OKLAHOMA CITY – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seemed like a nice pickup for Oklahoma City Thunder, a secondary piece in the trade that sent Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers four years ago.
Gilgeous-Alexander has turned out to be more than an afterthought — much more.
He has blossomed into an All-Star, the unquestioned leader of the Thunder's rebuilding efforts and the centerpiece of a Canadian national team that could be a medal contender at the Paris Games next summer. He ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 31.5 points per game — behind Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard and just ahead of two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
He doesn't grab as many national headlines as the other top scorers — in part because the Thunder (38-42) haven't been competitive the past two years. Now Oklahoma City is battling for a spot in the Play-In Tournament with Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks heading into their game Thursday night at Utah.
“It’s been fun,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, 24, who was selected 11th overall by the Clippers in the 2018 draft after he spent a year at Kentucky. “My favorite part is the team success. There is no better feeling than winning games, and that’s all I wanted to focus on coming into the season. And with focusing on that, the individual success just followed.”
Oklahoma City has been reeling from the long-term effects of losing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and George, among others, to trades and free agency. A franchise that reached the Western Conference finals four times and the NBA Finals once the previous decade hasn't made the playoffs since 2020.
The 6-foot-6 Gilgeous-Alexander is giving Thunder fans hope and management reasons to build around him.
While his rise has been mostly off the radar, it's nonetheless impressive. Two seasons ago, he scored 23.7 points per game and last season, his average increased to 24.5. He missed the final month of last season with a sore right ankle, but recovered and dominated for Canada’s national team in the summer.
He carried that international momentum into this season and will join Durant and Westbrook as the only Thunder players to average at least 30 points for an entire season. Durant and Westbrook won MVP and the scoring title in their highest-scoring seasons for Oklahoma City — Durant averaged 32.0 points in 2013-14 and Westbrook produced 31.6 per game in 2016-17.
Gilgeous-Alexander might have to settle for the Most Improved Player award, which would be a fitting honor given his approach. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said when a player with his talent and work ethic locks in, it naturally leads to improvement.
“When he falls short, he looks in the mirror first,” Daigneault said. “That drives his next step. And then he puts the work in and he repeats that process, and he’s always repeated that process as long as he’s been here and as long as we’ve known him.”
Canada men’s basketball general manager Rowan Barrett isn’t surprised that Gilgeous-Alexander has made such a dramatic leap after watching him work last summer.
“Before practice, after practice, like, constantly in the gym, in the gym, in the gym,” Barrett said. “And he’s clearly made a lot of sacrifices in his personal life to live that way. And I think the world right now, many years on, is getting to kind of enjoy watching him based on all the work that he’s put in. He wants to be great, and he’s completely committed to it.”
Another reason Gilgeous-Alexander's exploits go mostly unnoticed is the lack of highlight reels. His game doesn't include spectacular dunks or a lot of 3-pointers, though he makes 35% of his attempts from beyond the arc. He's among the league's leaders in free throws made and attempted and free-throw percentage.
Those stats make his coaches happy but don't make for viral social media moments. Still, he shoots 51% from the field. Fans have showered him with occasional chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P! when he shoots free throws during home games at the reinvigorated Paycom Center.
NBA coaches don't need highlights to know how well he is playing. Golden State coach Steve Kerr was impressed after Gilgeous-Alexander scored 21 of his 31 points in the second half in a loss to the Warriors in January.
“He just gets any shot he wants in the mid-range,” Kerr said. “He’s so good with the ball. He’s so strong, you can’t speed him up. He just gets to his spots and calmly rises up and shoots that little 12-footer, 10-footer, 14-footer.”
He frustrated Phoenix coach Monty Williams with one of his most impressive performances: scoring 40 points in a victory over the Suns on March 19 without attempting a 3-pointer.
Canada national team coach Nick Nurse, who also coaches the Toronto Raptors, said Gilgeous-Alexander excels at setting up his teammates. He was a strong facilitator for Canada last summer, while averaging 5.4 assists for Oklahoma City this season.
“When you need offense, he creates it for himself,” Nurse said. “Tons of drive, and guys just standing there with their hands out, (Shai) hitting them right on the money for threes. I think it improved a lot of our other players because of his drawing so much defense.”
With Gilgeous-Alexander's rising stock, the future looks bright for the Thunder — regardless of what happens this postseason. It looks good for Canada's program, too.
“He’s supportive of the other guys and wants to see the other guys do well as well,” said Barrett, the Canada basketball GM. "It’s not just all about him somehow. As great as he is, there’s a humility there.”
AP freelancer Ian Harrison in Toronto contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP