OKC Thunder: How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned into the face of the franchise
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the Thunder’s cornerstone player ever since he was traded to Oklahoma City 18 months ago, but he didn’t become the face of the franchise until Saturday night.
This was Chris Paul’s team last season, particularly in crunch time. Steven Adams was entrenched as the fan favorite, and Dennis Schröder and Danilo Gallinari could both be the star on any given night.
But none of those players were on the honeycomb court Saturday in Charlotte. For the first time, the Thunder was indisputably Gilgeous-Alexander’s team — win or lose.
That outcome was in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands with 10 seconds left in the season opener and the game tied 107-107.
Gilgeous-Alexander faked a drive to the rim, sending Hornets forward Cody Martin into a sprawl. By the time Martin recovered, Gilgeous-Alexander was already elevating for a pull-up 23-footer that swished with 1.4 seconds left.
Stone-faced, Gilgeous-Alexander held his follow through before strutting back to the Thunder bench.
“He came up the floor with an understanding of how much time he had, and he got to his spot, but that was no different than how he played the entire night,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.
Gilgeous-Alexander opened training camp by confirming he wanted to be the face of this rebuilding team. One game down, and that’s already apparent.
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“In my head I was like, he’s hitting this shot,” Thunder forward Darius Bazley said. “I didn’t know what he was gonna do, but you know, that’s Shai.”
“Shai’s a great player,” guard Hamidou Diallo said, “and that’s what great players do.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s game winner against the Hornets covered for his two turnovers in a bumpy final two minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander also had a layup attempt that was blocked off his leg and out of bounds.
A last-second shot wouldn’t have been necessary had Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder not squandered a 13-point lead with 2:13 to go.
“Obviously we let our foot off the gas those last three or four minutes,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But going into that last possession I just wanted to clear my head and have that next-play mentality. The greats do it.
“And at the end of the day I’m trying to get a win, and if I was thinking about the last couple minutes, and obviously they didn’t go so well, I might have not made the shot.”
That mentality is part of the maturation process for the 22-year-old point guard.
“I did find myself a lot last year thinking about previous plays,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And that’s one of the things Coach Mark has been working on with me going into this new season is, no matter how the game is going, having a positive attitude and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve and stuff like that. And all his teaching, it paid off tonight.”
Daigneault said Gilgeous-Alexander’s composure is “certainly smoothing out.”
Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 24 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the first game of what might be a breakout third season.
On Sunday, the Thunder made a no-brainer move in exercising Gilgeous-Alexander’s fourth-year contract option. Next is the big payday that could keep Gilgeous-Alexander as the face of the Thunder for years to come.
“It’s a role that I’m obviously blessed to have,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Not a lot of guys have this situation.”