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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander always looks damn comfortable on the basketball court. Never rushed, constantly in control, the rising NBA star knew that’s where he needed to be when his surroundings were forcibly changed.
Last summer, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder came to an agreement on a blockbuster trade that sent Paul George to his hometown and Gilgeous-Alexander the other way. After emerging as a key piece to the future in his rookie season, the Hamilton, Ontario native needed to re-establish himself in a new city. So he spent his first night there doing what he’s known best: working on his craft in the Thunder practice facility well into the late hours.
For new players, getting acquainted with OKC usually starts with a trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but Gilgeous-Alexander has made homes of Chattanooga, Lexington, and Los Angeles by leaving it all out on the court.
“I just know who I am as a person, comfortable in my own skin,” Gilgeous-Alexander told the Toronto media on his lone visit in December. “And I guess that's just a testament to how I was raised. All credit to my parents. But yeah, I'm a humble guy, confident at the same time—just go about my business.”
With 3.5 seconds remaining and his Thunder clinging to a lead against the defending champion Toronto Raptors, Gilgeous-Alexander was all business indeed; he knew where he wanted the ball to be: in his hands.
Just like when he relocated to the perimeter to get the ball back after kicking it out to veteran superstar Chris Paul before hitting the game-winning shot with a make-it-up-as-I-go-speed running banker going to his left. And just like when he was first to the ball when Fred VanVleet missed from long range on the very next possession. The Thunder would get the W, Gilgeous-Alexander collecting 32 points—the most a Canadian has ever scored against the Raptors.
“All of it, honestly, wouldn’t have meant anything if we didn’t win,” he said after the game.
Even with the distraction of dozens of family and friends in the building, the 21-year-old’s focus remained singular. During warmups, he admitted to not even noticing the newly minted championship banner of the team he rooted for growing up.
That tunnel vision, while heresy to Raptors fans, appears to be working out for Gilgeous-Alexander: during Monday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he became the youngest player in NBA history to record at least 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists in a night. Not only is he in the conversation for the best Canadian in the NBA—he may well be one of the best sophomores the league’s ever seen.
“He’s tough. He’s very tough,” the Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins told reporters afterwards. “He’s a big guard that can put it on the floor and create for others, and he’s a bucket.”
A big guard he certainly is, but one with a modestly sized ego. When he takes in that he was a key piece in a trade for George or is showered with praise by Dwyane Wade on Twitter, his mother is the first to bring him back down to earth.
“The people around me don't let my head get too big, especially my mom,” he says. “She tells me I suck every day.”
Charmaine Gilgeous knows a thing or two about keeping an athlete focused through the rigours of intense competition—she competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona as a sprinter. Father, Vaughn, played his part as well, helping coach his son at a very young age. And when he wasn’t coaching, he was making sure both Shai and his cousin, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker, were spending as much of their free time as possible playing sports and staying out of trouble. That upbringing is why when the Thunder did their due diligence on what to expect from Gilgeous-Alexander, there were nothing but glowing references.
“He’s obviously in his second year, but he’s really, really bright. He’s a great worker,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan says. “I think one of his greatest qualities apart from his basketball skillset is his humility. I don’t mean to say he’s timid or afraid, but he’s got great humility in terms of being coached and wanting to get better. I think all great players, to me, always look inside first, and he’s a guy who really does that—for ways to get better and improve.”
“The people around me don't let my head get too big, especially my mom. She tells me I suck every day.”
Coming off a debut season that saw him crack the All-Rookie Second Team, Gilgeous-Alexander has nearly doubled his scoring output to a shade under 20 points per game. He says he intends on making a similar leap each and every year. A big part of his improvement this season stems from a simple position switch—after almost exclusively playing point guard with the Clippers, Paul’s arrival has allowed him to slide over a guard spot and make scoring a priority. It’s also given him the best seat in the house to one of the best brains in the business.
Even before the trade that brought Paul to Oklahoma City for Westbrook, the 34-year-old texted Gilgeous-Alexander words of encouragement, not knowing they’d be teammates just days later. The nine-time All-Star has taken Gilgeous-Alexander under his wing, and while CP3 can be tough as nails on the court, the Canadian insists he rarely gets the iron fist from him.
“Chris is soft; it’s always love,” Gilgeous Alexander says with a not-so-innocent smile. “Obviously, he's a guy that's done it at a very high level for a very long time. Hopefully I get to that level. He's taught me so much on and off the court, and it's a blessing.”
When Gilgeous-Alexander has the ball on the perimeter, he connects the dots between where he wants to go and how he wants to get there like an astronomer with an eidetic memory of every constellation in the book. Nearly 40 percent of his field goal attempts come at the rim, while just under another third come between four and 14 feet of the basket. Of course, it helps having the tools of a 6-foot-6 frame accompanied by a 6-foot-11 wingspan.
“I’m not sure who has a quicker first step, blow-by move in the league right now than this guy,” Nick Nurse, Gilgeous-Alexander’s national team head coach, says. “When he’s iso’d and he makes his little head-and-shoulder [move], boom, he’s by ya. And then he’s got the uncanny ability to kind of slow that down at the end. It’s ultra-quick by his man, and then he surveys around who is left at the basket that he’s got to side-step or whatever. Or he makes such a fast move that he’s to the front of the rim right away. That’s been most impressive to me.”
Perhaps even more telling is that the Thunder are emerging victorious like no one thought they could. Optimists projected a 35-40-win season if everything went right, but now it’s nearly midway through the season and Oklahoma City are steadily cementing a playoff spot in the West by winning at a pace just a shade under that of last season. In a league that has transitioned from the Big Three to the Dynamic Duo, Gilgeous-Alexander is rising to the occasion of playing his part in the company of Paul.
There are echoes of the immediate success the Utah Jazz had as Donovan Mitchell more than eased the heartbreak of losing Gordon Hayward, or even the Indiana Pacers with Victor Oladipo when they looked to be between a rock and a hard place after George forced his way out. Their success has stemmed from forging a new path forward—something Gilgeous-Alexander grasped upon arrival.
“I am not Russell Westbrook,” he emphatically stated after the trade, faced with the possibility of carrying the torch in the absence of the departed superstar. “We don’t have the same name, the same body type, nothing like that. So, I’m going to try to be myself and be the best me, and everything else will take care of itself.”
In some ways, it is ironic that the new flag bearer for the franchise is the polar opposite of his predecessor. Westbrook, ever-willing to colour outside the lines with everything from his athleticism to his fashion sense; Gilgeous-Alexander, looking to perfectly tread along the lines of his game day fits and abundant potential. But what he is helping extend from the previous era is winning with a blue-collar approach that leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of greatness. And it’s that effort to be the best he can be that he hopes propels young Canadians to believe their futures are in their hands.
“Anything is possible with hard work and determination,” Gilgeous-Alexander says. “That's something I tell kids all the time when they ask questions. If you put your mind to it, and you're willing to work for it, you can get it. We're living proof of that.”