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THUNDER COLUMN: In Gilgeous-Alexander, franchise may have the biggest part of its future already

  • 3 min to read
OKC Thunder: In Gilgeous-Alexander, franchise may have the biggest part of its future already

Los Angeles Clipper guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in action against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Los Angeles, Saturday, March 30, 2019. Gilgeous-Alexander has since been traded to Oklahoma City, where he figures to be a big part of the Thunder's future.

Between general manager Sam Presti’s semantics and an abundance of player movement since Paul George asked to be traded to Los Angeles to play with Kawhi Leonard, it’s been hard to gauge the self-awareness of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On Thursday, Presti said the “rebuild” had not yet began, only a repositioning and a replenishing, by which he likely means the Thunder are setting themselves up for the future and, look at that, now hold 15 first-round draft picks and a possible four draft swaps between the 2020 and 2027 NBA drafts.

The rebuild will likely come when those assets become tangible in the form of players, whether acquired by trading picks for them or exercising them as intended, in the draft.

Yet, for all of that, there appears to be one issue on which there’s absolute clarity and that’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the second-year 6-foot-6 point guard, who came over from the Clippers, along with Danilo Gallinari, in the George trade.

He appears to be very much a piece of the Thunder’s present and future.

Indeed, if you’re curious who the next player Oklahoma City might initiate a max contract for, it’s hard to imagine the Thunder not hoping it to be him.

Thursday, Presti said landing Gilgeous-Alexander was “a big deal for us.”

Later, he expounded.

“I think he’s not really even scratching the surface,” he said. “As I said earlier, I think he’s got tremendous make-up … I think that’s going to be a big accelerator for ultimately how good a player he becomes and I think he has that.

“He’s got great size and great length and he’s a sponge.”

A Canadian, originally from Toronto, Gilgeous-Alexander was selected 11th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2018 draft and immediately traded to the Clippers for Miles Bridges, the player selected with the next pick.

He jumped into the NBA after a single collegiate season playing for coach John Callipari at Kentucky.

He started the Wildcats first game of the 2017-18 season and the 10th. Back in the first five for the season’s 16th game, he started the rest of the season.

Though he averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds, playing 33.7 minutes per game that single season, the numbers from the 16th game forward, which included the vast majority of the Wildcats’ SEC schedule, were 16.4 points, 5.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds over 36.6 minutes.

Similar improvement occurred in Los Angeles last season, when Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 3.3 assists against 1.7 turnovers and 2.8 rebounds, making 47.6 percent of his shots and 36.7 percent of his 3-point shots.

He was in the first five almost from the beginning, starting 73 games and playing in all 82. Yet, over his final 20 games, his averages were 14.3 points, 4.2 assists against 1.3 turnovers and 3.3 rebounds, shooting 52.9 percent overall and 50 percent from 3-point land.

A 50 percent 3-point shooter in Oklahoma City? It’s almost unimaginable.

Gilgeous-Alexander has offered all the signs of being a player a team can be built around, and that goes back to Kentucky, too.

In a story written by Brett Dawson of The Athletic, Calipari recounted a message given his team after one of its eight losses that season, five of which came in the first 17.

The Wildcats were about to board a plane to fly back to Lexington when Calipari addressed them still on their bus. He chose to motivate his team by singling out one player doing things right.

He asked the strength coach who was doing the best job in the weight room, then the team’s academic advisor who was doing the best work in the classroom. Both said Gilgeous-Alexander.

“‘I told them, ‘You know what?’” Calipari said. “‘He’s making himself a lottery pick.’”

One other gem from Calipari in the story, he explained that he’d told Gilgeous Alexander, who wasn’t yet starting, that he deserved a starting spot, but that he didn’t want to mess with the Wildcats’ rotation, and did that bother him?

“He said, ‘Nah, I’m good,’” Calipari said.

Presti gushed about just that kind of mindset on Thursday. Then he did a little projecting.

“We’ve seen this take place before in Oklahoma City,” he said, referring to the development of a young and promising player. “If you think about the differences between players in year one to year three or year two to year four, they’re drastic.”

He then ticked off players to have enjoyed that type of development: Terrance Ferguson, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson.

“You have to be able to … see things through, and I think where Shai is today is not close to where ultimately he’s going to be,” Presti said. “But we have to be really patient with that process, but he’s got great tools and he’ll have to follow the same track that a lot of these other players have, but we think he has a bright future here.”

There was one name Presti left off the list that he might have used.

Russell Westbrook.

The departed Thunder point guard was fairly raw himself once upon a time and he came a very long way.

Westbrook’s favorite question and answer has long been “Why not?” It’s even the name of his charitable foundation.

Thunder fans might ask the same thing of Gilgeous-Alexander beginning very soon.

Could he become the cornerstone of the next decade of OKC basketball?

Why not.

Horning is senior sports columnist for The Norman Transcript.