MIND GAME
By Steven Loung in Detroit and Toronto
MIND GAME
By Steven Loung in Detroit and Toronto
Underrated and with a style of play from another era, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has found unexpected early NBA success always working to be the smartest player on the floor.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander receives the inbound pass from Tobias Harris and looks up the court, before dribbling slowly and methodically along the right side of the floor.

One.

It’s early February and SGA is playing in front of more than 50 family members and friends; on the court in his native country for the first time since his Grade 10 year of high school. That custom supporters’ section looks on as he crosses the time line and gets picked up by Danny Green.

Two.

He cuts to the right wing, his red sneakers blending with the Scotiabank Arena lettering painted on the floor. He faces away from Green, but keeps the defender and the other four Toronto Raptors in his peripheral vision as he scans for an opening.

Three.

Green sags off him and Gilgeous-Alexander sees a screen set by Montrezl Harrell, his six-foot-eight, 240-pound pick-and-roll partner. But instead of utilizing the wall Harrell created as a barrier, Gilgeous-Alexander uses it as a decoy, forcing the Raptors guard off-balance and creating an open driving lane — a path he could see before it existed. He finishes through contact for the and-one chance.

Four.

After the ball drops through the hoop, the Raptors gather together and look at one another in slight disbelief. It’s an understandable reaction given their entire defensive scheme has just been broken down in four seconds by a 20-year-old rookie. But if the Raptors knew him like the 50-plus SGA fans in the stands, they wouldn’t have been surprised at all; they’d know that for Gilgeous-Alexander, the play is old hat.

The Clippers guard may be young, but his game isn’t. A six-foot-six monster of a point guard with a six-foot-11.5-inch wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander plays a brand of basketball that seems a better fit for the grinding and bruising NBA of the 1990s and early 2000s. In many ways, he’s the antithesis of the modern NBA player. He’s not freakishly athletic and he’s not about using a flashy handle to set up a deep three, preferring the analytically maligned mid-range instead. Everything about his game looks like it’s come from a bygone era — right down to the short-shorts he wears.

It’s surprising, then, that Gilgeous-Alexander has achieved so much success so quickly — a Rising Stars team selection at All-Star Weekend and a standout starter on a Clippers team few predicted would be in playoff contention in the West — but SGA’s life in basketball has always seen him return incredible results in the face of relatively meagre expectations. Now, with his future as bright as anyone’s in the NBA, it’s time for this country — hoop heads and casual fans alike — to stop sleeping on one of the best ballers it’s ever produced.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Growing up in Toronto and Hamilton, SGA got his first live taste of NBA basketball at Scotiabank Arena. He returned to the building as a pro in Feb.

Gilgeous-Alexander was born in Toronto to Vaughn Alexander and Charmaine Gilgeous, a former Antigua and Barbuda track star who ran the 400-metres in the 1992 Olympic Games. Shai got a taste for the NBA watching the Bosh-and-Calderon Era Raptors from the nosebleed section of the Air Canada Centre and learned the fundamentals from his father while putting up shots on a garage-mounted net in the family driveway. After moving to Hamilton, Ont. at the age of 10, he joined a local program called UPLAY Canada. There, at 13, he began his apprenticeship in the most important aspect of what defines him as a player today: the ball screen. “I worked on that for countless hours. That’s where the base of my game is,” says Gilgeous-Alexander before an early February contest in Detroit. “That’s where I started and I built up from there.”

Laying down that groundwork wasn’t easy or glamourous, but when you’re chasing a dream as improbable as the NBA, tenacity and perseverance are baseline requirements. “It was very much a tedious thing that most people would not want to do because it’s not cool, but he had the drive,” says Dwayne Washington, director of UPLAY Canada.

Washington has been working with Gilgeous-Alexander since he first joined UPLAY, which, at the time, was just a community basketball club but has since become an elite program that participates in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, one of the top AAU basketball circuits. It was in their second year together that Washington truly took a hammer and chisel to Gilgeous-Alexander and began to turn him into the pick-and-roll maestro we see today. “With Shai it was a more cerebral approach with many, many, many hours of video, and then practical, on-court breakdowns,” Washington says. “It was just a lot of time.”

Gilgeous-Alexander and Washington work together to this day. The coach says he has 27 drills that specialize on the ball screen and running the pick-and-roll. The pair have only managed to get through 15 of them. One drill that stands out sees SGA take an inbounds pass and make his way up to where his screener will be within five seconds. In that span, he has to identify where the four off-ball defenders are positioned and gauge how his man is guarding him — pushing in tight or sagging back. He then has to call out all of his offensive options by the time he makes it to the screen.

