'He's a special dude': Chris Paul's mentorship is already evident in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's play
Fire flickered in Chris Paul’s eyes as he turned his head. But his tone remained cool.
Paul had given reporters that look before. The answer that followed often propped up his teammates and dismissed the question in one go. It was the rip move of interview tactics — playing within the rules while hanging the opponent out to dry.
This time, after the Thunder’s one-point loss to the Celtics on Sunday, a reporter in the postgame media scrum asked Paul about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s turnover with five seconds left and a chance to tie the game. What was the discussion in the locker room about that play?
“Ain’t no discussion,” Paul said. “It’s basketball, you know what I mean? You have turnovers, you have missed shots. So, yeeaahh. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team where there was a discussion about a play like that.”
Paul’s mentorship of young teammates has played a large role in the Thunder’s over-performance this season — although Paul would argue that he expected to win even more games. Paul’s fierce loyalty to this group of players is part of his leadership. OKC guard Dennis Schroder said Paul changed the team’s culture. Now, the Thunder’s rising stars, like Gilgeous-Alexander, are developing in a system influenced by Paul’s style of play.
The short-term outlook of that influence is positive. OKC enters its last game before the All-Star break with a 32-22 record. One more win, and the Thunder will blow past Fanduel's preseason over-under line on the Thunder’s win total (32.5) this year.
The long-term outlook could be even better.
“If a young player can understand what a Chris Paul can give them, then it’s a huge boon to his career,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Tuesday, before facing the Thunder. “Chris is an alpha. He’s a natural leader. He takes no prisoners. He suffers no fools. He’s there to win.”
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By all indications, Gilgeous-Alexander understands what Paul can give him. In the third quarter of the Thunder’s 114-106 loss to San Antonio, the second-year guard took over for Paul, who had carried the offensive load for the whole first half.
Gilgeous-Alexander showed off his midrange game and various finishes at the basket. Those skills he already had when the Clippers traded him to OKC last summer.
“His array of finishes is what’s amazing,” Paul said earlier this season. “I’ve never been like that.”
On top of that skillset, however, there was something Paul-esque about Gilgeous-Alexander’s calculated control as he scored nine points in about three minutes of play.
Then again in the fourth quarter, Paul’s influence showed up. With Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul has put an emphasis on defense all season. That came into play in clutch time, as Gilgeous-Alexander poked and prodded at the ball in Derrick White’s hands, until the Thunder guard knocked it away. Gilgeous-Alexander’s swinging dunk on the other end of the fast break, however, was all him.
The 21-year-old point guard isn't becoming a carbon copy of Paul, nor is that the goal. Paul hasn’t taken kindly to any insinuation that Gilgeous-Alexander needs his guidance — picture that same fiery look. The veteran guard has consistently said he’s learning from his teammates as well. But take it from a future Hall of Fame coach: playing with a point guard of Paul’s caliber “can be huge” for a young player at the same position, according to Popovich.
“It’s less common than one would think,” Popovich said of Paul’s commitment to mentorship. “There aren’t one or two of those on every NBA team. Some NBA teams don’t have any. He’s a special dude.”
Thunder at Pelicans
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751 / 1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640 / 98.1 FM