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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s winding journey to stardom with the Thunder

The 21-year-old guard has finally found a home in Oklahoma City.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shoots a layup for the Thunder.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is at the center of the Thunder’s future plans.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knew he had to leave home for his basketball dreams to become a reality. So at age 16, Gilgeous-Alexander left his native Ontario in search of a place that would increase his exposure to college coaches. He would settle in at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he convinced his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, to come with him.

When Gilgeous-Alexander started at Hamilton as a junior, he only had one scholarship offer from lowly Binghamton. The rough outlines of the player he would one day become were there. He was always tall for a guard. He had the genes, too: his mother, Charmaine Gilgeous, competed in the 400-meters at the 1992 Olympics for Antigua and Barbuda. As Gilgeous-Alexander started to learn how to harness his gifts, his rapid ascent up the basketball world would begin.

Florida coach Mike White, who had recently accepted the job after Billy Donovan left for the Oklahoma City Thunder, offered a scholarship months after Gilgeous-Alexander moved to America. Desperate for a high-major offer, Gilgeous-Alexander accepted, but he still wanted something more.

Kentucky was always his dream school. John Calipari had coached a number of Canadian-born players, most recently Trey Lyles and Jamal Murray. Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander’s stock continued to rise after breakout performances on Nike’s EYBL circuit with the Arkansas Wings and then with Canada in the U18 FIBA Americas tournament. When he decommitted from Florida, Gilgeous-Alexander reached out to Kentucky before it could reach out to him.

An offer came quickly, and Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t hesitate to accept. At the time, he was ranked as the No. 43 overall recruit in the class of 2017, an impressive ranking almost anywhere other than Kentucky, a program where even McDonald’s All-Americans transfer out after getting recruited over. It didn’t deter Gilgeous-Alexander as he entered the program as the lowest-ranked member in a seven-man class.

He came off the bench in 13 of his first 15 games at Kentucky, but Calipari could only relegate him to sixth man for so long. He entered the starting lineup in January and almost immediately became the team’s best player, leading the Wildcats to an SEC tournament championship, where he would be named MVP.

When Kentucky flamed out in the NCAA tournament, Gilgeous-Alexander made the leap to the NBA. He shot up draft boards by measuring as the biggest guard in his class, now standing 6’6 with a close to 7-foot wingspan. The Charlotte Hornets selected him with the No. 11 pick, but then immediately traded him to the Clippers. He would start 73 games as a rookie for a playoff team, only to be traded again, this time to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of a massive package for Paul George.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s journey has taken him from Canada to Tennessee, Kentucky to Los Angeles, and now Oklahoma City. He has had to prove himself at every step, willing opportunity into existence for teams that never initially handed it to him. For once, he has a team that wants to hand him the keys. In the midst of a star turn in second season, the Thunder must be wondering what took everyone else so long.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Gilgeous-Alexander’s year in Los Angeles was a trial by fire in the best way possible. He took over a starting job in the 10th game of the season and never turned back, earning key minutes in high leverage situations for a team that won 48 games and gave the Warriors a tough first-round series in the playoffs. He was a complimentary player in Los Angeles in every sense, finishing ninth on the team in usage rate, seven in minutes, and sixth in scoring.

The Thunder didn’t need a complementary player. They needed a cornerstone. The question was whether Gilgeous-Alexander’s offense could scale up in a bigger role with more responsibility. Through the start of this season, he’s providing a definitive answer that he can do exactly that.

Gilgeous-Alexander has gone from averaging 10.8 points as a rookie to 21 per game for the Thunder in his second season. He’s done it by significantly raising his usage rate while improving his shooting efficiency and lowering his turnover rate. He’s taking the things he was already good at and getting even better at them. He’s fine-tuning his weaknesses, too. This suddenly looks like one of the most well-rounded guards in the league, all at age 21.

Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have an especially quick first step. He’s not going to dunk on you around the rim. Yet, he has already become one of the league’s most dangerous drivers. At the moment, he’s sixth in the NBA in drives per game and seventh in points off drives. He’s hitting 65 percent of his shots at the rim, a remarkable number for a guard.

He does it by attacking in off-beat rhythms that defenders aren’t accustomed to. He’s also strong and flexible, able to get low to the ground with his dribble to gain leverage on opposing defenders. With an advanced understanding of where his spots are and how to get to them, Gilgeous-Alexander never lets anyone else dictate the tempo. His careening drives to the rim happen at his own pace.

Gilgeous-Alexander has also worked tirelessly to improve as an outside shooter. He’s always had a high but slow release that isn’t ideal to be a threat on pull-up jumpers. There’s no denying his touch, though. After being tentative shooter at Kentucky and with the Clippers, he’s on his way to becoming a knockdown shooter in the right situations.

He’s hitting 41 percent of his three-point shots so far this season on 4.4 attempts per game. It part of a larger reworking of his shot profile that has been overhauled since arriving in Oklahoma City. As a rookie, 33 percent of his attempts were long twos, classified as coming from 10-feet to just before the three-point arc. This year, he’s only taking 13 percent of his shots in the same areas. The difference is in his three-point rate, which has jumped from 19 percent to 30 percent.

This is how a young player turns potential into production and how a second year leap goes from a wish to reality. Gilgeous-Alexander has waited his entire life to be given the reins of an offense. The Thunder are being richly rewarded for it.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It’s impossible to imagine what the next contender in Oklahoma City looks like. Out of the death of the Russell Westbrook era and the failed experiment to salvage it with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder are now ready to build from the ground up. GIilgeous-Alexander is going to be at the center of whatever they construct.

General manager Sam Presti is armed with eight first-round picks over the next six years that aren’t his team’s own, in addition to a number of pick swaps. He also has a roster full of intriguing assets, from Chris Paul to Steven Adams to Danilo Gallinari. The Thunder are feisty, but this season already feels like a prologue of a bigger story. Gilgeous-Alexander might be the star of it. His skill set also makes him singularly equipped for co-headliner status as the type of player who brings so many valuable skills to the table while taking nothing off of it.

After a lifetime on the go, Gilgeous-Alexander has finally found a place he can call home. With the type of stability and opportunity he’s never had until now, the extraordinary year-over-year improvement that has defined his life in basketball has a new launching point. Don’t doubt how high he can climb from here.