Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said he was “tired” after his regular-season debut with the Thunder, an understandable outcome considering the whirlwind summer that saw the promising guard shipped off to Oklahoma City as part of the series of moves that brought superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George home to Los Angeles.
“I realized how much I’m not in shape,” the former Clipper told reporters with a laugh.
His performance on the court belies his self-deprecating assessment, however, as he looks more like a backcourt star in midseason form. Through four games, the Toronto native is averaging 23.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists and 1.3 blocks and has quickly emerged as the face of a Thunder team undergoing a teardown and rebuild after a decade of competitiveness.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s quick success in Oklahoma City has been an early highlight in a season that has seen a record 16 Canadian players make opening-day NBA rosters.
He scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting in his debut, a hard-fought 100-95 loss at Utah last Wednesday. That personal best lasted just two days, as he posted 28 points in a 97-85 loss to visiting Washington on Friday. He ended his first week in Oklahoma City by putting up 19 points and nine rebounds in three quarters of work as the Thunder hammered Golden State 120-92.
Gilgeous-Alexander added another 22 points in the Thunder’s 116-112 loss at Houston on Monday, a game that was dominated by the noise around the first meeting between star Rockets guard Russell Westbrook and his former team.
The Thunder are expected to struggle this year after losing George and Westbrook in off-season trades. But they have been surprisingly competitive, with two of their three losses coming in close games on the road against Western Conference playoff contenders.
There are more reasons for encouragement for the Thunder. The team seems to be coalescing quickly despite having three primary ball-handlers who eat up minutes in Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroeder. While Gilgeous-Alexander is likely the team’s point guard of the future, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has said the Canadian’s competitiveness and unselfishness will allow him to excel off the ball in situations where two, or even three, of Oklahoma City’s primary point guards are deployed.
“He’s very versatile,” Donovan said at the Thunder’s media day. “He’s got good size, he’s got good length and I think he can play in a lot of different positions in a lot of different areas on the floor.”
It’s a small sample size, but rookie guard RJ Barrett has so far been as advertised in New York. The third overall pick in this year’s draft has averaged 20.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists and two steals over his first four games. That includes 21 points in his NBA debut, becoming just the second Knick to hit 20 points in his first game, and 19 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a 105-98 win over Chicago on Monday. The native of Mississauga also has shown a flair for opportunistic defence with six steals in a loss to the cross-town rival Brooklyn Nets.
Barrett has already earned praise from Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who told reporters: “He’s a stud, that’s the only way I can put it: He’s a stud.”
If there’s one area where Barrett is not yet a stud, it’s at the free-throw line. He has hit just 44 per cent of his shots from the stripe.
MAKING THE MINUTES COUNT
Clippers rookie Mfiondu Kabengele might not see a ton of playing time this season, but he looked good when given the opportunity late in a 141-122 rout at Golden State on Thursday. Kabengele, from Burlington, Ont., hit his only shot – a three-pointer – and added a rebound and a block in four minutes of playing time. Clippers coach Doc Rivers took notice, and the player known in the locker room as “Fi” was presented with the game ball after the contest.
BOUCHER IS MIA
If it wasn’t clear before the season that Toronto coach Nick Nurse wasn’t sold on his bench this season, his eight-player rotation in the Raptors’ season-opening win over New Orleans was irrefutable proof. As a result, big man Chris Boucher might end up nailed to the end of the bench this year. The Montreal native has shown flashes of real potential at both the NCAA and G League levels, but figures to get scarce minutes so long as Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are available.
Minnesota forward Andrew Wiggins remains a hard guy to figure out. The native of Vaughan, Ont., got off a troubling start this season, posting a minus 26 rating in a game the Timberwolves won 127-126 over Brooklyn in overtime. Two games later, he scored 16 points in the final six minutes of the Wolves’ 116-109 win over Miami. A consistently clutch Wiggins will be key for the Timberwolves to build on their surprising 3-0 start.
Cleveland centre Tristan Thompson made his first career three-pointer in the Cavaliers’ home-opening 110-99 win over Indiana on Saturday. The big man from Brampton, Ont. – in his ninth NBA season – has attempted only 11 threes in his career, so he’s probably not going to add perimeter scoring to his offensive repertoire, especially as he’s one of the early league leaders with an average of 16 points in the paint a game.
Denver guard Jamal Murray is picking up where he left off after a breakout 2018-19 campaign. The native of Kitchener, Ont., had an average of 19.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and four assists and a 38.9 per cent success rate from the three-point line heading into Tuesday’s games. … Rookie forward Brandon Clarke is settling in nicely in Memphis, averaging 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. Fellow Canadian Dillon Brooks is averaging 11.3 points for the Grizzlies. … Veteran guard Cory Joseph has been seeing less of the floor so far in his first season in Sacramento, averaging 18.5 minutes a game. The native of Pickering, Ont., averaged at least 25 minutes in his past four seasons in Toronto and Indiana.
KEEP AN EYE ON
It will be a family affair Saturday as Oklahoma City plays host to the New Orleans Pelicans. It’s set to be the first meeting between Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin, Pelicans rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker.