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The Way of Shai

The Oklahoma City Thunder star has transformed into one of the NBA’s best players, but it isn’t always clear how or why he’s so effective. How did an elusive guard best known for his brakes take over the league? “He manipulates people,” says Steve Nash. “He is able to put you in a position to take the bait, and then he exploits you.”

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is universally regarded as the NBA’s most fashionable player. It would be enough to be appreciated as such by peers and fans, but it’s another thing entirely to be named GQ’s most stylish man of the year in 2022, full stop. Last year, he leveled up once more at the Met Gala, donning one of the most elegant ensembles of the night: a textured and multilayered study of black and white in dedication to the late designer Karl Lagerfeld by way of Thom Browne. The ability to gawk at his latest pregame outfits is one of the perks outlined in the latest advert for the NBA’s official app. Shai has become an attraction all to himself, on and off the court. The Oklahoma City Thunder star has a clear eye and devotion to fashion, but what most people gravitate toward is the confidence of his style—the connective tissue that bridges his identities as aesthete and athlete. Style is, in a way, one of the objects of athletics in general: an ever-evolving understanding of one’s dimensions and how they behave in space. Style reveals itself over time. That isn’t to say one’s style is always beautiful, but it is, for the moment, honest. To track the movement of Gilgeous-Alexander is to witness a person who knows who he is.

It was his parents who instilled in young Shai a sense of decorum. “In my family, we always were taught to be presentable coming out of the house,” Gilgeous-Alexander has said. How one presents to the world is a language unto itself—unspoken, but seen and felt. SGA’s outfits over the years have given hints of the motifs that shade his self-expression. Much of athlete style over the past four decades has been built around the iconography of the sneaker—to wear Air Jordans is, in some way, to be in proximity to Him, and you can tell a lot about a person from their favorite Jordan design. Contrarily, Shai often opts to envelop his feet entirely, shrouded by big, voluminous trousers that hold their shape in defiance of physics, by pants that coil and stack under their own weight. When he spoke to GQ at New York Fashion Week a few years ago, Gilgeous-Alexander claimed he liked to keep his footwear “mysterious.” It’s hard not to wonder whether this is a string that can pull us closer toward a more unified theory of Shai: Is it the footwear or his footwork that is truly elusive?

Gilgeous-Alexander was born in Toronto but hails from Hamilton, roughly an hour south along the westernmost contours of Lake Ontario. It’s a city that reveals itself from the highway through the cloud factories by the harbor: Endless plumes of steam billow from the steel mills that produce a majority of Canada’s supply of the alloy. A decade ago, researchers found that cirrus clouds begin as ice crystals that specifically form around “seeds” of mineral and metal dust particles in the upper atmosphere—a good percentage of the metal particles in the air are the result of industrial emissions. It takes a whole lot of grit to create something seemingly weightless.

When you’re staring from below, these clouds appear as wispy streaks and striations suspended in air. Serene. Floating. Blush-toned brushstrokes refract the vivid hues of a sunset. From above, at cloud level, the scene is much different: sheets of ice crystals the size of skyscrapers, violently dragged across the horizon at more than 100 miles per hour. A reminder that velocity is a matter of perspective, that life’s deceptions can’t always be rendered by the naked eye. “It’s a lot different than [on] TV,” former Thunder guard Tre Mann said when describing Gilgeous-Alexander’s style of play in 2022. “He looks like he’s moving so slow and calm, but when you’re guarding him it’s different. He’s fast, quick, really shifty.”

Clouds can block light from even the brightest star. One of the most impressive plays of Gilgeous-Alexander’s career—which has coalesced into perennial MVP candidacy even though he’s just 25—barely registers as perceptible. In a mid-November game against the Golden State Warriors, SGA made Steph Curry disappear. After Shai came to an immediate stop at the free throw line on a drive from the top of the arc, he noticed Steph’s gambit: a hard and fast swipe with the left hand. In a single motion, without any momentum on his side, Gilgeous-Alexander shifted all of his weight onto his back foot as he reclined his upper body and dribbled the ball behind his back—an eerie feat of balance and core strength that effectively made Curry lurch at a ghost. It was as if the court itself had been tilted on its axis. Virtual insanity. For a moment, Gilgeous-Alexander appeared to be operating in bullet time:

The immediate impulse for fans watching the highlight was to poke fun at Curry, who has spent his entire career being questioned about his defensive acumen. Far less attention was paid to the self-possessed sorcery on the other side of the ball. Such has been the story of SGA’s career. He is among the most prolific one-on-one scorers in the NBA—outrageously efficient in isolation, post-ups, transition, and the pick-and-roll—but his style lends an almost mystical air, as though it isn’t always clear how or why he is as effective as he is. There is a certitude in Gilgeous-Alexander’s game, even as it projects as off-kilter, even when the player himself encodes his style as uncertainty. “I think my advantage comes from not knowing what I’m going to do,” Gilgeous Alexander has said. “Unorthodox. Offbeat. Slithery. Being unpredictable and doing things that are not seen a lot.”

SGA has led the NBA in drives per game in each of the past four seasons. Nearly three-fourths of his points this season have come from such possessions. He isn’t the likeliest leader of the statistical category, nor is he what the mind’s eye would conceive of as the NBA’s leading scorer over these past two seasons. Every other player averaging 30 or more points this season—Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo—possesses a bulky frame that signals the strength to carry a heavy burden and endure the inevitable bumps and bruises. Shai—at a long, lean, and tapered 6-foot-6—decidedly does not. Still, he gets to his spots anytime he wants to, at his own pace. His body control seems guided by compass. Because he intuitively feels the proper alignment of his own body, his spins, his footwork, his staccato steps that drag defenders into a sense of imbalance—they all play out as mini dramas with a clear resolution. He can always bring himself back to true north faster than anyone can knock him off his path.

Gilgeous-Alexander is now in his fifth season in Oklahoma City, but Hamilton remains home. It’s where he returns every summer to reset. It’s where he works out with his friend and personal trainer Nem Ilic, in a residential cul-de-sac where Ilic converted his garage into a professional gym. And it’s where a hooper from the Bronx made a new life, of all places, creating a haven for youth basketball in the area, which has become a pipeline to success at the highest levels of competition.

Dwayne Washington remembers meeting Gilgeous-Alexander the summer before his eighth-grade year. Shai—a gangly 5-foot-5 teenager with the same size 13 shoes he wears now—was coming in for summer basketball workouts. He still had his football pads on from practice. He played running back and quarterback, positions reserved for those who have a knack for making decisions with the ball in their hands. Washington is the CEO and director of UPLAY Canada, a basketball academy in Hamilton that has fostered the development of much of Ontario’s NBA talent boom, including RJ Barrett, Shaedon Sharpe, and Andrew Nembhard. He was a New York City kid who learned the game from neighborhood legend and 17-year NBA veteran Rod Strickland—the godfather of Kyrie Irving. The pursuit of a teaching degree brought him out to Hamilton, where he’s stationed himself ever since. For a time, he was Shai’s phys ed teacher, his skills trainer, and his club and high school team coach. In the handful of years they worked together, they worked together. Every day. Hours at a time. “It was very tough,” Washington told me. “It wasn’t nice. It was very intense. I couldn’t work kids now the way I worked with him. But he could take a lot. He was a mental grinder, so to speak.”

But even Shai was annoyed by the tedium of glasswork, a little slice of home that Washington brought with him to Canada. New York City basketball is about extracting a sense of flair out of dogged pragmatism. It is about finding the beauty in adjustments made within an environment: on outdoor courts with compromised hoops in the windy, frigid cold, in indoor gyms with perilously low ceilings. It’s about making use of the things that are given to you, lest they be taken away. Glasswork was a lesson in physics disguised as a modified Mikan drill. Make layups off the backboard, using all parts of your hand—the inside, the outside, the fingertips—guiding the ball to each quadrant of the glass. Fifty times. Arc the ball high. Fifty times. Spin the ball. Fifty times. Develop the sensory memory of how to influence the trajectory of the ball in real time. Then do it again with the other hand.

The two spent lunch breaks watching clips of Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Andre Miller, and, yes, Strickland. Floor generals with physical limitations but supreme control over what they could control. The hope was that Gilgeous-Alexander would top out at 6-foot-1. “Shai having really long strides and his gross motor skills still growing, we couldn’t assume he would be athletic,” Washington said. “But you could still manipulate the ball screen, so you’re using your brain. Obviously, as he started to grow, he was able to get to certain places but still didn’t have to rush because he was using his brain more.”

By the end of his sophomore year in high school, the writing was on the wall: To keep developing, he’d have to test himself against higher competition Stateside, just like every other Canadian prospect following their hoop dreams. Shai and his cousin Nickeil both landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, playing their final two years of high school for coach Zach Ferrell at, of all places, Hamilton Heights Christian Academy—and sharing a room at the Ferrell residence. Together, the cousins helped Hamilton Heights become a national powerhouse in their time there; the school they repped on the front of their jerseys, if only by coincidence, was a constant reminder of home.

Of course, up north, Team Canada kept an eye out. At the end of Shai’s junior year, he was invited to the Senior Men’s National Team training camp for the upcoming 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila. It was there that Nash, then Team Canada’s general manager, having retired from the NBA the year before, caught a glimpse of the future. He saw something in Shai—before the University of Kentucky commitment, hell, before Shai even turned 18. Something Nash didn’t even see in himself at the same age. Nash first played for the Canadian senior team at 17, but each promotion to a higher level of competition presented a serious adjustment process. The future two-time MVP recalled feeling rushed, sped up, less secure in his decisions. And then there was Shai, still 17, competing for a senior team roster spot among NBA veterans, unfazed. “There was a sense from him at that age,” Nash told me. “There was a calm, a confidence. I’m running my race, and I’ll get to the finish line. I think just his feel for the game was so evident. Even then, he never got sped up. He was never in a real hurry.”

Gilgeous-Alexander made the team as a sort of 12th-man apprentice. “I was really young. I didn’t play a minute in a game. I was pissed about it,” Gilgeous-Alexander recalled last summer, during the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Still, he’d exceeded all expectations. He’d grown to 6-foot-4. A few months after the tournament, he’d commit to Kentucky. By the time he stepped foot on campus, he’d grown another 2 inches: 6-foot-6, a sort of golden mark of height. Jordan was listed as 6-foot-6. So were Kobe and Vince. But Shai had the wiring of a player much, much smaller and far less athletically gifted. There are transformational origin myths like those of Anthony Davis or Zion Williamson—players whose games changed irrevocably when they hit late growth spurts and whose newfound athleticism allowed them to explore the outer limits of basketball itself. Gilgeous-Alexander’s never related to those narratives. When asked last year whether he’d idolized LeBron James growing up, he demurred. “I never really liked his game,” he said. “To me, when I was younger, he was just super-athletic—I wasn’t that. He was 6-foot-8 and super strong, and I wasn’t that, either.”

For Shai, it wasn’t about the powers he’d gained by growing taller; it was about what he hadn’t lost. The angles he chose on drives, the subtle shifts of the shoulders, the almost unnerving slow and steady nature of it all. He maintained all the slight advantages he’d crafted for himself—they were just a bit easier to pull off from a different vantage. True to form, Gilgeous-Alexander was patient. He was the lowest top-100 recruit of his class at Kentucky, but he finished the year as the team’s most important player. He was a promising rookie for the Los Angeles Clippers who was drafted outside the top 10 in 2018 and ended up being the line in the sand of the Paul George trade, damn near breaking Clippers executive Jerry West’s heart with the reality of losing the beloved youngster. Shai arrived in OKC an unexpected, fresh-faced heir tasked with filling the shoes that team legend Russell Westbrook left behind, and he has since molded himself into a first-team All-NBA star on the Thunder by playing his way. He stayed the course. His new dimensions didn’t change the person or player he’d always been.

“The worst thing is people not knowing what they can’t do,” Washington said. “So when you’re a kid and you think you actually can fly, you put a towel around your neck. You jump out the second-floor window. You’re going to break your legs. You have to be self-aware. So people who know they can’t fly, you can still say: What can I do? Put the cape on and climb down. I’ll still get there. It’s very elementary, but what it shows is knowing yourself and what you can do, you find out that what looks like a perceived weakness is actually a strength.”

But what is it about Shai? What is it, actually, that makes him one of the NBA’s most idiosyncratic stars? What is that ineffable quality that has defenses crumpling around him on his slaloms into the lane? Perhaps the defining irony of Gilgeous-Alexander’s athletic makeup is that his mother, Charmaine Gilgeous, who ran for Antigua and Barbuda in the 400-meter at the 1992 Olympics, kept the speed for herself. Shai’s jets aren’t the first thing to come to mind when you think about his game—they might not even be the fifth. Still, his mom’s athleticism informs the player Shai is today. Her chosen event speaks volumes. The 400-meter is about more than just speed. It’s a negotiation: Maximum velocity is essential, yet it invariably concedes to endurance. At some point in the sprint, the lactic acid buildup will burn through you from the inside out. Did you pace yourself accordingly? Do you have the resolve to push through? Shai inherited an acute internal clock as much as he did the long strides, both of which enable an uncanny level of precision in shifting gears and tempo—his most notable skill. When you master time, you can obliterate it. “He knows the race starts when he says so, and he’s able to dictate in that way,” Nash said.

