Entering the offseason, every sign pointed to the Oklahoma City Thunder having an unremarkable summer. Change was certainly needed but with over $130 million committed to their six most expensive players, it seemed unlikely Sam Presti could make significant changes even if he wanted to.
At least that was the case until they completed one of the biggest trades in NBA history.
In the blink of an eye, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were on their way to Los Angeles and an unprecedented bounty of future assets was headed back to Oklahoma City. The Thunder received five first-round picks, two pick swaps and Danilo Gallinari, but their most intriguing asset may very well be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Once Russell Westbrook was dealt to Houston, it was clear the Thunder saw the 21-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander as their point guard of the future. In the Westbrook deal, the Thunder got back even more draft capital and Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time and the perfect player for Gilgeous-Alexander to learn from.
The Thunder are now the most asset-rich team in the league. For the price of breaking up a roster that twice failed to get out of the first round, they insured the next decade. But while the allure of future assets makes it tempting to shift attention to the mid-2020s, the aging stars already on the roster aren't going to be content to drift through the lottery until those picks become their replacements.
Gilgeous-Alexander is part of that future, but also a key to this team still trying to win. If he's going to grow into the star he showed potential to be as a rookie, there's no better player to help him get there than Paul.
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Though they're very different point guards, many of Paul's skills fit perfectly into Gilgeous-Alexander's game. Despite his height limitations, Paul has made a living from mid-range over his career. He's a master at weaving through defenses and finding creases to get up shots just outside the paint. Even in what was a slight regression from his fantastic 2017-18, Paul shot 48.6 percent from between 10-19 feet last season.
Gilgeous-Alexander was an average but promising mid-range shooter as a rookie, making 42.2 percent of his shots between 10-19 feet. When left open he could knock down those shots, but too often he settled for contested looks. Those moves Paul has mastered out of necessity would be the ultimate luxury for Gilgeous-Alexander. If he can learn even some of those skills, his Shaun Livingston-esque reach would be deadly for opposing point guards trying to stop him.
Similarly, Paul's pick-and-roll mastery would be perfect for Gilgeous-Alexander's game. Much of Paul's pick-and-roll past involves throwing lobs to some of the greatest leapers in NBA history but, while Steven Adams isn't that same caliber of aerial threat, he might be the perfect centre to pair with Gilgeous-Alexander.
He may not sky for as many alley-oops as DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler, but Adams is a reliable finisher and devastating screen-setter. No one is going to confuse this Thunder team with the 2013 Clippers but all of the dump-off tricks and ways Paul cuts around screens would translate perfectly to a two-man game between Adams and Gilgeous-Alexander.
Right now, it's likely Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander play together quite a bit this season. Though they don't have perfectly complementary skillsets, they are two of only a few capable 3-point shooters on the roster. The Thunder were 13th in made 3s as a team last season, but 68.5 percent of those makes came from players no longer on the roster.
Gilgeous-Alexander doesn't yet have the reputation as a knockdown shooter and yet he made a respectable 36.7 percent of his 3s as a rookie. That said, 83.5 percent of his 3-point attempts came on catch-and-shoot opportunities and he's a pretty one-dimensional shooter at this point in his career.
OKC will take all of the shooting they can get, but expanding his pull-up game will be key to Gilgeous-Alexander becoming a more dynamic offensive force. It took Paul several years before he was a reliable pull-up shooter. It would be massive for Gilgeous-Alexander to start making strides as an off-the-dribble shooter this early into his career.
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Despite the physical differences, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander share quite a few offensive traits. Defensively, that overlap is much smaller. One skill he can learn from Paul, though, is how he holds up against bigger and stronger guards.
Though he has the length to defend twos and threes, Gilgeous-Alexander will almost always be at a strength disadvantage in those matchups. Paul rarely defends players who don't have at least a couple inches on him, so all of the leverage techniques he uses to hold up in those situations would be massive to helping Gilgeous-Alexander expand his defensive potential.
At least for this season, defending alongside Paul may be more important than the skills he can take directly from him. Playing multiple point guards can be a defensive risk, but a positive sign is how well Gilgeous-Alexander fared defensively when playing alongside Patrick Beverley last season.
The Clippers had a defensive rating of 108.7 with both Beverley and Gilgeous-Alexander on the court. While that number isn't great, it was up from the team's overall defensive rating of 110.4.
Gilgeous-Alexander has all the tools to be an elite defender but his ability to defend wings while playing with Paul - or with Dennis Schroder or Raymond Felton for that matter - will go a long way in determining just how versatile he can be at the NBA level.
There are going to be ups and downs for Gilgeous-Alexander this season. No matter how well he fits with Paul, he's on a new team, in a new role and playing for a franchise simultaneously planning for 2020 and 2030. If he is able to build off his rookie season and learn all he can from Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander will soon be the star the Thunder need.
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