Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder surprised plenty of people with their playoff run, finishing as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, before going on to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets in seven games.
While they exceeded expectations in 2019-20, the new NBA season brings a new set of challenges for the now rebuilding franchise after seeing veterans Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schröder all leave town in the offseason, as well as young swingman Terrance Ferguson.
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Despite the high roster turnover, which sees the Thunder welcome 14 new payers to the squad, their crown jewel, Hamilton native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is primed to continue his rapid development, with the responsibility of being the franchise's cornerstone point guard.
"Obviously, it's something that I'm excited about and I think I've worked hard enough to deserve that responsibility and trust from Sam and the rest of the front office," Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters.
"Really, I'm just ready to take advantage of the opportunity I've been given. There's so many opportunities in this game that I've been blessed to have in my first two-and-a-little-bit years in the NBA and I'm just thankful."
SGA over his first two seasons
The 22-year-old enjoyed a breakout campaign after being traded by the LA Clippers, forming a dominant three-guard lineup alongside Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder, but with the franchise now handing him the keys, the ball will be in his hands more than ever as the team's primary offensive focus.
As you can above, as his usage rate climbed, his efficiency largely remained intact and while his playmaking responsibilities will increase, so will his responsibilities on the defensive side of the floor.
At 6-foot-5, with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander has the tools to become an elite two-way player and he's been putting in the work this offseason to prepare for the increased physical workload.
"My biggest thing was getting my body ready for the bigger task at hand in terms of load and things like that," Gilgeous-Alexander added.
"I put on a little bit of weight, I got in better shape, I played a little bit more, just being ready for the opportunity. I think, obviously, I have certain skills and just fine-tuning those and sharpening those up and being ready to do it for a full 48 minutes.
"The biggest thing is how much of a toll it takes on you to play at a high level on both ends of the floor. The greatest players in the game can do it, and ultimately that's where I want to get to, so I know I got to do it."
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ESPN ranked SGA as the 38th best player in the league, up from 64th last season and while pre-season rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, the expectations are there for Gilgeous-Alexander to continue his upward trajectory.
While Gilgeous-Alexander will be the focal point of the offence, flanked by fellow youngsters Lu Dort and Darius Bazley, new head coach Mark Daigneault says the team plans to continue embracing a more positionless style of basketball.
"Shai's going to have a lot of creation opportunities. He's going to have the ball in his hands a lot. I just don't want to misrepresent it and make everyone think he's going to be walking ball over half court like a point guard in the traditional sense," Daigneault said.
"Hopefully we're kind of flowing up the floor in a kind of a positionless manner, but he's going to have, obviously, a lot of weight in our offence."
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