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Canada's Gilgeous-Alexander blossoming into stardom for Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Oklahoma City Thunder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's ability to control the pace of play has translated into a career season.

"It keeps (defences) off balance," the Hamilton native said Thursday in Toronto, where his Oklahoma City Thunder fell 128-111 to the Raptors.

"It keeps them guessing and that's what I like to stay throughout the game — unpredictable."

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.3 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA. The 24-year-old's efforts landed him his first all-star nod in February.

"It's been fun, above all," he said. "I'm obviously playing the best basketball of my career.

"But it's been fun playing with these guys, having fun on and off the court and I think that's a big factor in why I'm having so much success just because it's easy, no stress and they make it fun everyday to wake up."

He's also led the Thunder into the playoff mix, sitting tenth in the Western Conference. That would result in them competing in the play-in by regular season's end after finishing 14th the last two years.

"I think this is a good example where we're seeing it on a nightly basis, but where we are now … it just seems like every time we turn around, we're playing against a homegrown, like, super talent, right?" said Nick Nurse, who coaches both the Raptors and Canada's national team.

"And I think, you know, the progression is there's numbers now. You're getting some all-stars now and that kind of stuff and I think it's great for the future of the game in (Canada)."

His rise is no shocker to Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.

"He’s always been impressive from Day 1 since he's been here. This year has not been a surprise for us," Daigneault said.

"But he's had a great season and as the games have had more weight, his focus and seriousness and kind of the economical way he's playing is his only increase, which is pretty impressive."

It hasn't just been the offensive end where Gilgeous-Alexander has made his mark, either.

"He's definitely taken a step defensively," Daigneault said. "He's taken on bigger assignments for us. His length is definitely into the game and he's turned himself into really one of the better two-way players when you look at what he's doing offensively and the category, he’s in there."

His leadership has also been a component of his growth.

"I feel like just being a leader, his voice. His first year (in Oklahoma City) he had Chris Paul and now, … throughout the year it was really him that had that job," said teammate and Montreal native Lu Dort.

"He's been doing a really good job just getting us, the guys going (and) also, just leading by example and all the great stuff he's been doing."

Gilgeous-Alexander is used to making quantum leaps.

After Grade 10 at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School in Hamilton, Gilgeous-Alexander moved south of the border in 2015 to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.

At that time, Gilgeous-Alexander had one scholarship offer from Binghamton University and was considered a low Division I recruit, said his then-coach Zach Ferrell.

But by November, he committed to the Florida Gators. The following summer, he made the national team for the 2016 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying tournament. By the end of his high school career, he had signed with NCAA powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats and was the 35th-ranked player in the ESPN 100 for the 2017 class.

"Shai had just a meteoric rise during the two years that he was with us," Ferrell said. "The growth that he had during those two years, I think is unprecedented and was just amazing to be a part of and a tribute to him. He was a relentless worker."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't start his first few games at Kentucky.

"I went to him because he started playing better," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "I said 'Look, Shai you should be starting. But we’re winning and we’re doing well.’ He stops me and he says, ‘Coach, I trust you. Do what you need to do. I’m good. I’m getting better and I’m feeling good.’

"A game later, I started him and he started the rest of the way and carried our team. But that’s the kind of heart he has and the kind of trust he had.”

After making second team all-SEC, among other accolades, in his lone college season, Gilgeous-Alexander was drafted 11th overall in the 2018 draft by the Charlotte Hornets.

He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers on draft night in exchange for picks. After his rookie season with the Clippers, he was moved as part of a package to landed all-star Paul George in L.A.

"I went out and watched him with the Clippers and I knew he was a star in the making there," Calipari said. "They did not want to move him, but they had no choice if they wanted George.

"Give Oklahoma City credit for knowing that they saw what I saw and what the Clippers saw.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2023.