He’s a player on the rise, but he knows there’s still tons of work to be done. He goes all out, plays with heart and flashes his beaming smile. And when it came time to choose where he wanted to be, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander signed with the Thunder.
On Friday, the Thunder officially announced the signing of Gilgeous-Alexander, the 23-year-old point guard, to a multi-year contract extension. For Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s the opportunity to continue building a bright and special future in Oklahoma City. For the Thunder, it’s about locking in a vibrant, talented playmaker and leader who made huge strides in his third year but still has his best basketball well ahead of him.
“Shai's emotional intelligence is at a high very level, and he understands team dynamics. He understands the confidence he can create in other people and the result that that can bring to a team,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. “He's an optimistic guy by nature, which is a tremendous trait in today's world and society. He comes to work every day with a smile on his face. He's ready to work. But he's a great competitor.”
“He walks the walk with his work ethic and his humility,” added Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.
"You’ve got to have core values that you stick by, and I think as a team we have those.”
When handed adversity and opportunity in his third NBA season, Gilgeous-Alexander rose to the occasion. On the second night of a back-to-back on February 17, when the Thunder landed in Memphis just hours before tip-off after a snowstorm derailed their travel plans, Gilgeous-Alexander got up in front of his bleary eyed and road-worn teammates and encouraged them to shake off any self-pity. It was time to lace ‘em up and play. The guts of the youngster to shoulder that responsibility, and after the game, a loss, to not make excuses, was exemplary of the type of maturity he showed during his second season in OKC.
“You’ve got to have core values and things that you stick by, and I think as a team we have those, and I think that's what allowed us to keep a positive mindset,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
“He leads us on the floor and off the floor as well. His work ethic is impeccable,” said teammate Darius Bazley. “On the court, in the weight room, getting treatment, whatever he's doing, every decision he makes, it's always how does this better myself, and how does this better the team.”
On the court, Gilgeous-Alexander continues to surge forward in his career. After his first season as a pro in Los Angeles, he broke into the Clippers rotation as a rookie and represented himself well in the playoffs in a complementary role. After being traded to Oklahoma City before his second season, he became a crucial member of a backcourt triumvirate that gave defenses headaches. He showed his chops as a scorer and deft finisher in the paint.
Using the breadth of experiences he’s had during his NBA career and even back to his role at the University of Kentucky, Gilgeous-Alexander assumed the role of primary playmaker and creator for the Thunder in 2020-21. He racked up career-highs with 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game, along with shooting splits of 50.8 percent from the field, 41.8 percent from 3 and 80.8 percent from the free-throw line.
A threat at all three levels of the floor, Gilgeous-Alexander often exploited the defense’s keen interest in him to enable his teammates to thrive. His assist ratio for the year was 21.2, meaning that over a fifth of his possessions ended with an assist. His poise and understanding that ball movement does the scoring helped lead to three-straight road wins early on, each of which he put his imprint on heavily. In New Orleans, Gilgeous-Alexander notched 21 points, 9 assist and a career-high 5 steals, then he added balanced 25-10-7 and 31-6-7 stat lines in victories over playoff squads – the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.
“He makes it possible for us to kind of envision the ability to play a really team-based game where the ball is moving and there's multiple people making decisions simultaneously with or without the ball,” Presti noted. “He realized that he had the opportunity to really empower his teammates. I thought he helped a lot of our guys improve and put them in position to be successful.”
“He not only generates efficient shots for himself, shoots them efficiently and gets to the free-throw line, but he lives in the paint and generates efficient shots for the rest of the team,” said Daigneault. “That's a mark of an impact player, and he certainly has himself on that track.”
Playing out of the pick and roll, Gilgeous-Alexander has been a menace to opposing guards and awaiting rim protectors alike. Not only did Gilgeous-Alexander lead the NBA in drives with 25.2 per game last season, he was extremely efficient on his attacks to the paint, scoring 13.1 points on 55.4 percent shooting to go with 2.4 assists.
He passed out of drives 48.4 percent of the time, meaning defenses could never truly predict what he’d do in the lane. Boosting that spontaneity, Gilgeous-Alexander kept his options open longer than most thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and the body control to get his defender on his back while continuing to bait the big man in front of him.
