Tramel: With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on superstar track, OKC Thunder should avoid total teardown
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned 22 three weeks ago. Paul George turned 22 just after his second NBA season, 2011-12.
SGA was the 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. PG was the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
SGA was an intriguing prospect; a tall point guard with a wing span wide enough to make him an elite defender. PG was an intriguing prospect; a big wing with an arm span wide enough to make him an elite defender.
When Gilgeous-Alexander turned 22, he had played 145 NBA games and averaged 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 30.3 minutes per game. When George turned 22, he had played 127 games and averaged 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 25.4 minutes per game.
By his 22nd birthday, SGA was shooting 47.4% on NBA shots, including 35.7 on 3-point attempts. By his 22nd birthday, George’s numbers were 44.5% overall and 35.2% on 3-pointers.
As you well know, George turned into an NBA superstar. And last July, the Thunder traded George to the Clippers for Gilgeous-Alexander, a player with a better early-career arc and eight years younger.
Forget, for a moment, Sam Presti’s bounty of also receiving Danilo Gallinari and five first-round draft picks. As the NBA re-starts with a bubble in Disney World, just remember that win, lose or canceled down in Orlando, the Thunder has a building block in Gilgeous-Alexander.
“He is going to be a star in this league,” said Chris Paul, who has become an SGA mentor in this inspiring Thunder season.
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Truth is, Gilgeous-Alexander already is a star. The question becomes, will he be a superstar? He’s already ahead of George on the age/career continuum. If SGA can sustain that level of improvement, the Thunder has the superstar that has come to define the franchise. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul. The Thunder never has wanted for top-shelf talent.
“He’s got an incredible upside for years to come,” Billy Donovan said of SGA. “He has a chance to be a really, really good player. He’s already a good player. He has a chance to be a lot better than he is.”
Donovan said the four-month break, caused by the pandemic, reinforced his belief in Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA came back stronger. Experience and confidence collude to transform players, but strength has remade Gilgeous-Alexander, too. We know him as a spindly, second-year player who knows how to use angles and his abundant skills. But now SGA looks different, even beyond the change in hairstyle you will notice in Orlando games.
“It takes a lot of endurance to play 64 games” before the stoppage, Donovan said, “at the level he played and be able to do what he was doing with the amount of minutes he was absorbing.”
Gilgeous-Alexander played 2,214 minutes before the shutdown; he likely would be second in the league in minutes if the March 11 Thunder-Jazz game had been played.
“It’s really encouraging to see how much he’s grown this year, both physically and mentally, both with the ball in his hands … and playing off the ball,” Donovan said. “I think he has an incredible upside.”
The promise of Gilgeous-Alexander changes everything. Perhaps even saving the Thunder from a total teardown when the likes of Paul and Gallinari are gone. Nothing worse than a tank job, and nothing sillier than a tank job when you’ve got a talent like SGA. The whole point of tanking is to acquire talent like Gilgeous-Alexander. Once you’ve got a player like that, you start building.
In NBA history, only 30 players under age 22 have averaged at least 14.5 points, 3.3 assists and 30 minutes per game. The list is topped by LeBron James, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The list includes Luka Doncic, Blake Griffin, Isiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Westbrook, Steph Curry and Allen Iverson.
Gilgeous-Alexander is on the list. So are some knuckleheads — Lamar Odom, Gilbert Arenas, Stephon Marbury — but that’s part of the point. SGA doesn’t figure to lose his way.
“I want to be good, I want to be great,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But then there's the time you put into it, and not everyone's willing to do that. That's something I'm willing to do.”
When the Thunder traded for SGA, this was the optimal outcome. That it could be getting a budding star, plus all the parting gifts, for an established star.
“We’re really careful about making really concrete estimations or evaluations on players until we get them,” Presti said. “I just think you’ve gotta give everybody a clean canvas.
“We knew he was extraordinarily talented and we had watched him, but that’s worth a cup of coffee until you actually have somebody and observe their work habits and the way they interact within the organization and the team.”
Last summer, during informal workouts, Presti saw SGA make a couple of finishes around the basket. He felt a jolt in his bones.
“I realized he’s on the way up,” Presti said.
That direction hasn’t changed this summer. “He’s hitting all the marks right now,” said Presti, who traded a superstar for a player who soon will be one himself.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.