“A lot of it is just reading and understanding the game, mentally,” says Gilgeous-Alexander of the work he’s done with Washington. “That’s his biggest thing and that’s what I’ve always been taught growing up from my dad as well: Being the mentally toughest, being the smartest player out there. You’re not always going to be the strongest, the fastest, jump the highest, shoot the best, but mentally you can work on that.”

“He wanted to watch the film immediately, on the plane ride home. He was a guy who was a tremendous student of the game.”

The fruits of this labour can be seen on the floor almost every night, like when the Clippers were in Toronto, where Gilgeous-Alexander almost instinctually knew to refuse the screen and chart his own path to the basket. “The drill is all about pacing and in your brain you’re counting to [five] before you get into the screen,” says Washington. “By the time you get to four, you have to know what you’re doing.

“That’s why a lot of guys in the NBA can’t run the ball screen, and the guys that can, those guys are the James Hardens and Chris Pauls of the world… superstars. Running the screen at a high level will keep you around for a very, very long time.”

Gilgeous-Alexander put in work outside the gym too, where he always had a rival his age to battle on the driveway in his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, currently Virginia Tech’s leading scorer. The two consider themselves brothers and remain in constant contact, but growing up Vaughn pushed them both to never to give an inch when they played one-on-one. Those games are where Alexander-Walker believes his favourite cousin got his competitiveness from. “Family or not, he wanted to win,” says the Hokies guard.

“Having a brother my age, who is damn-near just as good at basketball, we used to go at it all the time,” Gilgeous-Alexander says. “We’ve almost fought before, almost punched each other in the face, but we know it’s all love and that’s why we’re both at the stage we’re at today. Growing up with a guy like that will give you a competitive edge.”

NO QUIT
Gilgeous-Alexander honed a never-say-die attitude playing one-on-one against his cousin. "Family or not, he wanted to win,” says Alexander-Walker.

The cousins chose to close out their high-school careers together at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn., where they were also roommates, living at coach Zach Ferrell’s house for the two years they attended the school. At Hamilton Heights, Gilgeous-Alexander endeared himself off the court, playing with Ferrell’s then-one-year-old son, and on it, adding another dimension to his game. “He went from really being a pass-only point guard when he first got here, to averaging over 20 points per game in his senior year and was able to become a major threat scoring [anywhere on the floor],” Ferrell says.

Gilgeous-Alexander had already committed to Florida in late 2015, but after the leap he took under Ferrell he opted to re-open his recruitment in October 2016, his senior year, in hopes of landing with a school that might better prepare him for the pros. The gamble succeeded and he ended up receiving an offer from the University of Kentucky. “I think he saw Kentucky as a place that had worked with guys like him — big guards, great feel,” says Wildcats assistant coach Joel Justus, who worked extensively with Gilgeous-Alexander during his lone year in the NCAA. “More importantly, I think Shai knew that he was a guy who wanted to test himself against really good players every single day, to be challenged with a tremendous schedule, and I think he wanted to be pushed by a coaching staff that wanted to work with him every single day.”

Gilgeous-Alexander arrived in Lexington as a four-star recruit, flying relatively under the radar alongside flashy five-star freshman teammates like Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt. That was a familiar position for a Canadian who had often been underrated and overlooked — even failing to crack the starting lineup of his school’s junior team his last year in Ontario. “We live in a world that thrives on the spectacular and the thing that’s gonna get the most views,” says Ferrell. “Shai’s game is not that. Shai’s game is solid and methodical and excellent in the things that matter. He’s not gonna pump out this YouTube video, and because of that he wasn’t as popular as some of the other guys.”

Canadian national team coach Roy Rana agrees. “I think he’s been overlooked for much of his career, and now everybody’s realizing what he is,” says Rana, who coached Gilgeous-Alexander at the Nike Hoop Summit and the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship in 2016. “People were just non-believers in Shai.”

But that wouldn’t last for long at Kentucky. After 15 games that saw him primarily used as a bench tool, Gilgeous-Alexander was made a starter and never looked back, using his promotion as just another reason to add some extra-curricular activity to his regimen. “Our guys live right next to the practice facility, so they have 24-hour access and Shai took full advantage,” says Justus. “I know that he created relationships with a couple of our younger undergraduate managers and they spent a lot of time in the gym, but he also was a guy who spent a lot of time and worked hard in the weight room and was a tireless film-watcher.

