OKLAHOMA CITY — A couple days into training camp, Chris Paul needed to set the record straight.
He had already cleared things up on Twitter, but as he stood in the corner of the Oklahoma City Thunder practice facility and peered across the floor with an eye toward Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul was eager to reiterate something.
A day before, Gilgeous-Alexander made the bold claim he was winning every shooting competition between the second-year guard and the 15-year veteran. Paul disagreed.
“I beat him bad today, too,” Paul said. “We’re gonna get the crew to film us one day in our shooting games.”
They’d been teammates for only a short time, but the chemistry between Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander was clear. Much has been made about Paul’s leadership role with the Thunder, and specifically in mentoring Gilgeous-Alexander in a master/padawan situation.
But Paul wanted to set that record straight.
“Maaaaan,” Paul said, eyes widening and eyebrows raising. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘What am I gonna teach him?’
“What is he gonna teach me?”
After an impressive rookie season, Gilgeous-Alexander was more than some unknown young player, but not necessarily a sure future All-Star when the LA Clippers sent him to Oklahoma City alongside a treasure trove of first-round draft picks in the blockbuster Paul George trade.
But Gilgeous-Alexander has continued to grow and is tapping into the kind of potential that has some wondering if he’s going to be the next young superstar in Oklahoma City.
BILLY DONOVAN STARTED with a risky preface.
“I don’t mean this the way it’s going to come across,” the Thunder coach said, “but I’m happy he struggled.”
It was after the Thunder’s Nov. 29 game against the New Orleans Pelicans, and despite an OKC victory, Gilgeous-Alexander had a rough outing: 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting and four turnovers.
“Because,” Donovan said, lingering on the word for emphasis, “I think adversity is good. He’s had a lot of success in this early part of the season, he’s done some incredible things, and I always feel like with players, there’s people that have what I call surface confidence and deep confidence. And when you go through struggles you find out what kind of confidence you have in yourself.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s first game with the Thunder featured a career-high 26 points. He followed it up with 28 points in his second game. It looked like he was hitting the ground running with his development, all while taking a slurp of OKC’s secret development sauce.
The next few weeks, though, were not spectacular. He was struggling to find his place in a hybrid three-point-guard lineup and playing less aggressively. He scored 12 points on Nov. 25 against the Warriors, then 11 on Nov. 27 against the Trail Blazers leading into the game against the Pelicans.
“So I don’t mean to say I want to see him struggle. I obviously want to see him play great every game — it helps our team,” Donovan continued. “But I do think for his evolution as a player to be able to go through nights like that and keep himself engaged in the game, how to learn from those situations and come back the next day and get better from it, is really healthy for his development and growth.”
IT WAS JAN. 13 and the Thunder were in Minneapolis. They were up 15 on the Minnesota Timberwolves with 29.9 seconds left and Paul had the ball isolated at the top of the key. Gilgeous-Alexander, sitting on 19 rebounds — already an overwhelming career high — was camped on the right block.
Paul launched from straightaway, and Gilgeous-Alexander — summoning some Russell Westbrook-level stat-stuffing skills — snared his 20th rebound. There are some within the team who believe Paul not only missed on purpose, but missed so accurately as to intentionally create a carom in the direction of Gilgeous-Alexander.
It gave Gilgeous-Alexander a beautifully round stat line — 20-10-20 — and his first career triple-double. He became the second guard in the past 30 years with a 20-point, 20-rebound triple-double (joining, naturally, Westbrook), and the youngest with that line, clearing the previous mark set by Shaquille O’Neal in 1993.
“Coach had challenged me before the game to fill up the stat sheet more and do more things,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Because he thought, as well as myself thought, that I was more capable of what I was doing.”
Gilgeous-Alexander was referring to assistant Brian Keefe. He works closely with Gilgeous-Alexander and has played a unique role in Thunder history. He was on Scott Brooks’ staff in the early days, helping shepherd the growth of Kevin Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Reggie Jackson. Keefe has been a steady hand in the organization. He understands the Thunder.
And the Thunder understand player development. They have plenty of experience in managing and developing elite talent. They don’t set unrealistic expectations. There’s a belief in process and organizational stability. It’s never a game-by-game thing. At the most, it’s a year-by-year thing. With all the new faces, the Thunder put a focus on scrimmaging a lot in training camp. It became clear to Donovan then that Gilgeous-Alexander had a little something extra to him.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘What am I gonna teach him?’ What is he gonna teach me?”