“Every really good point guard has that in their game being able to do multiple things at the same time - survey the court, keep their guy on their hip, keep their dribble alive, really extend plays,” Gilgeous-Alexander explained.
“His ability to like conceptualize that beyond what's right in front of him is pretty impressive for a young guy,” said Daigneault. “He's incredibly present out there on the court. He's not thinking about stats. He's not thinking about accolades. He’s lost in the competition.”
One of the reasons Gilgeous-Alexander was in the lane so much this season was because of an enhanced stroke from behind the 3-point line. Daigneault noted that the Toronto native adjusted his form between season one and season two, and that diligence certainly did the trick. His breakout performance in that regard came against San Antonio, when he scored a career-best 42 points and six-made 3-pointers.
Gilgeous-Alexander knocked down 44.4 percent of his corner 3s, an outrageous 41.2 percent of his triples above the break and 40.9 percent of his pull-up 3s. In the NBA, the ability to shoot the three off the bounce as a primary ball-handler is perhaps the most coveted skill. It is the key that unlocks the rest of the offense.
“Now you're in a real dilemma,” said Daigneault, with his scouting hat on. “You're dealing with a guy that can make 3s off the dribble. You're dealing with a guy that lives in the paint, gets fouled, sprays out for efficient shots for his teammates. Now you get into the territory of having to double him, and now you're having to get into a rotation, and those are the hardest teams to guard.”
“That type of defense forces you to make a play after the play, make a pass when they get into rotations, and from there it’s another pass and a good look,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “There’s certain ways to go about attacking every defense.”
SGA’s step-back 3 at the end of the shot clock with just over two minutes to go gave the Thunder breathing room in a win at San Antonio, but that was just one of many heroic turns Gilgeous-Alexander turned in during his 35 games in 2020-21. He led a 22-point comeback against Chicago, spinning and hitting a bank shot for an old-school 3-point play to tie the game at 118 with 16.4 seconds to go. In overtime, he found his pick-and-pop partner Mike Muscala for a pair of 3-pointers to seal the win and a 33-point, 10-assist, 5-rebound performance of his own.
In the clutch, SGA got the job done in a variety of ways. Against Phoenix, it was four-straight made free throws to seal a win and 21-7-8 game. In the first game back from the All-Star break against Dallas, it was a pair of drives with his left hand inside the final two minutes – first a stop and pop, then a blowby drive that left his defender planted in cement. Perhaps the most exhilarating finale was Gilgeous-Alexander’s performance down the stretch against Minnesota, when he scored 13 points over the final seven minutes, then found Bazley for the go-ahead bucket with 1:16 to go. The dynamic guard then helped secure the win with a defensive stand and the final rebound to cap a 31-9-7 game.
It was in the very first game of the season, however, at Charlotte, when Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone for his season as the Thunder’s clutch-time guy. Getting the ball with 9.7 seconds left, Gilgeous-Alexander rushed up the floor, put his defender on his heels and busted a lefty inside-out dribble into a crossover for a stop-and-pop jumper to beat the Hornets at the buzzer.
“I know what I like to get to and when I like to get to it,” said Gilgeous-Alexander of last-second possessions. “It kind of forces me to make something happen. Those are the fun moments.”
“He's our leader and he's our best scorer,” said teammate and fellow Canadian Lu Dort. “Down the stretch at that time, you know, the ball's gotta be in his hands and he's got to make a play.”
After a breakthrough season and a new contract, some NBA players would get complacent. Not SGA. This offseason, Gilgeous-Alexander said he’s prioritizing getting healthy after suffering from plantar fasciitis during the second half of the year, but also enhancing his strength, weight, mass, speed, agility, explosiveness, shooting, ballhandling and passing.
“Just trying to become a better overall, all-around player,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
“Every time you give that guy time in the off-season, he comes back better, and he's proven that time and time again,” said Daigneault.
As the Thunder organization continues in its commitment to its plan of investing in the growth of its young players, the team has an excellent example to emulate. With a love of the game in his heart, a wink in his eye and the confidence that comes from the work he’s put in, Gilgeous-Alexander is ready to lead the Thunder as each take their next steps forward.
“One of the biggest things we tried to focus on as a team is developing, trying to get better every day. Wherever that takes us, we'll be satisfied because we know we did all we can do,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.