With Shai, beginnings and endings blur completely. Over the past decade, deceleration has become an increasingly vital piece of the athleticism puzzle in NBA talent evaluation. P3, a sports science lab that has a biomechanics testing database of nearly 1,000 NBA players, was at the vanguard of that shift in thinking when it publicized the all-world braking system that James Harden demonstrated in its tests. It was the key to understanding how Harden—one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game—created so much separation from his defenders even though he’s an otherwise average athlete.

And that new baseline understanding of athleticism shades how we can view a player as unorthodox as SGA. “In hindsight, the fact that he was able to stop on a dime and make quick moves even though his stride was so long—that shouldn’t have happened,” Washington said, thinking back to Shai’s younger days. “So that’s definitely a genetic piece.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has not gone through P3’s battery of athletic assessments, but it doesn’t take a biomechanics expert to notice something different about the way he moves. (Though that helps.) I asked Eric Leidersdorf, P3’s director of biomechanics, to explain Gilgeous-Alexander’s unique athleticism through surrogates within the lab’s database. He was able to identify two specific areas of interest: ankle flexibility and braking ability that’s a standard deviation above the norm. “Frankly, most guys tend to do one or the other really well,” Leidersdorf said. “The list of guys who can do both very effectively is pretty small. And I think that’s where Shai tends to stand out.”

The closest proxy in the database, Leidersdorf tells me, is Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland. It makes sense: Garland is a similar stop-start savant whose stepback and step-through mechanics are pristine. He is also 5 inches shorter than Gilgeous-Alexander—at best. Turns out that was a theme in the P3 data set: Most of SGA’s cohort was tiny by NBA standards. “I think that’s the other hidden secret that he has, a hidden ingredient that he has access to,” Leidersdorf said. “He has these movement skills, but he just has it in a size package that’s bigger than most of the guys who fell through these comparisons.”

Watch Gilgeous-Alexander play for long enough, and there will be moments that leave you tilting your head in bewilderment, as though invisible forces were at work. Defenders stumble, stagger, even bend the knee to SGA as he stands perfectly still. Freeze the frame for a second, just before Gilgeous-Alexander completes a stepback, and it might look something like this:

Or this:

Or this:

These deep-lunge stepbacks have become some of SGA’s most effective maneuvers, leveraging his lower-body flexibility in tandem with his ability to instantly negate his own forward momentum. Ilic, Shai’s personal trainer back home in Hamilton, has focused on incorporating explosive multidirectional lunge workouts, extending the legs at a 45-degree angle rather than simply straight ahead—mirroring the angle that Shai would naturally be in when dribbling between the legs or executing a pullback dribble. The exercises play off what, to Gilgeous-Alexander, is already instinctual. But there is a greater command now, a power generated from within an uncommon position that he didn’t possess before.

“It’s not just this impressive range of motion. It’s also the ability to generate a considerable amount of decelerative force from these very unique positions,” Leidersdorf said. “There are guys who’ve carved out careers in the NBA, not because they’re the most explosive athletes, but because they can produce force from positions that other athletes, the guys who are guarding them, aren’t expecting them to produce force from.”

Of course, there is always a tension in doing things you shouldn’t be able to do. Gilgeous-Alexander has dealt with significant foot and ankle injuries in the past, missing a combined 50 games due to a torn plantar fascia in 2021 and recurring ankle issues in 2022. When you have access to angles that most aren’t physically privy to, there’s always the risk of pushing things too close to the edge. To address that, Ilic has had Shai running barefoot to strengthen the ligaments and improve fluency in the pathways that connect the thousands of nerve endings in his feet to his brain. Growing that connection—and ensuring that his body’s internal lines of communication are as clear and direct as possible—is how Shai maintains his advantage of supreme balance and coordination. And so the work never ends. Ilic flew to Indonesia with SGA for the 2023 FIBA World Cup to introduce new workouts and activations for Shai’s feet and ankles that the Thunder staff have carried into the season. “Our goal was to try and make that foot essentially a little bit more pliable,” Ilic said. “A little bit more willing or able to withstand all the forces that he produces with his change of directions and with his abrupt stops.”

