OKC, Meet SGA
Lineage and history matter but embarking from a solid foundation and leaning on core fundamentals are the more crucial elements to long-term, sustained success.
That’s true of an NBA organization, but is also pertinent to players, and a sturdy presence is what the Thunder has in one of its youngest, most talented members of its family, which has been re-constituted this summer. In his second year, the Thunder’s 21-year-old, 6-foot-6 guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has the nature, the gifts in his family tree, along with the nurture – a steady guidance of two athletically-minded parents.
“A lot of my foundation is why I am who I am today,” Gilgeous-Alexander said in August in Oklahoma City after a workout and before a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
Giilgeous-Alexander’s father, Vaughn Alexander, is a former basketball player himself who spent countless hours tutoring Shai and his younger brother Thomasi, currently a freshman at the University of Evansville, on the finer points of the game. The talent spans further on Vaughn’s side of the family as well. Shai’s cousin Nickeil Alexander-Walker was just selected with the 17th pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Shai’s elite-level athleticism, however, comes from his mom, Charmaine Gilgeous. Before she and Vaughn had their two sons, Charmaine was an Olympic track star, competing in the 400 meters for Antigua and Barbuda in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. She may not be as basketball-minded as Vaughn, but Charmaine understands competition, and gives Shai a text after every game.
“My mom, she calls me every day,” Shai smiling. “She can’t get enough of me.”
Just because the roots were in place and Gilgeous-Alexander focused on the fundamentals didn’t mean that his path to the NBA would be an unencumbered straight line. In fact, in the ninth grade at St. Thomas More Secondary School in Hamilton, Canada, a suburb of Toronto, young Shai didn’t make either the varsity or the junior varsity clubs. He played for his ninth-grade squad that year but vowed to make his mark before his high school days were done.
“I remember texting my mom after seeing that I got cut that I was going to make them regret cutting me,” Gilgeous-Alexander grinned. “I guess I kind of did.”
Gilgeous-Alexander moved on to Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School for his sophomore year, then transferred to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn. for his junior and senior seasons. Those formative years were when Shai’s stock took off. He went from a mostly unnoticed prospect to a four-star recruit, prized by elite NCAA programs.
Ultimately, he chose Kentucky. While with the Wildcats, Gilgeous-Alexander shared a backcourt with now second-year Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo. The two formed a bond that only a rigorous basketball environment like Kentucky could forge and they’re excited to be reunited in Oklahoma City.
“That’s my brother,” Diallo said of Shai.
Midway through his freshman year, Gilgeous-Alexander picked up a vital skill: film study. That opened up his mind to the game even further, layering on top of the tutelage his father gave him years beforehand. Shai kept taking the lessons that Kentucky coach John Calipari doled out and put them to use on the floor. In a primetime rivalry game against Louisville, Gilgeous-Alexander erupted for 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting along with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals to lead the Wildcats to victory.
“I’m a learner. I just soak things up. I just try to learn and implement into my game,” Shai said. “Every day I look as a chance to get better and I try to get better for the next day.”
That Louisville game was the 12th of the season for Kentucky. In the remaining 25 games, including the NCAA tournament, Gilgeous-Alexander scored in double figures in all but 5 games. He posted incredible averages of 20.7 points and 6.3 assists per game in the six total SEC and NCAA tournament games that the Wildcats played.
That trend continued in his rookie NBA season with the LA Clippers, when he earned the right to represent the World Team in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. Once again, Gilgeous-Alexander came on even stronger towards the end of the year, eschewing any type of rookie wall. He averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 52.0 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the three-point line over the final 19 games of the season in March and April.
Shai was brilliant in the playoffs too, averaging 13.7 points and 3.2 assists on 46.7 percent shooting and 50 percent three-point shooting as the Clippers pushed the Golden State Warriors to a six-game series.
Gilgeous-Alexander has the size and length of a wing with the skills of a guard and ability to play with the ball in his hand or without it. There’s a calm to his game, a smoothness and reluctance to be sped up by the opposition. Shai can attack and get to the teeth of the defense but doesn’t have to get all the way to the rim to create a shot, showing touch with push shots and floaters.
With broad shoulders and a comfort to hesitate in between the three-point line and the lane, Gilgeous-Alexander is a threat in isolation and in the pick and roll, meaning he can catch-and-go off of a pump fake against a closing defender or be the one creating for others.
“I have a good enough IQ, not the greatest IQ obviously, to know which plays I can make and which plays I shouldn’t. I try to stick to myself and be who I am,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
The long, limber guard is equally intriguing on the defensive side of the ball, particularly given the direction the league is heading where players have to be versatile, flexible and able to check players at nearly every position. With a 7-foot wingspan and lightning quick feet, Shai can defend point guards, shooting guards and likely some small forwards if he takes on a switch.
“Individually it’s just don’t let my man score,” Shai said of his defensive mindset. “A big thing that helped me defensively (was) communicating. Even when you talk to other guys, it helps yourself as well, knowing where everybody is. Hearing guys behind you talk, it’s contagious.”
Watch: SGA in OKC
Still, the Thunder believes that where Shai is today as a player is not close to where, ultimately, he's going to be. The team will be patient with the process that it takes for all youngsters to grow and mature in this league, but Gilgeous-Alexander has the tools, and will aim to follow the same track that past Thunder greats have walked.
“We think (he) has a tremendously bright future in the league, and we're really proud to have as a Thunder player, and excited about the growth potential that he has in his game,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. “We're also really excited about just who he is as a person and the makeup of him as a young man is something that we're really, really excited about having and adding to our organization going forward.”
“He's not really even scratching the surface,” Presti continued. “He's got tremendous makeup, and that's going to be a big accelerator for ultimately how good a player he becomes. and I think he has that. He's got great size and great length, and he's a sponge.”
Just as he did with film study at Kentucky, Gilgeous-Alexander took on a new pet project during his rookie NBA season and is continuing it on in Oklahoma City. Trying to eat better and focusing on a nutritious, balanced diet delivered results in LA and inspired Shai to lean on keeping his body in top condition moving forward in his career.
“I saw how nutrition helped last year going through a full season,” Shai noted. “Once I started eating better and stretching more often I saw my performance get better and I felt better.”
While Shai will be dedicated to his health and his craft, he’s already been received by Thunder fans who are equally committed to supporting their hometown team. On Twitter recently, Gilgeous-Alexander saw one young fan put tape over some his Nike shoes, labeling them with three initials. Not OKC, but SGA.
Shai knew the fans in Oklahoma City were “crazy” from the two games he played at Chesapeake Energy Arena last season and is excited to be on the adoring end of that relentless energy and noise this season. Gilgeous-Alexander also understands that he’ll be in good hands with the Thunder franchise, which values player development as a primary driver of performance.
“I knew it was a really good organization,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the Thunder. “They’ve done it at a really high level before. Nothing is more important than history and showing it.”
On a team that has shown the ability to take young talent and build them in the NBA level superstars, Gilgeous-Alexander is thrilled about the chance to be one of the central figures of the next generation of Thunder basketball. It will take a relentless spirit on the floor, in the weight room and in the film room, but SGA has the framework to be a Thunder fan favorite for years to come.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity. It’s another opportunity that I’m blessed to have and I know a lot of people wish to have,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.