The Oklahoman

Watching SGA play is reason for optimism

- Jenni Carlson Columnist

Kenrich Williams talks the same way he plays basketball. Doesn’t really hold anything back. So, Monday when I asked him during Thunder media day how Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had evolved as a player, Williams didn’t disappoint. The Thunder forward admitted even though he’d played a couple seasons against SGA before they both landed in OKC, Williams didn’t grasp the level Gilgeous-Alexander was on.

“I personally didn’t know he was that good as a player playing against him,” Williams said, “but watching him every day, he puts the work in. He’s very confident in himself. So, his evolution, I feel like he’s one of the best young players in the NBA.”

The thing that stood out most? “Really just his overall offensive game,” Williams said. “He's able to get to the basket whenever he wants. He's able to make plays for others, as well.

“I just didn't know he was good like that.”

Williams wasn't the only one. Gilgeous-Alexander opened lots of eyes around the NBA a year ago, his first as the Thunder's full-time point guard and clear-cut leader. He made a case to be an All-Star, and even though plantar fasciitis ended his season after only 35 games, he gave the Thunder enough evidence to sign him to a max contract extension.

The numbers are big: five years and a minimum of $173 million.

SGA is the Thunder's point guard of the future.

But don't forget — he's the point guard of the here and now, too.

As the Thunder prepares to open training camp and start a season many fans aren't exactly looking forward to, Gilgeous-Alexander should give everyone reason to be excited. Really excited.

It's easy to have forgotten just how good he was last season. After all, he didn't play the final two months, and those were some ugly times. The Thunder won just twice during that SGA-less stretch, losing by an average of 20.2 points and clouding most memories of what OKC did last season.

But forget, if you can, the way the year finished.

Remember instead how the Thunder looked when Gilgeous-Alexander was playing, regularly going toe-to-toe with opponents and occasional­ly beating teams that would eventually go to the playoffs.

Remember, too, how Gilgeous-Alexander played.

He averaged 23.7 points a game, hitting 50.8% of his shots and 41.8% of his 3-pointers. All of those were career-high marks.

And as the season went on, he scored it and shot it even better.

Feb. 21: 31 points on 15 shots at Cleveland

Feb. 24: 42 points on 20 shots against San Antonio.

March 14: 30 points on 17 shots against Memphis.

His efficiency was off the charts, and by early February, he wasn't exactly healthy. He was dealing with a knee injury that actually kept him out of several games and likely rendered him less than hundred percent after January.

Still, you could see his growth. How fluid he was. How in command he seemed. How effortless he made really difficult things look.

So, what strides will SGA make this season?

That is a tantalizin­g question. “Over the summer, I tried to focus on getting better at everything day by day,” he said. “I don't know the exact area (of biggest improvemen­t), but I do feel like I got better as a basketball player and I will be better this year.”

His teammates have gotten a glimpse at what's to come. They have been in Oklahoma City these past few weeks working out, playing pickup and getting ready for training camp, and they say they've already noticed an improved Gilgeous-Alexander.

“He has that growth mindset,” Thunder veteran Mike Muscala said, “and he challenges himself to have that. That's the mindset and the culture that we try to have with the Thunder, and I think he epitomizes that.”

That's good news for those inside the organizati­on, but it's every bit as good for those of us on the outside.

Watching the Thunder this season might not be the easiest thing in the world.

Might not be for several seasons to come. Even though it might feel like this rebuild has been going for 47 years, it has only just begun.

But the franchise has several players who have exciting potential.

None is more exciting right now than Gilgeous-Alexander.

“He's got way more to show,” defensive doberman Lu Dort said.

When things get bad this season and covering your eyes seems the best course of action, I urge you to resist. As long as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the court, there is reason to watch.

Never know what you might see.

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 ?? CHRIS LANDSBERGE­R/THE OKLAHOMAN ?? Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made huge strides a season ago, his first as a full-time, team-leading point guard. In a season that might be hard for Thunder fans to watch, Gilgeous-Alexander is reason for excitement.
CHRIS LANDSBERGE­R/THE OKLAHOMAN Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made huge strides a season ago, his first as a full-time, team-leading point guard. In a season that might be hard for Thunder fans to watch, Gilgeous-Alexander is reason for excitement.

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