Perhaps there is no one who appreciates Shai’s unique gifts (and dedication to maintenance) more than Nash, who has made a life’s mission and Hall of Fame career out of maximizing his coordination and reflexes. “Even at this incredible level, you still see great players who don’t have the type of brakes or balance that Shai does. It sounds common, but it’s extremely rare,” Nash said. “And for someone with his frame, his skill level and feel, to be able to add the different gears, the brakes, the balance, and that dexterity, it just opens up a world for him.”

Here’s another irony of Gilgeous-Alexander’s game: Even though he’s decidedly old school in the midrange-heavy shot diet he has within a 3-point-dominant NBA landscape, he occasionally has been painted as an undeserving beneficiary of the NBA’s law enforcement in the present era—when, to paraphrase Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, defense is being legislated out of the game. SGA has officially entered the gilded foul merchant class of NBA stars. Over the past five seasons (since Gilgeous-Alexander was traded to OKC), only seven players have taken more free throws than he has. At the very top, by a comfortable margin, are two anomalies of size: Antetokounmpo and Embiid. But the five players below them are all perimeter-oriented players: Trae Young, Luka Doncic, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, James Harden. All players who have tapped into the art of using a defender’s expectations against them. Over the past three seasons, only Antetokounmpo and Embiid have taken more free throws than the Thunder’s star.

But it’s hardly the case that SGA is serving as a well-worn stone at the end of a slingshot, cynically hurtling into harm’s way. The fouls signify his growth as a complete playmaker—he boasts a career-high assist rate this season, while his free throw attempt rate has gone down from last season. The Thunder are in the thick of a four-horse race for the honor of being the best team in the Western Conference, a complete reversal of fortune from the previous three losing seasons. Oklahoma City has immaculately constructed itself around SGA, who has become the unquestionable leader on a team with arguably the brightest future in the league. Shai has fashioned himself into a legitimate superstar with more options at his disposal than ever before. And defenders still have only a split second to respond to an increasingly complicated calculus.

“I mean, he’s got you in jail,” Nash said. “He can shoot off the bounce, he can finish, he can pass. So what do you do if you’re a defender? You play too tight, he can go by you. You try to stay tight enough and strong enough that you can absorb the stepback—now he can go and draw fouls because you’re overplaying him. He’s got you in a position where however you decide to guard him, he has a counter. And then the pump fakes and the length around the rim. To be a guard that’s able to finish after a pump fake is uncanny.”

It’s entirely too much to process in such a short amount of time, made even more difficult to read by the arrhythmic nature of his game. And so the allegations persist, coming to a head after a late January Thunder win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, when SGA (who attempted 13 free throws that night) was called out by burgeoning rival Anthony Edwards.

“It’s hard to [win] with the calls that Shai gets,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to shut him down. You can’t touch him at any time of the game, so it’s super hard to beat. That team is a good team, especially when they get calls like that.”

Of course, the “foul merchant” label flattens the context of a player’s efficacy, perpetuating a meme rather than serving as a true indictment of their game. SGA understands the leverage he has over the defense, the dissonance between optics and intent, as well as any player in the league has since Harden’s MVP heyday. Someone with his lithe build doesn’t typically invite physicality the way he does. That, too, is a skill he’s worked tirelessly on.

“Here’s a 6-foot-6 point guard that is using the new rules to his advantage,” said Olin Simplis, a renowned NBA skills trainer who has worked with Gilgeous-Alexander since the predraft process in 2018. “And he’s already a physical force, even when he didn’t add the weight that he’s had and the strength that he’s had. He always played with a level of toughness and force and attacks from his Kentucky days. So he’s just taking full advantage of his abilities of his size and the new rules, and I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.”

There is a drill that Gilgeous-Alexander has done for years with Simplis: SGA is strapped to a long resistance band, Simplis inside the band and Shai on the far end. (“I’m pulling you,” Simplis said. “I’m a big guy too.”) Outside the band is a defender who’s hounding Shai as he executes in-game moves under what is essentially the pressure of Jupiter’s gravity. It’s brutal and exhausting work, but it’s a drill tailored to Gilgeous-Alexander’s particular skill set. “You’re working on playing at your own pace and playing through contact because you can’t go full speed,” Simplis said. “And so you’re getting used to the bumps and the bruises while you’re still maintaining full control of the basketball.”

