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ThunderCat: How a bad Kentucky basketball game transformed Shai Gileous-Alexander into a rising star

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NBA: Rising Stars-World at U.S. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins, a winter surge and a haircut had a huge impact on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s future— but no one knew it at the time.

In December 2017, the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team— who were the No. 7 team in the country at the time— suffered a bad loss to UCLA. The Bruins were only 8-3, unranked and just came off a narrow three point win over a Summit League opponent: South Dakota.

The Wildcats should not have lost this game but they did by eight. But then, freshman guard and future Thunder player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, cut his hair.

Following this haircut, his draft stock soared. The game after the UCLA debacle, Gilgeous-Alexander immediately scored a then career-high 24 points against in-state rival Louisville.

“I knew it was coming,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the Louisville game. “I guess you could say that. I just felt good going out there and I knew a big game was coming.”

This wasn’t a one-off situation, though. Gilgeous-Alexander subsequently dominated almost every SEC opponent in conference play. This late December run pushed him from a bench player putting up around 9.6 ppg to the starting point guard who averaged 14.4 ppg, 5.1 apg and 4.1 rpg on one of the most historic programs of all time.

Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus, who was instrumental in Gilgeous-Alexander’s development, said this Christmastime eruption was the moment he knew the young star would thrive in the NBA.

“Well I think that team was a team that came together definitely after Christmas,” Justus said. “You know, Shai was a guy who came off the bench there before Christmas, came back, and really had a renewed sense of just getting after the opponent on defense but also being much more aggressive on offense. That’s really when we took off. We came back and we had a great victory over Louisville and then played Georgia about 36 hours later and Shai had back to back games and he really carried us. I think that’s where this whole thing started and when Shai got better, our team got better.”

Sure, while the haircut may have helped a bit in Gilgeous-Alexander’s college dominance, it was his adaptability as a player that made him a star. Gilgeous-Alexander has proven in college and in the NBA that he’s a player who will score on you in crafty ways. He’s best when he’s driving to the paint and using his shiftiness and court vision to either elusively get around his defender and score from down low or pass the ball to an open man.

Think about it, Thunder fans see it almost every game: SGA will drive to the paint with poise, get past his defender with either a pump fake or an evasive spin move and utilize his long body to score at the rim with ease.

Another move we typically see from Gilgeous-Alexander is a screen set from one of the Thunder’s outside threats, some nice ball handling and hesitation from SGA, before a pass right back to the open man for a wide open shot.

This style of play mixed is why Gilgeous-Alexander fits so well into Billy Donovan’s ball screen motion offense and is one of the main reasons for his excellent second season.

From the Bluegrass of Lexington, Kentucky, to the bright lights of Los Angeles, and now in the plains of Oklahoma, two things have remained constant with SGA: his hard work and professionalism. Joel Justus says that this is why his ceiling is so high.

“I think the main thing about Shai is he’s a basketball player,” Justus said. “He’s not limited or pigeonholed into a certain position. With his size, you see the length that he has on the perimeter, his ability to get in the paint, to distribute as well as be able to finish. I mean, he’s a tremendous package. Around the rim that he can finish. So he’s a guy that’s gonna add value while he’s out there. He’s a tremendous two-way player, especially in the system that they’re playing with guards. He can really switch on a different guard, you can mix them up with Chris [Paul] or with anyone else there. Put him on the ball, put him off the ball, he can be a changeup defensively. He can also guard bigger guys because of his length. I think his ceiling is still to be determined, he’s so young. But he is a constant professional in terms of how he goes to work every day. Same thing he did when he got here, he was the guy that wanted to work, he was the guy that took advantage of everything that we had here for these guys. I would say he’s done the same thing in LA and now it sounds like he’s carrying that over to you guys there in OKC.”