NBA: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks to build on dominant World Cup performance

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) scores against the Detroit Pistons during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press via AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY — If the World Cup was an indicator, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder have much to look forward to this season.

Gilgeous-Alexander made the All-Tournament team at this summer’s event and generated the kind of buzz that had eluded him for much of his career.

He averaged 24.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists in eight games for Canada, including a 31-point, 12-assist output in the bronze medal win over the United States.

“It was great that he got to do that on the world stage — like, the whole world could see that, and he’s getting better every year,” said Lu Dort, Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammate on both the Thunder and the Canadian teams.

Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 31.4 points per game for the Thunder last season and was an All-NBA first-team selection before turning in the dynamic World Cup performance. Now, the 25-year-old star is primed to help Oklahoma City turn the corner on its rebuild and improve on last year’s 40-42 season that ended in the Play-In Tournament.

Gilgeous-Alexander hopes a World Cup that included wins over France, then-No. 1-ranked Spain and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia helps him enter the season sharper.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to play Canada basketball in the summer is because it gives you a little bit more run and a little bit more bump before the preseason,” he said. “In the summer I’ve always tried to find pickup games to do so, but there’s nothing better than a real game, real rush, real opponents. Yes, it feels like it’s helpful and we’ll see if it will be very helpful.”

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Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during the Fiba World Cup in Manila.–MARLO CUETO/INQUIRER.net

Davis Bertans, traded from Dallas to Oklahoma City on draft night, found out first-hand just how good his new teammate would be when he faced him at the World Cup. Gilgeous-Alexander had 27 points, six rebounds and six assists in Canada’s 101-75 win over Latvia in group play.

“We had a tough job that we couldn’t handle during the World Cup,” Bertans said. “He was the guy that went off in the second half and kind of, you know, put us in the ground at that moment.”

More success and accolades might be in store for the 6-foot-6 guard.

“Well, it’s all he’s ever done is improve, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s better,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.

Gilgeous-Alexander is not interested in setting specific team or individual goals for this season.

“As long as we keep getting better individually and as a group, we’ll get to where we want to be eventually,” he said. “But it’s about being patient and staying on course.”

Thunder general manager Sam Presti has generated help for Gilgeous-Alexander with several draft-night wins.

Josh Giddey, a first-round pick in 2021, averaged 16.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game last season for the Thunder. He stepped forward for Australia at the World Cup and averaged a team-high 19.4 points for a team that went 3-2.

Jalen Williams, a first-round pick last year, averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 rebounds last season and was runner-up for Rookie of The Year. Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft, is back after missing last season with a foot injury and has been dominant in the preseason.

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As the talent around him blossoms, Gilgeous-Alexander’s approach will remain the same. He was one of the league’s best players at attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line last season.

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“It will always come down to taking what the defense gives me, and putting their defense on their heels,” he said. “I think that’s how I try to attack. What it comes down to every offensive possession is productive pressure on the defense. If that’s what it calls for, that’s what it calls for. I try not to think too much about it, just play my game and play comfortable.”

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