“He wanted to watch the film immediately, on the plane ride home. He wanted to see cut-ups, he wanted to watch opponents. He was a guy who was a tremendous student of the game.”

All that work paid off. In that lone year in Kentucky, Gilgeous-Alexander elevated his game to new heights, highlighted by an SEC Tournament MVP award for averages of 21 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 55.3 per cent shooting and a couple of NCAA Tournament wins in which he was by far the best player on the floor. After the tournament, his draft stock shot up from the low 20s to the lottery. He turned up for the draft stunting on his fellow prospects in a floral-print suit, no less.

FULL BLOOM
A year at Kentucky and an SEC Tournament MVP nod saw SGA's stock rise from the end of the first round into the lottery.

Taken 11th overall by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Clippers on draft night, Gilgeous-Alexander’s NBA career began much the same way as it did in prep school and the NCAA — on the bench. But after just nine games, Clippers coach Doc Rivers decided to put him into the starting lineup. He hasn’t considered taking him out since. “I think he can be great — and he better be. I tell him that every day,” says Rivers. “‘If you’re not great than it’s my fault and yours. We’re gonna share the responsibility.’ But he has no reason not to be a great player someday, and he will be. I think he has all the tools.”

The one hiccup in Rivers’ prognostication is Gilgeous-Alexander’s lacklustre three-point shooting, perhaps the NBA’s most important skill at his position. He shot just over 34 per cent from distance through the beginning of March, before going on a bit of a run and bumping up to a presentable 37.3 per cent. That inconsistency won’t cut it going forward, but in the meantime, he’ll lean on a skill that’s become something of a lost art in the NBA.

Gilgeous-Alexander is already among the league’s elite from the mid-range, shooting 48.1 per cent from the area on 135 attempts this season. It’s a weapon that should be embraced, argues Clippers assistant Sam Cassell, whose entire 15-year playing career was built between the arc and the key. “His game matches what I did,” says Cassell after helping a number of Clippers get shots up pre-game in Detroit. “He’s more athletic than me, he’s more talented than me and he’s gonna be a better player than me because he’s six-six and a half. Once he learns how to get to his spot and use his height to his advantage, he’s gonna be a tough piece to cover in this league for a long, long time.”

“Once he learns how to get to his spot and use his height to his advantage, he’s gonna be a tough piece to cover in this league for a long, long time.”

Lou Williams, an NBA veteran in his 13th season, echoes the sentiment: “All of the great ones, they have a signature shot. And I think that’s gonna be the one for Shai where he’s bigger than a lot of guys that play the position and at his size he can go into the lane, get up and get a shot.”

Both Cassell and Williams have taken Gilgeous-Alexander under their wing this season, and both see reflections of their own games at that age in the young Canadian. And in Cassell’s case, he also sees similarities between SGA and another Kentucky point guard with a questionable jumper who was bursting with potential as a rookie, and whom Cassell helped turn into an all-star during his time as an assistant with the Washington Wizards. “John Wall was always good in transition and once he learned how to slow down a little bit then the league was going to be in trouble. Shai, on the other hand, we’ve gotta speed Shai up a little bit,” says Cassell.

Rivers calls Cassell the “guard whisperer” but he doesn’t want anyone to get things confused: What Gilgeous-Alexander is doing right now is because of Gilgeous-Alexander. “The player’s always the real reason,” says Rivers. “They have to do the work.”

THE RIGHT ADVICE
Cassell, pictured, and Williams can both offer been-there-done-that guidance to help Gilgeous-Alexander's development.

Gilgeous-Alexander is all smiles walking into the building where he once watched from the cheap seats for the first time as a pro. He’s wearing a neon-green jacket — a fashion choice that belies his humble, grounded game and personality. He makes his way to the visitors’ locker room and gets changed into a simple black Clippers warmup t-shirt and (short) shorts, and heads out to the court to get a sweat going. He puts up enough shots to get sufficiently warm and develop a feel for the space, then walks off the court and steps directly into the eye of a swirling mass of cameras, microphones and voice recorders.

The collection of Toronto and Hamilton media members behind all that equipment fires question after question and Gilgeous-Alexander politely and eloquently responds to each. But of all the queries that come his way, there’s one he answers with a bit of extra conviction: “Did you ever imagine being here given where you came from?”

“Yeah, I always thought I’d make it to the NBA,” Gilgeous-Alexander says without hesitation. “I’ve always been a dreamer.”

Maybe so, but it was hard work and determination that made him more.



Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images; Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images; Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images; Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images; Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.