Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

RARE & RELENTLESS

How Process Over Outcome Fuels Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER IS, and there’s really just no other way to put this, cool. He’s cool in an interview. He’s cool with how he dresses. He’s cool slipping through defenders for an acrobatic layup. He’s cool under pressure. He’s cool just … being cool. 

Even his name – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – is not only a) extremely fun to say, but b) has this almost lyrical flourish to it that feels like you accidentally wrote the first three words to a poem when you type it out. And his initials – SGA – make for a built-in nickname that still sounds like some creative friend dubbed him that in middle school. The Gilgeous part is from his mom, Charmaine Gilgeous, who competed in the 1992 Olympics for Antigua and Barbuda, running in the 400 meters. The Alexander part is from his father, Vaughn, who was his main basketball influence growing up, coaching him as a kid. 

Ask any of SGA’s teammates if they’ve ever seen him uncool, or maybe even mad, and they blank. “Shai’s always had that swag and cool about him,” Lu Dort says.

“You can't really ever see Shai mad. Honestly.”

To see even a hint of uncool in SGA, you’d have to see him doing two of his newest favorite offcourt, offseason hobbies. He’s recently picked up playing tennis, and is just starting out with golf.

“I'm smooth in basketball and I'm smooth in soccer, but a lot of sports, I’m not as smooth as you would think,” he says.

“My feet were huge growing up, and my limbs were huge. So I was kind of goofy, like a baby deer. So a lot of sports I look kind of goofy. But I’m getting better because I don't like feeling goofy, so I’m getting better, but I’m not as good at everything as you would think.”

SGA likes the 1-on-1 nature of tennis. He’s always liked team sports, preferring to be part of something rather than separate from it. He even liked group projects in school. But tennis provides a rare test against a single opponent, and against yourself.

“You control your own destiny,” he says.

Points are won between points, with tactical adjustments, both mental and physical. You play, you reset, you regain composure, and you try again. Maybe inadvertently, it’s those kinds of lessons that SGA applies on the basketball court, letting go of misses and mistakes and bad calls to move on instantly to the next moment. Like the game against the Trail Blazers on Dec. 19 where he started 2-for-12 from the floor, missing chip-ins and gimmies, leaving jumpers short, to then finish with a flurry including a buzzer-beating game-winner.  

“Those plays are over with. I tried to make ‘em. I did what I could in that moment,” he tells me. “I’ve got another play to make, another rotation to be in, another assignment to get done. So moving on is the only way to win the game.”

Nothing has ever been handed to SGA. So he solves everything through work, willingly taking on challenges to feel the addictive rush of improving at it. 

“I like failing. I like being bad at something, or not being where I want to be, and getting worse at it, to then get better at it,” he says. “I like breaking things down. And then going crazy on it.”

That is the science of SGA. He stands next in the growing line of Thunder greatness, following the legacy of Kevin Durant, of Russell Westbrook, of James Harden, all homegrown through patience, all pushed through their own personality.

In 15 seasons, Oklahoma City has become an academy of sorts, the Hogwarts of basketball where gifted young hoopers can grow and learn and develop their skills. Scoring champions, MVPs, record-breakers. Each player with their own curriculum, backed by a personal drive to achieve it. 

“I've been the underdog in most of my career. So outcomes never came right away. I had no choice but to work hard and trust it and just kind of let it play out. And it’s played out pretty good so far.”

–Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

From trying new sports, to reinventing his jump shot, to determining how to lead a team, the education of SGA is a drumbeat of growth. He’s a lifelong learner intent on mastering everything he tries. And he does it understanding that progression to a breakthrough can be messy – sometimes you have to be willing to fall down, to grind, to find new approaches. 

And sometimes, you have to be willing to outright struggle. 

Fluidity: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

LET’S JUST GO AHEAD and get this part out of the way: There have been a lot of descriptions about the way Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays. It is unusual, it is different. It produces analogies to make it make sense. How can something be rewinding and fast-forwarding and paused all at the same time? 

He is unhurried, gliding around screens, dipping his shoulders to find an angle that gives him a step. He tilts and leans and bends defenders, luring them into a trap to either reach, or back off a little too much. It’s like a song in rhythm, but off beat. He plays basketball in 7/8 time. It’s elegant. Artful. 

This is how he describes it: “Smooth. Slippery. Cerebral.”

Every star has an origin story, and SGA’s includes the classic of being cut from his junior varsity team as a freshman. He was 5-foot-6, 115 pounds, and didn’t have overwhelming speed or eye-popping athleticism. He was typically the shortest, the slowest, the skinniest kid on the court.  

“I had to figure out ways to play. I think that's where that comes from,” he says. “That’s how I’ve had to make my way and turn it into a skill.”

Even though he hit a growth spurt the next summer and shot up to 6-foot-2, then 6-foot-6 by his senior season, he still wasn’t a household name on the recruiting circuit. He was rated Kentucky’s seventh-best prospect in its 2017 class, with only one other offer before he committed.  

“I've been the underdog in most of my career,” he says. “So outcomes never came right away. I had no choice but to work hard and trust it and just kind of let it play out. And it’s played out pretty good so far.”

Pretty good is one way to put it. One theme to SGA’s basketball career has been a steady churn of improvement. His rookie season, he averaged 10.8 points, starting 73 games for a playoff team. His second season, now with OKC, he led a playoff team in scoring at 19.0 points. Third season: 23.7 points. Fourth: 24.5 points. This season: currently at 30.6 points, with 25 30-point games. And if you’re wondering for absolutely no reason at all, no player in NBA history averaging at least 30 a game has not been named an All-Star (min. 25 games). Ahem.

A preseason challenge for him was to improve as a defender and, don’t know if you’ve heard, but SGA likes challenges. So this season he leads all guards in blocks (1.1 per game), is sixth overall in steals (1.7) and is in the top 10 in deflections. 

And the way SGA goes about it all is old school. He’s a modern throwback, re-breaking basketball in his own way. He’s led the league in drives per game four seasons running, outscoring some of the top centers in the league in the paint. He holds back on cranking 3s, taking 2.9 a game, unheard of in the modern NBA for a player scoring 30 a night. He has a vicious step-back 3 in the bag, but he holds it under lock and key until he needs it. He used it to beat the Clippers at the buzzer last season; he used it to (seemingly) beat Milwaukee at the buzzer this season; and he used it to actually beat Washington a few nights later. 

That shot, though, came through the attrition of work. Last season, SGA was taking off-the-dribble 3s at a high rate, clearly the product of an offseason focus he was looking to translate into games. His efficiency dipped dramatically, with career-lows in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. He made an adjustment in January, curbing the 3s, and his scoring, and efficiency, jumped. But as he said during the slump last season: “The only way they’re ever gonna go in is if I shoot them.” Fail now to succeed later. Process over outcome. 

Now that step-back is producing clutch game-winners, which thereby produces clutch captions on his Instagram like “SINCE I’M IN DC CALL ME HIMMY CARTER.” Those poetic phrases get workshopped with his friends and brother, with texts flying around to brainstorm ideas. The whole “him” thing doesn’t have an exact origin, he says, but it did start before he belted it out against the Lakers last season. 

“That was the first time I really used it,” he says. “I’d heard it before that. I really don’t know where it started.”

Watch him play and you see total basketball. He’s a player in complete control of the game, both emotionally and physically. He has the pulse of teammates, and feels the rhythm of the game. He knows when to hit the gas, when to brake and when to detour. 

It wasn’t always that way, though. It was something he had to – guess what – learn. 

"There's a lightness to him that allows him to keep his confidence afloat. And it keeps him very poised in pressure situations."

–Coach Daigneault

IT’S A BRISK MORNING in Milwaukee two weeks into the season, and the Thunder are at shootaround. Players are revving up in the first drill, a drive-and-kick exercise to draw a defender up from the block to open up a corner 3. 

It’s SGA’s turn. He hits the gas and attacks the paint at full speed, firing a pinpoint chest pass to the corner. He claps and sprints back in line. And every time through, it’s the same intensity, the same energy. Next, it’s a half-transition simulation to prepare for Giannis Antetokounmpo and SGA is in a crouched defensive stance calling out screeners and cutters like it’s the fourth quarter.

Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault loves to ask questions in shootarounds and practices. "If the ball goes to the corner, who slips?" 

And like the teacher's pet, SGA is always quick to be the first to answer. 

“Lu does!” 

The team is now working on a specific set. "OK, here's a trivia question,” Daigneault starts. “Why does the —”

"Because the guard,” SGA answers, before Daigneault can even finish. 

The whole tone of shootaround hovered between light/fun and serious/intense. One minute, SGA is making jokes about if a perfect pass right in the shooting pocket for Jeremiah Robinson-Earl wasn’t good enough because Robinson-Earl missed the shot, and the next SGA is flipping the switch to go full game speed. 

“He has a very light personality and I think he's learned how to become a little bit heavier in the midst of competition,” Daigneault says. “There's a lightness to him that allows him to keep his confidence afloat. And it keeps him very poised in pressure situations.” 

