Why the best is yet to come for Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 32 points, Chris Paul had 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Toronto Raptors 98-97.

TORONTO — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander might have as bright an NBA future as any Canadian in the game right now.

He might have as bright an NBA future as any young guard in the game, flag notwithstanding.

He certainly isn’t short of confidence.

It stems from both his willingness to work and his natural gifts — six-foot-six point guards with nearly seven-foot wingspans are a rare and valued commodity in the NBA. Throw in an innate sense of timing that just 10 days ago Hall-of-Fame bound Dwyane Wade felt compelled to comment on via Twitter after the kid from Hamilton by way of Kentucky tied his career high of 32 points against the team that drafted him — the Los Angeles Clippers — and you have a package nearly unmatched.

"Shai came into the league with the pace of a veteran. This kid is special."

But he’s not too full of himself. For that he has friends and family, especially his mom — a former Olympic sprinter — to thank.

"I work hard, so I have confidence," he said before playing just his second game at Scotiabank Arena and his first since he landed in Oklahoma City as the key return piece in an off-season trade that saw Paul George head to the Clippers. "And the people around me don’t let my head get too big.

"Especially my mom, she tells me I suck every day."

But what is Mom going to say now?

Her son came to Toronto for a late Christmas with the Thunder and put up one of — if not the best — games a Canadian has ever had against the Raptors.

Is 32 points, seven rebounds and the game-winning basket in the Thunder’s 98-97 win and a spot in the record books good enough for Mama?

It should be.

No Canadian has even scored more in an NBA game on Canadian soil or against the Raptors anywhere as Gilgeous-Alexander did Sunday. Previously Rick Fox had dropped 31 in a game in Toronto way back in 1998 when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers while Andrew Wiggins put up 31 against the Raptors in 2016 in Minnesota.

Even the level-headed guard was impressed when he learned he’d not only earned a win to improve the Thunders’ record to 17-15 but a place in Canadian basketball lore.

"I did not know that, that’s cool though," he said.

When his running mate and mentor, Thunder veteran Chris Paul heard about the significance of his teammate’s big night on the floor he grew up watching the Raptors play on, he predicted Gilgeous-Alexander would be a little less reserved in private.

"Man we aren’t going to hear the end of that," said Paul. "He was probably modest right here … but we aren’t going to hear the end of that."

That he showed out was no surprise. Gilgeous-Alexander arrived in Toronto on a heater, averaging 26.4 points over his last five games on 53 per cent shooting with the Thunder winning four of those to remain firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture when trading George was supposed to trigger a rebuild.

And then there was the playing at home factor.

"He’s been excited to come back," said Paul. "Everybody here in Canada know that you got a real one. He loves home. He loves home."

Gilgeous-Alexander was one of a record four Canadians to score in the game, another first. Chris Boucher and Oshae Brissett chipped in nine and four points for the Raptors, respectively, while Montreal rookie Luguentz Dort had three points for the Thunder.

For the season Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 19.4 points a game, a massive leap from the 10.8 points a game he put up in his rookie season as the No. 11 pick in the 2018 draft with no decline in efficiency even if his minutes (35.2 from 26.2) and usage (24.9 from 18.3) have jumped considerably.

The best, most feel, is yet to come. It’s games like he had Sunday night that suggest why.

"He’s playing very well. I’m not sure who has a quicker first step, blow-by move in the league right now than this guy," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who will have an opportunity to coach Gilgeous-Alexander this summer with the Canadian men’s national team. "When he is [playing one-on-one] and he makes his little head-and-shoulder (move), boom, he’s by ya."

"And then he’s got the uncanny ability to kind of slow that down at the end," added Nurse. "It’s ultra-quick by his man and then he surveys around who is left at the basket that he’s got to side step or whatever. Or he makes such a fast move that he’s to the front of the rim right away."

