‘Unstoppable’: Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just keeps raising his game

OKLAHOMA CITY — The world being the size it is, and given Canada’s place in it, it’s not all that often that an athlete carrying our passport is the best at something. 

The list is pretty short. Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player who has ever lived. Donovan Bailey was the fastest man on the planet for a while — a world champion, Olympic champion and world record holder. Christine Sinclair is the greatest goal scorer in the annals of international soccer, and if Steve Nash wasn’t the greatest basketball player of his generation, he was for a time the best point guard. He was named the most valuable player in the NBA twice. There have been some incredible performers in various Olympic disciplines, to be sure and Ferguson Jenkins, Larry Walker and Joey Votto all had moments where they were the best at what they did in Major League Baseball. There are other examples, certainly. 

And while it’s too early to suggest that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best basketball player in the world — a moving target if there ever was one — by now it’s pretty clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder guard is well on his way to being part of that conversion, and he’s only 25 years old. 

He’s already pretty damn good, and the best is almost certainly to come. 

He may be the leading candidate to win the MVP award this year. He’s statistically on par with any of his short list of competitors, his team is at the very top of the standings, having made a huge leap from last season, and everything the Thunder do runs through him. He’s got a compelling case. 

He knows it too, though with the youthful Thunder a dark horse title contender after missing the playoffs for three straight years, he’s got his eyes on the bigger picture. But the MVP talk is growing, so no point pretending it’s not there or avoiding it. 

“For sure [winning MVP] would be up there [as a personal goal],” Gilgeous-Alexander said when I asked how he’s navigating the buzz in the midst of breakthrough season for the Thunder as a group. “I think for every basketball player it is. Obviously I’m not naive, I can hear [the talk], but right now I channel it out and I try to focus on the day in, day out. It’s what got me to this point. I’d be stupid to focus on anything else. 

He’s managing it all quite well, no matter the circumstance.

The latest example was OKC’s hard-fought 135-127 double-overtime win over the reeling Toronto Raptors. With the Thunder missing the second-best perimeter player, Jalen Williams and their best shooter, Isaiah Joe, the obvious move was to send a second defender at Gilgeous-Alexander whenever possible and Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic leaned into the strategy heavily, going as far to use a box-and-1 approach to deny Gilgeous-Alexander the ball during overtime. Overall the strategy worked for long stretches as the Raptors sprinted out to a 63-47 lead at halftime and pushed their advantage to 23 points.

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But the Thunder star refused to force the issue and continued to try and make the right pass and the right play. The Thunder shot just 7-of-25 from three in the first half but shot 39.5 per cent on 38 attempts the rest of the way. The result was an impressive comeback win and if his 23 points were well below Gilgeous-Alexander’s season average, his 14 assists tied a career high. 

“It was just trusting each other, honestly … in order to win in a sustainable way requires you to trust each other and guys in that locker room trust each other, so because of that, we were able to win [tonight].”

The game also highlighted Gilgeous-Alexander’s improving defensive play as another important plank in his MVP platform. He leads the NBA in steals and had one of his two thefts in the final minute of overtime, stripping Immanuel Quickley in the paint in a tie game, while one of his three blocks was on the potentially game-winning Gary Trent Jr. three-point attempt as the horn sounded at the end of the first overtime period. 

It’s elite stuff. 

Gilgeous-Alexander got some strong support from fellow World Cup teammate Lu Dort, who was critical on the Thunders comeback, taking advantage of the space and opportunities the Raptors coverage afforded him as he finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists, going 5-of-12 from three. That was enough to offset a big night from RJ Barrett, the third soon-to-Olympian on the floor as he came back from a three-game absence due to knee soreness to put up 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Scottie Barnes had 19 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, but was strangely passive down the stretch, counting just two points — and taking just three shots — in final 22 minutes of the game. The loss dropped the 12th-place Raptors to 17-32 as they play the fifth of a six-game road trip in New Orleans Monday night. The Thunder improved to 35-15 are tied for the best record in the Western Conference. 

Gilgeous-Alexander certainly doesn’t need to say much about his MVP case. His play is loud enough to be heard from the wide-open spaces of one of the NBA’s smallest markets all the way across the basketball world. 

Last season, at age 24, he became the first Canadian other than Nash to earn first-team all-NBA recognition, finishing fifth in league MVP voting after helping the rebuilding Thunder back to relevance as they qualified for the play-in tournament and just missed out on a playoff spot. 

Now — after leading Canada to a historic bronze medal at the FIBA Basketball World Cup this past summer — the calm, lanky point guard from Hamilton has raised his game again. 

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Even to those who have known Gilgeous-Alexander since before he was ‘SGA’, it’s eye-opening.