SGA has been on both sides of it. He was a young player on playoff teams his first two seasons and observed a veteran approach. Two years ago, he played alongside Chris Paul, essentially spending a season tutoring in game management. 

“The things that you can't help but notice when you're around Chris are great game manager, great control of the game as a lead guard and I think Shai’s learned that,” Daigneault says. “(Chris Paul) is the most serious guy on the team always, before the game, during the game, in practice. He's very narrow focused on the team and on competing and I think that’s a learned skill. 

“I wasn't around Chris when he was younger, but Shai was youthful. He's loves playing and there's a joy to him. And that's always a good thing, but he's learning more and more how to read the room, so to speak, in the course of the season or the game. And you're seeing him with more outward determination.

The way that's portrayed is important because that's what his teammates see. He’s always determined internally, but showing that and letting that go at times has been good for the team because it kind of snaps everybody to attention.”

Says Dort: “He’s more vocal, the way he talks to the team sometimes in huddles, before games or after games. Chris Paul was always vocal on the court and off the court, practice, film, whatever, and I feel like Shai has grown into that.” 

And when the Thunder traded Paul to Phoenix, it was as much a vote of confidence in SGA as it was the signal to a rebuild. It was an intentional passing of the torch, with a belief he’d find his way. 

“I had to figure it out. It was the first time in my NBA career that I've gotten, you could say, handed the keys,” SGA says. “And it wasn’t super smooth all the time. It was the first time I was on the top of every scouting report. It was the first time I was getting game-planned. There were multiple defensive switching throughout the game. A lot of things that I just didn't know were coming. And hats off to the Thunder for trusting me and letting me go through that process of figuring it out. For sure, it gets easier every game, every month, every year. As it should.”

AFTER A VERY SUCCESSFUL rookie season, SGA was ready for a makeover. The offseason is one of his favorite parts of the year, not because it’s beach and relax time, but because that’s when you really can get granular on improvement, making minor adjustments that can yield major headway. 

“I love trying to master something. And I like not getting it right,” he says. “And then getting to a point where it's right every single time and then seeing my improvement in four weeks, six weeks, whatever it is. I really love it. I love the feeling in the process of improvement.”

When he returned home for a summer of work, the goal was remaking his jump shot. He’s always been a good shooter, but his mechanics, particularly from range, were slow. It was kind of a set shot, and he needed ample space to get it off. And off-the-dribble 3s definitely weren’t happening, not in the land of the long-armed and athletic NBA. 

So with his trainer, Olin Simplis, he embarked on a teardown process, reconstructing his jumper from the ground up. Some of it was about speeding it up from deep, but a lot of it was building a consistency in release point.

“That whole process has been super fun for me,” he says. “And it for sure had to get worse before it could get better. I had to work super hard at that. So many mechanical things, day to day, watching it, being precise about it, trying to get it right every time I shoot it.” 

And not that SGA has mastered basketball – yet – but you could say he’s pretty darn good at it. So to scratch that itch, he hunts new things to try, new things to push himself with, new things to feel that incremental growth of getting worse to get better. Like tennis, like golf. Though, speaking from experience here, I politely inform him he’s taking up the wrong sport if he really wants to master golf.

He doesn’t blink. 

“I let it win if I quit.”

YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a player in how they warm up before games. It was always a favorite thing of mine, watching players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden and Paul George in Oklahoma City some 90 minutes before a game … prepare. No two players do it the same, even down to the time on the pregame clock they like to go. There’s an undefinable personality to each routine. 

But when it comes to the top tier, there’s a throughline – a certain focus, a distinguishable rigor, a demonstrable seriousness about it. It has a level to it. The shots they rehearse and repeat and perfect in pregame tend to be the shots they hunt and hit during the game.

Watching SGA, as he runs through his routine, all the signs of what’s to come are there – midrange pull-ups, baseline turnarounds, step-back 3s, spinning layups. Focus, rigor, seriousness. But each one ends the same way; he seeks out every person on the floor for a handshake – down to the ball boys and rebounders – before running toward the tunnel. 

I thought, possibly, it was some kind of pregame superstition, something he started in college that continued on. But nah, that’s just standard social awareness and etiquette that he has turned on at all times. He’s not a superstitious kind of guy anyway. 

“I eat an apple before every game,” he says. “But I just like apples.”

That’s the regular vibe of SGA. Precise, but flexible. Rigorous, but free-flowing. Decisive, but improvisational. He has an effortless demeanor, but a bold style. His best subject in school was math, but he has a major interest in art. His internal confidence is unmistakable, but outward humility apparent. He stands above, without ever standing apart. He is comfortably inclusive, with an inherent emotional intelligence to everyone around him. 

