The word unicorn is thrown around more than the F-word in Casino these days. At six-foot-six and possessing a near seven-foot wingspan, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has the characteristics commonly associated with the fabled horned equine.
To quote the man himself, he isn’t the fastest from end to end. His athleticism is overshadowed by fellow teammates Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson. No, Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t a full-on mythological horse, he simply possesses the potential of such.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been operating in the era of potential since trading Paul George to the LA Clippers. There’s no need to go too fast, young Thunder-cats. There is plenty of time to grow, to fail, to improve.
But at some point it was going to click. The much-discussed potential was going to cease being potential and become present.
A 20-20-10 game does not mean that Gilgeous-Alexander has made it. There will be no All-Star appearance this year, no All-NBA. Hell, he may not even reach the hallowed grounds of one of the many players-ranking articles from The Ringer.
But it does show the Thunder were wise to confidently invest in the young Canadian sensation.
Scoring wasn’t a problem with Gilgeous-Alexander early in his initial Oklahoma City campaign. His 20-points per game on 46/40/76 shooting splits led the team. It wasn’t going to last though, and if that surprised you, then your basketball experience more than likely begins and ends with rookie mode on 2K.
Over the next 14 games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring dipped to 16 points on three less attempts per game. His splits decreased save for his free throw percentage. This was during the run where Chris Paul began make clutch-time his kingdom. Chemistry, roles and timing were beginning to be hammered out.
But one thing remained important — the team, specifically Paul, wanted Gilgeous-Alexander to be the primary guy.
“We’re better when he’s going downhill,” Paul said in the locker room following a December 20th victory over the Phoenix Suns — Gilgeous-Alexander had a career-high 32-points that night. “We need to have him be aggressive when he is going downhill.”
Over the last 13 games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring has ballooned to nearly 24-points per game on 52/31/88 shooting splits — 17 attempts a game.
But scoring is perhaps the horn on the unicorn. The characteristic that’s the most identifiable to the furthest observer.
Over the same three sections of the season — first 13 games, second 14 games and final 13 games — his rebounding has steadily increased.
Of course, the dude is tall. He should be able to rebound.
Earlier on in the year, Billy Donovan was asked about the lack of offensive rebounding by notoriously good offensive rebounder, Steven Adams. Was it a strategic change?
“We got to be able to get back,” Donovan said prior to a November 29th win against the New Orleans Pelicans. “We don’t necessarily have the team speed to get back when the ball hits the rim. We’ve got to go back on the flight of the ball.”
The Thunder has dwelt in the basement in terms of pace all season for the reasons Donovan highlighted. There is no Russell Westbrook-type athlete to spur on a fast break five to seven times a game.
Donovan has also talked about earlier in the year about the Thunder’s small margin for error. Everything has to be methodical and calculated.
Remember that part of the season when Paul made clutch-time his kingdom? That was the calibration period for Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder.
Over the last seven games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s rebounding has crept into the sevens. Coincidentally over that period of time, the Thunder have cracked the top-15 in pace.
A small sample size, yes. But if Gilgeous-Alexander is going to start rebounding and starting the break on his own, Oklahoma City will slowly resemble a more athletic team to pair with the half-court wizardry.
Again, a 20-20-10 game is not going to be the norm for Gilgeous-Alexander.
Think of this historic performance as the lighthouse shining a light through the dense fog of repositioning and replenishment. Use it as a benchmark to track Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to affect other areas of the game besides scoring and the token possessions you pay attention to him on defense.
“I think the thing for Shai that we’re pushing for is for him to get involved in the game in a lot of different ways other than his scoring,” Donovan said before last Saturday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “There’s so much more to his game than just scoring. His ability to get on the defensive glass helps us on the break.”
“We have to continue to instill in him the confidence that he can impact the game in a lot of different areas.”
The Thunder’s face of the future probably won’t make any NBA-unicorn lists anytime soon. But the unique abilities and talents of Gilgeous-Alexander provide OKC a versatile two-way player with skills beyond his years.
You know, like a horse with a horn on its head.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. He also hosts the “Locked on Thunder” podcast, part of the Locked On Podcast Network Monday through Friday. For Sooner fans, you can also listen to the “Inside OU” podcast with John Hoover. Brady also runs the “Locked On Sooners” podcast Monday through Friday. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports