How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's mom, a former Olympic sprinter, influenced his game
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander maneuvers around screens as if he’s slalom skiing. He smoothly twists his way to the rim rather than seeing the court as a runway better suited for straightaway speed.
Gilgeous-Alexander covers more ground than any other Thunder player, an average of 2.6 miles per game, according to Second Spectrum data. But his average playing speed of 4.15 miles per hour is eighth on the team, just above Steven Adams.
The 21-year-old Thunder guard can’t quite explain why speed isn’t a bigger part of his game. It’s in his genes, after all.
“I never really thought about that,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Charmaine Gilgeous represented Antigua and Barbuda in the 1992 Summer Olympics. She ran in the second lane in the second heat of the women’s 400-meter sprint. Gilgeous, who ran collegiately at Alabama, finished behind Jamaica’s Sandie Richards, Jearl Miles-Clark of the U.S., and Great Britain’s Sandra Douglas — all of whom are Olympic medalists.
Shai was born six years after his mom competed in the Barcelona Games. He admittedly doesn’t know much about her track career.
“She doesn’t like to talk about it, believe it or not,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. Charmaine Gilgeous could not be reached for this story.
While Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t inherit his mom’s world-class speed, he, like her, is reluctant to discuss successes.
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Gilgeous-Alexander is amid a breakout sophomore season. The 6-foot-6 combo guard is playing a team-high 34.6 minutes per game with averages of 20.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
“Growing up, with anything we did, she never let us get cocky,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of his mom. “She always told us and showed us to have confidence in ourselves, but never take it overboard. Keep it as confidence.”
His tenure in Oklahoma City is just 11 games old, but Gilgeous-Alexander has flashed the star potential the Thunder was banking on when it acquired him from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Paul George trade.
For Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s the continuation of a rapid yet unexpected rise. The Toronto native was the 31st-ranked prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite.
Gilgeous-Alexander spent his last two high school years at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He lived with his coach, Zach Ferrell, but Charmaine’s influence was still felt from north of the border, 850 miles away.
“She was very much involved,” Ferrell said. “She loves her son so deeply. She kept him very humbled and focused in a very loving way. She obviously had a high, high level of success in her sport, so she knew what it took.”
It was common for Charmaine to text Shai’s coaches with a reminder: Don’t let his head get too big.
“She knows her son, and she knows what is coming — the path and what it’s been like,” said Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus.
Justus recruited Gilgeous-Alexander to Kentucky. Gilgeous-Alexander began his freshman season in a bench role. By the end of the year, he was the Wildcats’ best player on a team that featured Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and Thunder teammate Hamidou Diallo.
“When he was really, really good, there was no real celebration on any of our parts,” Justus said. “Us as coaches, we’re trying to challenge these young people to be their best version, and I think that’s what Charmaine was ultimately most pleased with when we were recruiting Shai.”
Charmaine still lives in Toronto. She’s not able to attend every Thunder game, but Gilgeous-Alexander is regularly reminded of what his mom taught him.
“His demeanor, and drive and focus is attributed to her,” Ferrell said.
As for the speed?
“I guess she has her gifts,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “and I have mine.”
76ers at Thunder
When: 7 p.m., Friday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751/1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640/98.1 FM