He was [always] really good,” said Barrett, who played AAU basketball with Gilgeous-Alexander and who first played on the senior national team with him in the summer of 2016, when they were still in high school. Tellingly, they exchanged a warm, old friends hug in the hallway after the game. “But he was short. And then he got to 6’6 out of nowhere. Then he just became unstoppable. He’s really good. I always tell people that Shai is one of the best basketball players I’ve ever seen play.”

With help from leading rookie-of-the-year candidate Chet Holmgren, the improvement of the likes of Dort, who has added deadeye three-point shooting (a career-best 38.8 per cent so far this season) to his defensive wizardry, and a long roster of young talent and the deepest collection of draft assets in the league, the Thunder are poised to join the NBA’s elite and stay there for a while. 

But Gilgeous-Alexander is their signature star, putting up box score lines that have achieved only by the NBA’s greats. Before Sunday he was averaging 31.3 points per game (a fraction off his career high, set last season), 6.4 assists (a career-high), 2.3 steals (career-high) and shooting a career-best 54.8 per cent from the floor. 

Only 14 players in league history — virtually all hall-of-famers or hall-of-fame bound, the Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson crowd, in other words — have averaged at least 30 points and six assists for an entire season. Only six have done it while averaging two steals or more and five of them were MVP award winners. Of that group, the only player who has ever done all that while scoring more efficiently that Gilgeous-Alexander — who has a true shooting percentage of 65.1 — is two-time MVP and four-time NBA champion Steph Curry. 

What’s been most remarkable this season is how often he’s been at his best. He’s scored 30 points or more in 37 of the Thunder’s first 50 games, the most 30-point games in the first 50 games of a season since Michael Jordan had 42 in 1986-87. 

“He’s way more consistent on just on his approach about the game, how he can score every single night — 30 points every single night, every time I look at the ticker, he’s got 30 — he’s efficient, very efficient. And he’s mixing in more threes, their team’s very cohesive and he’s the focal point of it,” said Dillon Brooks, the Houston Rocket who shared bronze with Gilgeous-Alexander last summer and has battled him up-close for years in the Western Conference. “He can get downhill, got the mid-range, the post-up. He’s got a lot to his bag, and he knows how to take on physical agitators. I don’t know how he does it every single night, he’s a special player and just locked into his craft.”

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And his defence? “He knows he has to conserve energy [for] offence,” says Brooks, who earned all-defence honours last season. “But I feel like he’s got good instincts on deflections and steals for the past three years. It goes unseen but he’s up there in steals every single year. He’s got great timing and hands and when he wants to he can slide and stay in front of guys.” 

Like everything, it’s a process. His head coach sees a player who is locked in and unwavering. 

“He’s a robot when it comes to his daily routine. Not only in season, but in the off-season. He’s got an unbelievable set up in Hamilton. He just goes into like, hibernation,” says Thunder boss Mark Daigneault, who is a favourite for coach-of-the-year honours. “It’s very, very simple. It’s in his hometown, it’s with hometown people. There’s just no fluff. He’s just goes to work every single day … you can look at your watch and know where he is. And so when you are that consistent of a worker, it puts you in position to be that consistent of a player, and obviously he gets himself there every night to play at that level. He’s a pretty impressive guy.”

To listen to Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s clear that his approach is more about him as a person and how he lives his life, than him as a basketball player trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Whatever he does, he is intentional and willful about. Basketball is just the thing everyone notices. 

“I’m very, very strict on consistency in every aspect of life,” Gilgeous-Alexander said to me, post-game. “And I think it helps my basketball.  Whether it’s my eating, my day-to-day schedule, how clean my house is. It’s what I do with my time, whether I’m playing or not. I try to be very, very strict on discipline, being consistent. I think it helps with my basketball.”

What has also helped, he’s convinced, is playing for the national team the past two summers. The competitive focus and the intensity of competition in the off-season he believes, has helped elevate his play during the NBA season. He’s seen it across the league too, as others from the national team — be it Brooks, Barrett, or Dort, to name three — are in the midst of strong regular seasons. 

“I’m a big advocate of playing FIBA basketball,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “The style of play, the pace they play at, the physicality. At the end of the day you’re playing real basketball with real refs, real game management, real coaches in the summertime when most guys aren’t, and it gives you more reps and gets you more ready for the NBA season. The last two seasons I’ve played FIBA basketball I’ve felt more sharp coming into the season.”

How much sharper that edge can get is hard to imagine. In just his sixth professional season if he’s not the best player in the NBA, he’s getting awfully close. The argument will only get stronger with a deep playoff run, an MVP award and perhaps an Olympic medal. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander taking his systematic, disciplined approach and is working methodically towards all of it, and a place in the pantheon of Canadian sport along the way. 

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