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Wildcats in the NBA: It (should be) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s show in OKC

The prized prospect in the shocking Paul George trade to Los Angeles (that other team out there) is just getting started and could be in line for another strong year.

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a strong rookie campaign with the Clippers. Can he avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with a new franchise?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever had a shocking moment in sports or in life where the immediate reaction is positive and/or downright mind-boggling and then it turned into a pinch of bittersweet ... ness?

That’s exactly how I felt once I found out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was heading to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the deal that sent league MVP finalist Paul George to pair up with Kawhi Leonard for the Los Angeles Clippers this summer.

SGA had a solid rookie season, averaging 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds in a full 82-game campaign for the Clippers, while averaging 26.5 minutes per contest and starting 73 of those 82 appearances for an eighth-seed that pushed the once-unstoppable Golden State Warriors to six games in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs.

This past Thursday, Erik Horne of The Oklahoman was on hand for SGA’s appearance at a local elementary school.

Of course, the second-year guard was asked about the task of replacing beloved figure in OKC and former league MVP Russell Westbrook.

SGA replied as calm and as cool as you’d expected him to.

Here’s his response from Horne:

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

”I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

Chalk this up to that Canadian-born swagger and confidence he’s had since his rise up the draft boards during his lone year in Lexington where he became one of the most exciting players in the country leading the charge for the Cats.

It’s unfair to compare a former league MVP and a player who has averaged a triple-double for three consecutive seasons, but unfortunately, it’s what a lot of people will do to SGA, which means the 2019-20 season could be a massive one for his future.

There’s a couple factors here to also acknowledge that somewhat revolve around the same talking point:

  • Chris Paul is still technically a member of the Thunder, despite plenty of reports and rumors circulating that he actually won’t play a game for them and it’ll be SGA’s show to run. (That could easily change because his contract is just ... yuuuuuuuck.)
  • It’s Oklahoma City. This is the same franchise that once made the NBA Finals against “The Heatles” with Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook with none of those four over the age of 23 at the time. They’ve made it clear they’re in it for the long haul yet again with the George and Westbrook trades. Patience shouldn’t be an issue for SGA with fans and the organization.
  • To feed off the last bullet point, The Action Network gathered over-under win total predictions for every NBA team this season from four different outlets. The Thunder range from 31-33.5 wins across all four of them. Only six of those teams are projected to have less than them and only two of them are in the Western Conference (Suns and Grizzlies).

Not only is SGA already saying the right things, he simply understands the situation. If he goes out and try to emulate a freak athlete like Westbrook, he’ll be completely out of whack and likely on the shelf injured because there’s only one Westbrook and to this day, it still doesn’t make any sense how he hasn’t been injured more than he already has.

SGA made his name before becoming a lottery pick by using his 6-foot-6 frame (with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) to slither through gaps and contact at the rim in pick-and-roll looks offensively while hounding ball-handlers on the other end with his length and lateral quickness defensively.

That’s basically the complete opposite of Westbrook on both ends of the floor, so expecting him to be Russ is not only nonsensical, it’s bad from a basketball aspect because out of those four players that were a part of that young Thunder core, they probably ended up with the worst one of the bunch. (In terms of accolades, Durant (2) and Ibaka have won NBA titles, while Harden has won MVP and finished runner-up to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry and coincidentally, Westbrook, three times.)

The Paul situation could cloud SGA’s situation to an extent, being that he just started 73 games as a rookie at the toughest position in the NBA today, but he’s in a perfect spot to flourish as one of the featured pieces for the Thunder organization that hit the reset button once again.

Dennis Schroder’s not going to make the decision for Billy Donovan that tough at point guard. We know what he is and that’s a second-string guard and not a star like SGA, who just turned 21 years old this past July, could be.

(Also, he’s back with old friend and reigning slam dunk champion Hamidou Diallo, so that gives Big Blue Nation some motivation to pay attention to the Thunder moving forward, too.)

If — and after the last time around, it’s a big if — they can have the success of the first rebuild in terms of hitting on their 204 future draft picks (it’s actually about 12) they’ve gotten in the blockbuster deals this summer, SGA and the Thunder will be in fantastic shape for likely a much longer time than the KD-Ibaka-Harden-Westbrook tenure.