Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander adjusts to jump in minutes in Year 2
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked out over the media scrum, considering the question for a moment.
What surprised him most in the first game of the season?
“How tired I was,” Gilgeous-Alexander said before flashing a smile. “I realized how much I’m not in shape.”
He had just finished playing almost 37 minutes at Utah, well above his average last season of 26.5 minutes per game. The second-year guard's time on the court has remained just as high through the Thunder’s first 15 games of the season. Logging 35 minutes per game, Gilgeous-Alexander's average playing time is among the top 15 in the NBA this year, tied with Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.
Even with the increased usage, Gilgeous-Alexander’s efficiency this season is comparable to last year. He enters Monday’s game at Golden State shooting 45.7% from the field and 40.3% from 3-point range, compared to 47.6% and 36.7% last season. Gilgeous-Alexander is also expected to remain active on defense throughout the game.
“It says a lot about him as a player,” veteran point guard Chris Paul said. “And he’s going to continue to grow. We talk a lot, and it doesn’t seem like much going from playing 20, 20-something minutes a game, to playing 35, 36, that’s an adjustment. He’s doing great with it and will continue.”
In his first year with OKC, 21-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander is playing alongside Paul, a two-way guard who has mastered staying engaged on both ends of the floor for extended minutes.
“Those guys understand how to conserve energy on offense,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “They understand that on defense, they’re going to have to be fully engaged because you never know what’s going to happen. You could be involved in a lot of different things on a possession. Offensively, you want to be able to move and play efficiently. I think those are things that Shai is going to have to learn.”
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The Thunder’s playing style doesn’t naturally build in many breaks for Gilgeous-Alexander. Its ball-movement-focused offense relies on consistent motion from players both with and without the ball.
OKC is also a team without enough lock-down defenders to hide any player on defense. Not that it would want to do so with Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder sees Gilgeous-Alexander as a player who can develop into a real two-way threat, so he is highly involved on the other side of the court.
“Really, it’s just been more fun playing more basketball,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. "I try not to look at it as more minutes. It just feels like I’m playing basketball and doing what I love.”
Donovan is trying to help Gilgeous-Alexander stay fresh, too. He’s noticed that when the young guard has been on the floor for nine or 10 minutes straight he begins to slow.
“I can do a better job of maybe getting him off a little bit sooner,” Donovan said before the Thunder’s 130-127 loss to the Lakers on Friday. “… I think with the way we’re trying to play, and him being a guard and trying to play with pace and run and those kinds of things, and you play against teams that fast break, there’s a lot of running and a lot of physical fatigue that comes with that.”
Against the Lakers Friday, Gilgeous-Alexander played eight minutes in the fourth quarter, and he looked sharp to the end.
With just under two minutes left in the game, Gilgeous-Alexander dribbled up the court and around a screen set by Steven Adams. Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope slipped over the pick as Gilgeous-Alexander accelerated.
When he reached the elbow, Gilgoeus-Alexander stopped so suddenly his shoes squeaked against the hardwood. Caldwell-Pope went sliding toward the rim, and Gilgeous-Alexander’s stepback jumper cut the Lakers’ lead to three points.
It didn’t show then, but a month after Gilgoeus-Alexander’s Thunder regular season debut, one thing hadn’t changed.
“I’m definitely exhausted by the end of the game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “There is no trick (to avoid that). Every time I step out there I just try to give it my all.”
Thunder at Warriors
When: 9:30 p.m., Monday
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco
TV: FSOK (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751/1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640/98.1 FM