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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is more than an All-Star starter for the Oklahoma City Thunder

Star guard has become a leader for the Western Conference contenders: ‘Everybody has bought in, but it starts with him.’

NEW ORLEANS – Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was expecting the worst when it ended up being between him and two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry for the final starting guard spot among Western Conference All-Stars. Instead of asking for a heads-up on the result, Gilgeous-Alexander preferred to learn the verdict from live TV just like any other NBA fan.

“So, that just leaves us one more All-Star starter in the backcourt,” Ernie Johnson, host of Inside the NBA on TNT, said calmly on Jan. 25. “Starting guard … Joining Luka Dončić in the backcourt. Shai … Gilgeous… Alexander.”

The two-time NBA All-Star was named a first-time starter for the 2024 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18 in Indianapolis.

“With selection stuff like that and awards, I don’t like for people to tell me before,” Gilgeous-Alexander told Andscape after scoring 31 points in a 107-83 road win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 26. “I like to be surprised. I was excited. I thought Steph was going to get it. But I was excited.”

Elite success didn’t happen overnight. The Canadian was traded once by the LA Clippers and received his first All-Star starting nod in his sixth season. Entering Wednesday’s game against the defending champion Denver Nuggets, the slender 6-foot-6, 180-pounder was third in the NBA in scoring (31.1 points per game on 54.5% shooting) while adding 5.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game.

“This season he is having is nothing to take lightly …,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “When you zoom out at what he has done this [season], and there is a lot of season left, it’s impressive. The thing that I’ve mentioned many times this season and go back to is he does it inside the team. His success impacts the whole and somehow creates space for other guys to elevate, improve and rock out a little bit.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić (left) looks for an opening against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right) at American Airlines Center on Dec. 2, 2023, in Dallas.

Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Through three fan voting returns, Gilgeous-Alexander was actually in third place in the West’s backcourt voting results behind Curry and the Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić. But Gilgeous-Alexander jumped forward to surpass the widely popular Curry to land the final starting guard spot alongside Dončić after leading in media and player votes. Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder’s first All-Star Game starter since Paul George in 2019.

There’s still room for growth in terms of Gilgeous-Alexander’s popularity, as the 25-year-old wasn’t among the NBA’s top-selling jerseys for the first half of the season. But playing in small-market Oklahoma City has not kept NBA players, media and fans from viewing this exciting 25-year-old as a top-10 player in the league now.

“I’m sure there’s people on every team voting for him because there’s not a night where it’s like he wasn’t an All-Star,” Thunder forward Chet Holmgren said. “He brings it every night and that’s huge for us. He’s going to continue to do that for a long time.”

When asked about Gilgeous-Alexander’s All-Star starter selection, Thunder forward Jalen Williams simply said: “Duh! That’s all I got.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has checked NBA All-Star and starter off his list, but the elite NBA stars are always viewed by the success they have in the postseason. Such is still a work in progress for this Thunder star, but there is new hope in Oklahoma City.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s playoff experience includes two first-round exits and a 1-1 record in the NBA Play-In Tournament last season, but Oklahoma City had the Western Conference’s third-best record entering Wednesday at 32-15. The Thunder’s roster also includes Holmgren, a Rookie of the Year candidate, the hot-scoring Williams and a potential West All-Star coach and NBA Coach of the Year candidate in Daigneault.

Holmgren credited the Thunder’s unselfishness and executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti “putting the right guys in the locker room.”

“The focus is on winning,” Holmgren told Andscape. “Everyone has bought into winning basketball games. And that’s something that gets a lot easier when you see the work that everybody puts in and you’re able to build that trust. We’re young.

“We haven’t been playing together for a long time. But everyone trusts each other. We’re all in it together trying to do the right thing.”

Said Daigneault: “Last [season] at times and even before that there was an uncommon consistency to the team even in our losing seasons. I thought there was an uncommon poise with the team last [season] where we were able to compete and win some of them. This [season] has been a continuation and build on that as we continued to improve and add good players to the roster.”

From left to right: Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, center Chet Holmgren, wing Jalen Williams and guard Luguentz Dort celebrate during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Paycom Center on Jan. 11 in Oklahoma City.

Joshua Gateley/Getty Images

Gilgeous-Alexander said the Thunder are improving daily, control their own destiny and can be “as good as we want to be.”

So, do the Thunder have championship potential?

“You can’t look that far ahead because you’ll miss what really matters which is getting better every day,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That is so far away, but there are so many other things that we have to take care of before that.”

The mild-mannered Gilgeous-Alexander is known for being loud with his fashion. Named GQ’s Most Stylish NBA Player and GQ’s Most Stylish Man of the Year in 2022, he wore swanky brown colored sunglasses, three gold chains bearing crosses and a posh brown leather bomber jacket after beating the Pelicans last week. Gilgeous-Alexander also is a spokesperson with commercials for underwear brand Skims. Off the court, he loves to rib his co-workers.

On the court, however, Gilgeous-Alexander is a smooth scorer who lets his game do the talking. Bucket after bucket, he usually just races back quietly on defense. Holmgren also said that Gilgeous-Alexander is the leader of the team due to his communication and ability to stay steady no matter the highs or lows. Daigneault said that Gilgeous-Alexander makes all his teammates better because he is “able to balance high ambition and high production.”

“He’s a killer. He’s a winner. He’s a family guy,” Holmgren said to Andscape of Gilgeous-Alexander. “Everyone has their vices. But that dude has no vices. If you had to pick a vice, it would be fashion. He puts a lot of time into his fashion stuff. I don’t even know how he keeps up with all that. But just a great dude overall.

“Everybody has bought in, but it starts with him. Leadership has to start with the guy we’re looking at from the time we walk into the gym until we leave. He is one of those dudes and he stepped into that role extremely well.”

On his keys to being a great leader, Gilgeous-Alexander said: “Staying in the moment and genuinely having your guys’ best interest. Being there for them. Sacrificing.”

During the 2023 NBA All-Star Game, Gilgeous-Alexander watched respectfully as the starters were announced. Now, it’s the Thunder star’s time to be in the starting spotlight along with fellow West All-Stars Dončić, LeBron James, Nikola Jokić and Kevin Durant. Moreover, Gilgeous-Alexander’s global reach is expected to grow considerably more during the 2024 Paris Games if he can lead Canada men’s basketball team to success in its first Olympic berth.

While he has no interest in seeking the spotlight, Gilgeous-Alexander is certainly aware of his growing celebrity as an NBA star and considers it “a blessing.”

“I guess it means you’re doing something right,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But I don’t really pay attention to it or focus on it too much. It doesn’t really matter to me about whether I’m getting enough attention.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.