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OKC Thunder 'clearing the way' for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to lead

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knew the day would come when Chris Paul would no longer be his teammate. And after the trades of Paul and Dennis Schröder, Gilgeous-Alexander could have foreseen the departures of Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari.

After all, Gilgeous-Alexander was a centerpiece in the trade that cracked the Thunder’s longstanding foundation. He knew what was coming, because the plan had been made clear. It just took one season, and one wild week of trades, for Oklahoma City’s rebuild to begin in earnest.

And now, as the Thunder enters a new era, Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise.

“Obviously it’s something I’m excited about,” Gilgeous-Alexander said Friday in his first interview of training camp, “and I think I’ve worked hard enough to deserve that responsibility and trust from Sam (Presti), and the rest of the front office and the rest of the coaching staff.”

There’s no indication Gilgeous-Alexander is unhappy with the Thunder’s roster transformation. Quite the opposite. He’s a 22-year-old guard who’s been handed the keys to a team.

“We're really kind of clearing the way for him to expand his game, to be on the ball full-time,” Presti said. “We're putting a lot of faith in him and really kind of showing him that he's a central figure to a lot of the things that we ultimately want to be.

“But that's not going to be linear. A lot of the other guys that have been in a situation like him over the course of time have done so through adversity. That's how you know how good they are. They bounce through things. Their talent shines through difficult times.”

Presti was referring to now-established stars who were tasked with leading overmatched teams at the beginning of their careers. Gilgeous-Alexander, set to enter his third NBA season with a huge contract extension on the horizon, will no doubt have to navigate through difficult years as the Thunder slowly builds through the draft.

The Thunder owns 18 first-round picks through 2027. Five of those came from the Clippers in the deal that sent Paul George to Los Angeles 17 months ago, and Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari to Oklahoma City.

The recent trades of Paul, Adams and Schroder contributed to the picks total.

Gilgeous-Alexander grew particularly close with Paul in their one season together.

“It just happened sooner rather than later,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of Paul being traded. “He was a great help to me in my second year. I’ve got a brother for life.”

Paul’s exit has created an opportunity for Gilgeous-Alexander to slide back to his natural point guard position — which he played throughout high school, college and for significant stretches in his rookie season with the Clippers.

Gilgeous-Alexander played almost exclusively off the ball last season with Paul and Schröder sharing point-guard duties.

Asked Friday if he still sees himself as a point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander was confident.

“I absolutely do,” he said. “I think that’s when I’m most comfortable and at my best, at the point guard position. I think last year only gave me an opportunity to develop in other areas that I didn’t think I needed to, you can say, prior to my second year in the league.

“I just see it as an opportunity that made me better. And ultimately to win in the NBA you’ve got to be able to do multiple things — play on the ball, play off the ball, and like I said, last year only made me a better all-around basketball player.”

The 6-foot-5 guard from Toronto averaged 19 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last season. He shot 47% overall and 35% from 3-point range.

Gilgeous-Alexander finished top-three on the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

He became known for his crafty, contorted finishes around the rim, and his smooth, unhurried pace of play.

“He has all the tools,” new Thunder guard George Hill said before cracking a smile. “He’s a little bit better than I was when I was a young guy.”

Gilgeous-Alexander finished sixth for Most Improved Player last season. He participated in the Rising Stars Game and was a fringe All-Star candidate.

Now he has a chance to prove how high his ceiling extends.

“He’s gonna be able to show where he is in his career,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, “and how he’s gonna handle all the different experiences that come with being the high-level, young player that he is.”

Related Photos
<strong>Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise after the trades of Chris Paul and Steven Adams. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise after the trades of Chris Paul and Steven Adams. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-7be415f8c40e7b69d8f75b92abcd18b3.jpg" alt="Photo - Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise after the trades of Chris Paul and Steven Adams. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise after the trades of Chris Paul and Steven Adams. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the unquestioned face of the franchise after the trades of Chris Paul and Steven Adams. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Joe Mussatto

Joe Mussatto joined The Oklahoman in August 2018 to cover OU football, men’s basketball and softball. He previously covered University of Kentucky football and basketball for SEC Country. Mussatto is from Oklahoma City and lives in Norman. Read more ›

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