“I’m just a regular guy. I don't have some crazy lifestyle,” he says, and then expressing the trademark self-awareness, adds a quick correction. “Well, obviously my lifestyle’s not normal, but I enjoy the regular things in life.”

For instance, after the game against the Orlando Magic on Nov. 1, one in which SGA played maybe the best two-way game of anyone in the NBA this season, he was asked his impressions of Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s draft. It had to have been a tough game to watch for Chet Holmgren, who of course is sitting out his first season with a foot injury. SGA was naturally complementary, mentioning Banchero’s physicality and skillset, but finished his answer saying, “Chet Holmgren is the No. 1 pick, by the way.”

“Shai is my guy,” Holmgren says. “It was definitely appreciated.”

In huddles, Daigneault will draw up ATOs (after timeout plays) for SGA, but SGA will say, “Let’s run that one for Josh” or “Let’s get that look for Lu.” 

“It says that, you know, as our leader, our best player, let's get the other guys involved,” Dort says. “And that's how we want to win games.”

Even though he’s only 24 years old, SGA has a roster of young players with their own career ambitions ahead looking to him, watching his work, watching his rise. The morning after he hit the game-winner against Portland, the Thunder had a recovery day, just come in, get treatment and relax. But when Daigneault walked in the door, he heard a ball bouncing. SGA was on the floor before 9 a.m. getting shots up. “I was like, day after a game winner?” Daigneault says. “That's money where your mouth is.” 

“There’s a big thing here with process over outcome, and he embodies that,” Holmgren says. “Whether he missed the game-winner or made the game-winner, the next day is the next day. He’s coming in here to get his work in and get better. He’s gonna show up every day, he’s gonna show you what it takes, and he’s gonna show you what comes out of the work. It really lifts up a lot of the guys who want to follow suit.”

“There’s a big thing here with process over outcome, and he embodies that. Whether he missed the game-winner or made the game-winner, the next day is the next day.
He’s coming in here to get his work in and get better."

–Chet Holmgren

Behind SGA is a layered roster full of blossoming talent, but still the second youngest in NBA history. The Thunder is routinely starting lineups with four and five players under the age of 25. It’s been only two drafts since the Thunder last made the playoffs and while the flashes are obvious, there’s still a mountain to climb ahead. 

But for a minute, SGA steps out of his day-by-by mindset to zoom out and think of what it might feel like. To be one that was on the ground floor of the next great Thunder team, to have gone through the pain of progress, to stand on the shoulders of what’s come before to arrive on the main stage again. 

“Last year, before last season, before training camp, Sam (Presti) talked to us and he used this word that really hit home – catalyst,” SGA says. “I think that is the perfect word to describe the opportunity I have. I have the opportunity to really build something and be at the forefront of it. That’s something I know and embrace every day and maximize it for sure.”

ON AN OFF DAY in early November, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stands inside the lobby of the First Americans Museum with Mike Muscala and Lindy Waters III, waiting on a guide to appear for a tour. 

The 175,000-square-foot museum, opened in 2021, is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also the largest single-building tribal cultural center in the country. It honors Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations and houses the National Native American Hall of Fame. It took three decades of planning for the museum to come to fruition, so long that the original plans of it featured a bank of payphones where there are now water fountains. 

It’s a Monday, so the museum is closed to the public, but Waters, who is part Kiowa and part Cherokee, was invited for a personal tour after appearing with students a week before. The big surprise was coming at the end of the tour, where staff put Waters’ No. 12 Thunder jersey in a display case in the section honoring famous Native American athletes. It was also SGA’s first time to visit, but he was there to support Waters, and also learn more about the heritage and history of the land he plays on. 

The group walks the museum, and SGA is unsurprisingly invested and curious at each stop, asking questions and leaning into the displays for a closer look. There’s a setup called the “Powwow Van,” an immersive attraction to simulate a cruise on the Oklahoma Powwow Highway with photos and video clips. Before the guide can even offer, SGA takes a seat in the front bench of the pretend van to start watching. 

And when they get to the part to surprise Waters with his jersey on display, SGA, grinning ear to ear, gives Waters a hug. 

But before all of that, they waited on the guide and to make a little smalltalk and break the semi-awkward silence with starstruck museum employees, one suggests to go around for some quick introductions. 

Muscala says his name, then Waters, who the staff already know and briefly talk about knowing his family as well. It’s over to SGA, who obviously everyone knows, but it’s only polite to go ahead with the formalities here. 

“Shai Gilg—,” he starts, but pauses midway through, meekly shrugging. “It’s just Shai.” 

Just Shai. That’s him.

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