"That’s been most impressive to me, and it mostly just happens in one-on-one situations," Nurse continued. "That is what has stuck out to me the most. He’s really athletic. He’s athletic at the start. He’s athletic at the finish. People will come and he’ll hang in the air and he’ll move the ball around and then he’s shooting it really well on top of it. He’ll keep you honest so you can’t just say ‘let’s bait him into some threes or whatever,’ because he’s stroking it pretty good too. He’s been awesome, really awesome, and late in games, crunch time, overtime, all kinds of stuff. He’s been really, really good [and] there’s a lot of upside."

Gilgeous-Alexander wasted little time putting his skills on display in front of what seemed like almost a full section of friends and family out to watch him play a rare game in his hometown.

It’s the third time he’s scored a career-high 32 points, all coming this season, but this one was a little more special.

"This one might be the best one so far, for sure," he said. "Back at the crib."

"… But all of it, honestly, wouldn’t have meant anything if we didn’t win, that was the best feeling, knowing that we came out of here with a win."

He had a lot to do with it.

He scored on his first touch, loping through the paint for a lay-up, setting a tone. But the end of the first quarter he’d added a couple more hoops on his trademark, slippery, never hurried drives that he can finish with either hand off either foot. It makes him looks comfortable going over, under or around anyone to get the rim.

"I just stay in his ear all the time about being aggressive and staying aggressive," said Paul. "He’s got it all. The mid-range, the finishes, the shooting."

But Gilgeous-Alexander was just warming up. He sent the Thunder into halftime tied with the Raptors 47-47 after exploding for 14 second-quarter points including an eight-point flurry in the final two minutes of the half that featured a pair of deep threes.

By then he’d fulfilled his pregame mission:

"Playing in front of friends and family, and on the court you grew up watching is special every time," he said. "Hopefully I play good."

Hey, 12-of-21 shooting with three triples in five tries is good.

His only stumble came on a few possessions in the late third quarter and early fourth quarter when the 21-year-old appeared to be forcing his way into the paint a little too much, allowing the Raptors to collapse on him. He missed four straight shots but put the Thunder up one, 94-93, with a floater in the lane with 4:08 to play.

Fortunately, the Thunder have Paul, a 16-year-veteran headed to the hall-of-fame to help carry the load in tight moments. And after another Gilgeous-Alexander miss, Paul scored a controversial jumper after what seemed to be a held ball with under a minute left to put OKC up one.

A pair of VanVleet free throws with 54 seconds left gave the Raptors the lead but only until Gilgeous-Alexander closed out the scoring set the scoring mark at the same time.

"It felt amazing [to get a lift from Paul]," he said. "I felt myself slowing down, getting a little tired, and Chris being the kind of player that he is picked us back up as soon as we needed it. He’s the main reason we got the W tonight."

It was a Paul play that set up what turned out to be both the game-winning basket and Gilgeous-Alexander’s new Canadian scoring mark as his floater through the lane and off glass put OKC up 98-97 with 36 seconds to play and the Raptors couldn’t reverse it.

Paul finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, as the Thunder guards out-played their Raptors counterparts, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, who each finished with 20 points.

As well as he played, the excitement around Gilgeous-Alexander has more to do with what he might end up achieving rather than where he is at the moment, which is saying something. He’s already earning favourable comparisons with the likes of fellow Canadians Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins and could emerge as the best player with a Maple Leaf passport in the league as a starting point. Given his talent and demeanour, there is no obvious end point.

"I plan on making a leap like this every year," he said. "And then hopefully all the accolades follow after that … I focus on getting better, and everything, accolades, all the awards take care of themselves."

That was what Thunder coach Billy Donovan said was most impressive about him in their half-season working together.

“I think one of his greatest qualities apart from his basketball skillset is his humility,” said Donovan. “I don’t mean to say he’s timid or afraid, but he’s got great humility in terms of being coached and wanting to get better.

“I think all great players, to me, always look inside first and he’s a guy who really does that, looking for ways to get better and improve."

His big future is closer than it might appear in the mirror.

So good enough to please Mom, at least for now?

"Just a little bit," Gilgeous-Alexander smiled. "She’ll be satisfied this time."

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