SGA Shined in ‘19-‘20, Ready to Star in the Re-Start
Chris Paul was finishing up his media interviews over Zoom with reporters 1,000 miles away from him, seated on a stool in front of a blue NBA backdrop. From behind the camera, an extra reporter sidled up to sneak in a question.
“What’s it like having SGA as a teammate?” said the familiar voice.
“It's kind of like having an older version of Little Chris around,” Paul smirked, referencing his 11-year-old son, and dishing it back to his understudy, teammate and friend - Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The second-year Thunder guard has been attached to Paul’s hip for the past 10 months since the team got together in September for unofficial workouts at the Thunder ION. Along with Dennis Schröder, Paul has provided Gilgeous-Alexander with a ton of perspective and information to work with over the course of the 2019-20 season. The apprentice has soaked it all in like a sponge and over the course of the year it seeped out of him more and more, showing up in his play on the floor. Now, with three scrimmages and eight seeding games lined up before the 2020 Playoffs, Gilgeous-Alexander will have the chance to make his mark on this Thunder team and just how far it can go.
“First of all, he's learning from two of the best point guards in the game,” said Thunder forward Abdel Nader.
“(Gilgeous-Alexander) is crazy talented,” Nader added. “It was just a matter of time for him.”
The year could have been somewhat awkward with three starting-level point guards on the roster, but Gilgeous-Alexander handled it well not just in terms of his production on the court (a team-best 19.3 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting along with 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game) but also in terms of cultivating relationships by staying grounded.
“He's a great teammate. He has incredible humility. He’s a guy that reflects inward in terms of what he can do better instead of being a guy that's going to project outwardly on what's wrong or what everybody else can be doing better,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
“That's a lot of credit to CP and that's a lot of credit to Shai for being a student in game,” center Nerlens Noel said, “but I think this next stretch to the playoffs is going to be interesting to watch him play and understand his maturity, and how he's grown over this past year.”
Despite not being the top recruit in his class heading to Kentucky, Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as a lottery pick thanks to a stellar second half of his freshman year with the Wildcats. The same thing happened in LA with the Clippers – he surged down the stretch and in the playoffs after only getting about 18 minutes a game during the regular season.
This year with the Thunder, he’s stepped his game up to another level, and it’s clear during the hiatus his work was relentless. It’s not just his new look up top with braided hair, Gilgeous-Alexander’s body is different after putting time into his weight room regimen. The 22-year-old calls all of this maturation over the past three years his “obsession with the game.”
“He utilized the information he had from his rookie year to a second year and he got better,” Donovan said. “The thing that was impressive to me with him coming back off of these four months was how much stronger he was, how much more experienced he was and how much more confidence he has. And I think the strength has really added something to him.”
Gilgeous-Alexander has earned praise, like that of his fellow Wildcat, Noel, in heaps during the past three weeks since the team reconvened in Oklahoma City then shipped off for the NBA’s bubble in Orlando. Some of it has stemmed from the size and physicality he can bring on the defensive side of the ball, but also the ability to increase his already miraculous body control on drives to the lane where he takes contact while jumping off the wrong leg and still somehow banks in a finger roll.
Where Gilgeous-Alexander has received the most kudos is in his tempo and resourcefulness when he’s attacking off the bounce. Early in the season, he may have not been able to see exactly where all of his teammates were positioned on the floor. He may not have been able to anticipate where the help defender was going to zip in from or how to bait the opposition’s big man into committing one way or the other.
“I don't think y'all have even seen it yet though,” Noel said with a grin. “He has this awareness of the game now, everything’s slowed down. It's something that I've really noticed.”
Paul and Schröder have certainly had a hand in cultivating those instincts from within Gilgeous-Alexander, but it’s the youngster’s commitment to it that has helped him mesh the mental side with the physical.
“When you get to like this level, it's kind of getting everyone else involved as well because it makes your game easier,” said center Steven Adams. “He's done a really terrific job at doing that – creating for other players to free himself.”
“Thumbs up all round from me for him,” Adams added.
In the midst of a global pandemic, anxiety over racial inequality and systemic issues in the United States and now the responsibility to go out an help lead an NBA team on a playoff run, Gilgeous-Alexander has been focused on listening, learning and then going out and being the best version of himself he can be. Those around him feel strongly that the ceiling is high for the 6-foot-6 Canadian guard, and mostly it’s because he’s shown eagerness to put in the work to keep elevating.
“He is going to be a star in this league,” said Paul. “We’ll just continue to try to educate each other on everything that's going around going on around us, not just the game.”
“I want to be great. But then there's the time you put into it and not everyone's willing to do that. But that's something I'm willing to do,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.