt from the left wing.

Paul meshed in the backcourt with Gilgeous-Alexander and the dual point guard system worked, not only for the team, but for the understudy, who learned about the game from Paul and especially the lifestyle the game created.

“We’re close beyond basketball, and that’s probably the biggest thing,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “to be able to talk to him about everything.”

Paul’s time in OKC wasn’t designed to be anything but a one-off. He did the Thunder a solid by being professional, grooming Gilgeous-Alexander and others, and producing a playoff team essentially from scratch. The Thunder repaid him by trading him to a preferred destination (the Phoenix Suns) and only accepted role players and a first-round pick in return in the 2020 offseason. The following season, Paul took Phoenix to its first NBA Finals since 1993.

Meanwhile, the real beneficiary for OKC was already on the roster. Gilgeous-Alexander is proof that Paul’s solo season still lives on in OKC, just in another body.

Gilgeous-Alexander took the lessons and advice and worked his way into the player he is now: a solid point guard capable of taking over games. Much like Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander thrives in the mid-range (he ranks fifth in the NBA with 91 mid-range shot attempts). He takes only three 3-pointers per game, the lowest among the NBA’s top 10 scorers. He takes frequent trips (nine per game) to the free-throw line, where he’s blistering at 92.9%.

He’s not in Paul’s area code as a passer — not many have ever been — but he’s gradually becoming better at court awareness, finding teammates and delivering.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging more than 30 points a game while barely attempting any shots from long range. Here's why.

“It’s not just this year, he’s improved every year he’s been in the league,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “It’s a testament to his humility. He looks in the mirror, sees what he needs to improve and then works at it.”

He’s the centerpiece for a team of the future that’ll get Chet Holmgren next season after an injury redshirt, and a franchise that owns at least one first-round pick per Draft from other teams through 2027. Given all that, Oklahoma City would be the ideal destination for Victor Wembanyama, the next great Draft prize, but the Thunder might not finish low enough this season to get him. Especially if Gilgeous-Alexander keeps dropping 30 a night.

“The sign of a good player,” Daigneault said, “is a source of reliable offense.”

Entering Wednesday, he has scored 30 or more points in 10 of his last 11 games, including back-to-back 37-point games (Nov. 13 vs. New York and Nov. 14 vs. Boston). He went for 39 in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 9, which came a week before a career-best 42-point game against the Washington Wizards.

His first step is quick and he’s comfortable slashing to the rim. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the game’s best finishers and leads the NBA in drives per game, just ahead of Morant. He’s fresh off a 35-point effort in a road win against the Atlanta Hawks and Trae Young, and after Memphis and Morant, he’ll match up against the Cavs and Mitchell, and then the Mavericks and Doncic.

Each of those games features All-Star guards, giving Gilgeous-Alexander a stretch of games where he can only enhance his reputation.

We’re close beyond basketball, and that’s probably the biggest thing, to be able to talk to him about everything.”

— Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, on his relationship with Chris Paul

He’ll be up for Kia Most Improved Player honors, grouping him with Anfernee Simons (Portland Trail Blazers), Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers), Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers), Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz) and De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings), all looking for first-time All-Star respect.

The maturation of Gilgeous-Alexander continues. In hindsight, Thunder general manager Sam Presti made a wise decision when he demanded Gilgeous-Alexander be included in the George trade. The Clippers, who landed Gilgeous-Alexander in the 2018 draft, initially hesitated to do so. Gilgeous-Alexander alone is a solid replacement for George because, not only is he young and just touching his prime, he’s under contract for the next four years.

And then Presti again made the right move at the right time, trading Westbrook not only for Paul, but first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and two first-round swaps from Houston.

Getting Paul, even for one season, was enough to provide a lasting impression on a young player and laying the foundation for what OKC is seeing now from its best player. Apparently, the advice from Paul is still ringing inside Gilgeous-Alexander’s head, here in a season that has everyone noticing.

“Those things resonate every day, for sure,” he said.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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