The Oklahoma City Thunder have been content with playing for better lottery odds during the past two seasons and are likely to wind up with a high draft pick for a third consecutive year after this campaign wraps up. This has allowed them to land the talented Josh Giddey and the promising Chet Holmgren, respectively, in the last two NBA Drafts.
While these two lottery picks could wind up becoming stars in their own right in the coming years, the Thunder have cultivated a franchise centerpiece concurrent with their tanking operations.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, acquired in the 2019 offseason from the Los Angeles Clippers for Paul George after a solid rookie year, has gradually blossomed into one of the most lethal scorers in the NBA with Oklahoma City.
He turned heads during his lone year with the Clippers when he led their gallant effort in the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors who were the winners of three of the last four NBA championships at that time.
During his sophomore year in the NBA and first year with the Thunder, he had the privilege of playing alongside and learning from 12-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul. Oklahoma City managed to make a surprise playoff run that year and though Gilgeous-Alexander’s season ended in the first round once again, the experience was clearly a formative one for the 6’6 guard.
The next two seasons were filled with losses for the Thunder as they transitioned towards a rebuild, yet Gilgeous-Alexander took the shift in the team’s direction in stride and instead focused on his personal development. Away from the bright lights of the playoffs and winning expectations, he was able to make his mistakes without pressure and grow into the weapon that he has become today.
Gilgeous-Alexander has grown into a force on offense, using an elite ability to change directions quickly and stop on a dime to freeze defenses. He leads the NBA in drives per game with 23.9 and it has helped him shoot at a 54.6% clip from the field.
Three-point shooting remains a notable weakness in his game, although the mechanics of his step-back jumper are sound which suggests that his conversion rate should get better with time, and he’s shooting a good 40% at the moment – even if that tapers off later in the season.
The 11th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has increased his scoring average in each of his NBA seasons, going from 10.8 points per game as a rookie to 32.3 this year. He is also averaging 4.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, in-line with his career averages, along with an impressive 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks. The defensive numbers are likely to taper off in the coming weeks, but they represent the sky-high defensive potential of the fifth-year guard.
He is likely to become an NBA All-Star in the near future, if not this season, and has recently reaffirmed his commitment to Oklahoma City. This bodes well for their future as his mix of size and shot creation makes him the perfect lead guard for today’s NBA.
They are likely to sacrifice this year for the sake of having a chance to draft Victor Wembanyama, however this is likely to be their last year of “purposeful losing”. The delayed debut of the injured Holmgren next year, together with whomever they pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, figures to be enough incentive for their front office to shift their mindset from asset accumulation to working towards winning.
The Thunder have gone an unconventional route in their teardown as teams usually find their new building block through draft. In lieu of a top prospect, they have found out that their star was already on their roster in a story that highlights the value of hard work, patience, and resilience. Better days are on the horizon for Oklahoma City and they will emerge from this rebuild led by Gilgeous-Alexander–a player who has seen the entire effort through from the beginning.