Around 20,000 people sit in the State Farm Arena in an awkward silence. The Kentucky Wildcats have just lost in heartbreaking defeat to the other Wildcats, Kansas State. It’s a disappointing Sweet 16 loss for Kentucky, especially after obtaining a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. The fans in the arena wonder if they’ll even make it that far next year and rightfully so. They’re about to lose four significant players to the 2018 NBA Draft in about three months. Kevin KNox, Hamidou Diallo, and Jarred Vanderbilt will all soon be called to the podium and out of Lexington. While they were all key contributors on that 2018 Kentucky team, no was more impactful than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Lastly, and maybe most unfortunately, Kentucky anticipates the departure of SEC All-Freshman and SEC Tournament MVP Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He officially cemented himself as a borderline top ten pick in the draft after averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals throughout the season. He wasn’t a volume scorer quite yet, but he could shoot well, grab rebounds, dish the rock, and was a menace on defense. All of these skills pooled together showed just how much SGA was worth and the Charlotte Hornets saw the talent that had graciously fallen into their lap.
With the 11th pick in the 2018 draft, the Hornets selected Shai Gilegous-Alexander. Except, he didn’t stay in Charlotte long. Immediately after the pick, the Hornets executed a draft day trade, sending their first round selection to the Los Angeles Clippers for the very next pick in the draft along with two future second’s.
Los Angeles Clippers
In his first season at the age of 20, Shai averaged 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game on 48/37/80 splits. He finished fifth on the team in scoring as his play awarded him to the 2018-2019 All-Rookie 2nd team. The Clippers finished as the 8th seed in the Western Conference which lined them up with a first round series against the 57-win Golden State Warriors. The Clippers fell in six games to te eventual champions, as Tobias Harris, Lou Williams and Montrez Harrell just couldn’t keep up with the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. During the series, Alexander boosted his points per game to 13.7, and it was clear that he had a bright and promising future ahead of himself in the NBA. It seemed to only be a matter of time before his statistics showed that in Los Angeles. The 2019 draft came and went, and with only one second round pick to account for, the Clippers selected another guard by the name of Terrance Mann out of Florida State. By now, they had built a talented young roster, but not talented enough to make it any further than the first round of the playoffs. It wasn’t until July 9th of the same year, that Clippers GM Michael Winger made a blockbuster move that shook the league to its core. Kawhi Leonard, fresh off of an NBA Championship victory with the Raptors, had signed a massive four year contract worth $176 million with the Clippers. The three time All-NBA and two time champion was suddenly on the West Coast. Except, Shai wouldn’t get the chance to play with him. Three days prior, the Clippers had acquired Leonard a sidekick in a monumental trade which landed them five time All-Star Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. In return, the Thunder received Danilo Gallinari, five future first picks, and Shai himself. While Kawhi and George teamed up in L.A, Shai joined Chris Paul and Steven Adams in Oklahoma City, going from a bona fide title contender to a seemingly bottom-of-the-barrel squad.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Now on a team with no expectations, Gilgeous-Alexander spent the next three years of his career not only elevating the Thunder back to relevancy, but putting his name in the hat as a potential star in the making. His play has gradually and drastically increased since the trade, averaging 19 points per game in 2019, 23.7 in 2020, and 24.5 in 2021. To go along with that, he averaged 5.2 rebounds and 5 assists per game in that span. In the 2019-2020 season, Shai led the team in win shares, even with a still productive Chris Paul and younger stars in Dennis Schröder and Steven Adams. Gilgeous-Alexander’s contributions helped the Thunder blast through teur lowly expectations, as Oklahoma City made a postseason appearance with a record of 44-28. In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, they were matched up with James Harden and the Houston Rockets. While the whole bubble environment and high-profile perimeter matchup slightly diminished Gilgeous-Alexander’s play, OKC still forced the series to seven games before going down at the death.
Over the next two years, Gilegous-Alexander saw steady growth in the Thunder’s offense, even though they didn’t make the playoffs again. By 2022, Shai was averaging 24.5 points per game in a roster that was way too young to compete with the best of the Western Conference. They only won 24 games and the leading players behind Shai were 22 year old Luguentz Dort and a 19 year old Josh Giddey. By now, Gilgeous-Alexander was starting to look more and more like a superstar with each passing game. Even though his team lost significantly more than they won, that didn’t stop the media and fans alike from starting to recognize just what the Thunder had in their 23 year old guard.
Going into the 2022 NBA Draft, the Thunder possessed the 2nd and 12th overall picks. After the Magic picked forward Paulo Banchero, who would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award in 2023, the Thunder selected a 7-foot-1 center out of Gonzaga by the name of Chet Holgrem. During his one year college career, Chet won the WCC Defensive Player of the Year Award, the WCC Rookie of the Year, and was a consensus second team All-American. With this pick, Oklahoma City planned to fill the gaping hole in their starting lineup that had been begging for a serviceable center ever since Steven Adams left for New Orleans in 2020. The future looked exciting and promising for Chet, as he could easily transition to become the Thunder’s second star. That was until two months after the draft when he suffered a Lisfranc fracture of his right foot, which caused him to miss his entire rookie campaign. Luckily, Oklahoma City had a few other young stars who stepped up in his absence. Jalen Williams, who was selected with the 12th pick of the same draft, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Josh Giddey and Lu Dort also improved and provided the Thunder with a great supporting cast in 2023. Even without Chet Holgrem, Oklahoma City looked prime to take a step forward in their future. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had to be the one to take them there.
This 2022-2023 squad was projected to finish somewhere around 20 wins, and didn’t have a lot of eyes on them going into the new season. They expected to show flashes, but nothing too substantial or impressive. With Shai leading the way, they completely subverted expectations by winning 40 games and securing a spot in the play-in tournament. Most of those wins came from their 24 year old All-Star and first team All-NBA selection in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA erupted onto the scene in 2023. He boasted an insane 31.4 points per game, to go along with 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.6 steals. He finished as the fourth leading scorer in the league, only trailing Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, and future MVP Joel Embiid. Shai shot .510 from the field and .905 from the free throw line, making him arguably the best free throw scorer in the league. He finished first in successful drives to the rim and picked up plenty of fouls along the way, most of which he converted into points. His massive leap forward in production carried the Thunder to the play-in tournament, where they would eventually lose to the Timberwolves. Nevertheless, the future still looks bright for Shai and his team. WIth a plethora of first round draft picks to go along with already the second youngest team in the league, the fans might not have to wait too long to see their team in convention. As for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his ceiling only continues to rise as his team gets better and as his experience of the game grows. It may be only a matter of time until he is commonly recognized as one of the very best players in the NBA.