Chris Paul, on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
“The thing that’s important in all of this is his makeup,” Donovan said. “There are plenty of individual players that have great individual talent and ability but they don’t know how to bring it out of themselves, and certainly he’s really driven internally.
“There’s a drive inside of him, personally, to want to become all that he’s capable of becoming. And that’s half the battle in terms of player development.”
Paul has guided the Thunder all season, elevating in closing moments, but Gilgeous-Alexander has 85 clutch time points himself, ranking 11th in the league. He’s shooting 57.8% in the clutch. He leads the league in clutch steals, along with Paul, with 10. He’s a plus-106 in clutch time, second in the league (behind teammate Dennis Schroder). He’s one of the more effective iso players in the league, averaging 0.95 points per play. He’s someone you can lean on in tense stages.
“His first step is unbelievable,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s really hard for anybody to keep him in front of him and then he blows by you, and then again he slows it all down to sidestep people or use his athleticism or make the right play at the end of it.”
Nurse had two more things he liked: Gilgeous-Alexander’s demeanor and his shooting mechanics, seeing his form being the kind that will age well, and even likely extend beyond the 3-point line. Something Gilgeous-Alexander is working on right now: a faster release on catch-and-shoot 3s.
“I tell you what,” Nurse said, “he’s got a lot of things going for him, right?”
THE THUNDER HAVE a plan in place to eventually begin a rebuild. General manager Sam Presti has been remarkably transparent about it, even going so far as to pen an op-ed in the local newspaper.
Most thought it was starting this season, but Paul, Schroder, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander had other plans. The Thunder are 37-22, fifth in the Western Conference. And Gilgeous-Alexander is the leading scorer on that team at 19.4 points per game.
But down the line, the Thunder recognize their path back to competing for NBA titles will have to go through some lean years that will yield lottery balls. It’s not even really a choice; it’s just the reality of a rebuild in a small market.
To contend requires All-NBA talent. Standard practice is it requires two, maybe even three such players. And to acquire All-NBA talent in a small market has to be done via trades or the draft.
The Thunder have a war chest of draft capital, but where they plan to make their franchise-defining selections is with their own picks. That could be in two years. It could be in four.
What’s currently unknown, though, is where Gilgeous-Alexander fits into the plan.
Is he possibly one of the All-NBA-caliber talents? Is he too good to tank with, but not good enough to build around? Would the Thunder eventually have to trade him to complete a bottoming out? Is he a centerpiece?
These are the things that Thunder are trying to assess, all while Gilgeous-Alexander produces a sensational second season. There’s a beyond-his-years feel to him, from the way he speaks to the composure on the floor with his stop-and-start movements and casual, horseshoe-tossed layups. But the team is pumping the brakes a bit, managing expectations with an eye toward incremental growth.
After all, OKC’s track record grooming young stars speaks for itself. And it’s not just the Thunder who are keeping him grounded.
“The people around me don’t let my head get too big,” Gilgeous-Alexander said earlier this season. “Especially my mom. She tells me I suck every day.”
He was joking. Probably.
At a certain point, the Thunder will have to determine how foundational he is and how high he can soar. He has had an excellent sophomore season, playing a vital role as a versatile flex guard in one of the league’s most dangerous lineups, but he also has been shielded by Paul.
Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t played much without Paul. He hasn’t played full-time point guard. He hasn’t had to call plays and orchestrate offense in tight games. He hasn’t been relied upon to take and make the big shots, and live with the criticism of a crucial turnover or questionable look. He hasn’t gotten the blame for a close loss.
A couple weeks ago, with the Thunder down three against the Celtics with a few seconds left, Marcus Smart picked his pocket to prevent him from even getting a shot off. Gilgeous-Alexander took it hard. He vowed to learn from it.
“Every experience is different, teaches you a new thing — good or bad — and you just take it, learn from it and move on,” he said.
All part of the process, though. And it’s also why having one of the best point guards in NBA history alongside has been such a boost. Paul is one of the true masters of the game, a floor general in every sense, a clutch-time magician.
That’s where the Thunder are pushing Gilgeous-Alexander to fill those gaps.
“It’s easy to evaluate yourself based on how many points you score,” Donovan said. “And Shai’s going to be a terrific scorer, I think, for a long time in his career. But I do think he’s selling himself short if he’s not impacting the game in a lot of different ways.
“There’s nothing in the game that he can’t have an impact on.”
But it might not just be the game that he ends up having an impact on in Oklahoma City.