If SGA boasts a signature move, it’s the bump stepback—a culmination of all the training he’s done with both Ilic and Simplis. Gilgeous-Alexander’s shoulder has always been an unexpectedly devastating force of nature—just ask Danny Green about what it did to him back in 2019, when SGA was a skin-and-bones rookie. But the physicality of when Shai lowers his shoulder is mostly sleight of hand. It’s not necessarily the bump that dislodges the defender; it’s what the bump signals. SGA’s body language on a drive suggests forward momentum, so the defender slides back accordingly. But upon contact, in an almost simultaneous motion, Gilgeous-Alexander is already slamming his brakes to create an exaggerated window of separation. There is invariably a lag time for the defender as they recalibrate—by then, it’s likely too late. This is nothing new. Nash is quick to bring up that the bump stepback was 15-year NBA vet Sam Cassell’s go-to move—Cassell, now a Celtics assistant coach, literally has an instructional video on it. “Sam used to get it on that left block and left shoulder into the chest, and as he hits your chest, he’s dribbling and spinning back over the right shoulder for the fadeaway,” Nash said. “And it looks like nothing. It’s almost an imperceivable bump.”

But no one does it quite like Shai, if only because no one else can. The single most illustrative play of SGA’s career to date might just be the bump stepback he executed against hapless Latvian guard Arturs Zagars at the 2023 FIBA World Cup:

Just as Gilgeous-Alexander’s shoulder makes contact with Zagars’s chest, Shai adopts the mechanics of a tennis slide to decelerate, angling his shin and ankle such that he can use the side of his foot as a brake system. But while tennis players have ample room to come to a stop, SGA controls the timing of his slide amid contact and spatial constraints to the degree that he’s able to seamlessly pop back into shooting position. The result? A frictionless stepback—an evolution of a modern classic.

The rivalry brewing between Edwards and Gilgeous-Alexander is compelling for myriad reasons, though it’s their contrasting aesthetics of play that are most fascinating. Edwards is irrepressibly explosive, with an athletic charisma that evokes a certain nostalgia—the kind that would lead an NBA legend like Kevin Garnett to compare him to ’84 Jordan. There are no convenient parallels for SGA; all the lines he draws run askew. But the more Gilgeous-Alexander has refined his patterns of dominance, the more he has come to resemble another all-time great: Novak Djokovic, an athlete whose otherworldly flexibility and endurance have altered not only the way tennis is played, but the ways in which each phase of the game could be conceived.

Nash—a lifelong tennis player and fan who has trained at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Mallorca, Spain—indulged my uncommon comparison: “I see what you mean—the limber flexibility. I think Djokovic uses that dexterity, flexibility to go from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. Shai kind of uses it to change gears,” Nash said. “Novak’s never in a rush either. He kind of knows he can play patty-cake for a minute here and lull you to sleep—a little bit of cat and mouse. And he allows them to either make mistakes or play themselves out of position. And that’s kind of what Shai does. He manipulates people. He is able to put you in a position to take the bait, and then he exploits you.

“I think that’s a very interesting analogy that only a few of your readership will get.”

That must be it, right? That must be the Way of Shai. As he bends, defenses break. The style is the substance. Shai’s successes are inextricable from his failures. He didn’t make his high school JV team as a freshman, missing the cut in favor of the coach’s son. His mom did not allow him to feel sorry for himself. “You could either cry about it or you could make them regret it,” she told him.

The world-class stepback? There was a time when he just couldn’t crack it. “That stepback initially—he wasn’t that good, so we would do it at night,” Simplis said. “He didn’t shoot it, and it didn’t feel comfortable to him.” Night after night, practicing after the actual workout, throughout the predraft process, throughout his rookie campaign with the Clippers.

When Gilgeous-Alexander first started working out with Ilic just before the fateful trade that sent him to Oklahoma City and Paul George to Los Angeles, Ilic looked at Shai incredulously. “Those first few days I was kind of shocked, thinking, Damn, this guy just played 82 games in an NBA season and he can barely hold a plank,” Ilic said. Ilic thought he’d start off with something basic: lateral speed workouts with a high-knee hurdle. Shai had no idea how to synchronize the movement of his arms with his knees. “He started poorly with almost everything that we’ve done,” Ilic said. “Everything was hard.”

This, more than anything else, is the Way of Shai: “I like failing,” Gilgeous Alexander said last year. “I like being bad at something, or not being where I want to be, and getting worse at it to then get better at it. I like breaking things down. And then going crazy on it.”

That was the mentality that compelled Nash to take a chance on a 17-year-old on Team Canada’s senior men’s team for an Olympic qualifying tournament. Shai’s approach resonated with the 18-year veteran, an underdog and late bloomer his entire career. “It is a lot of dirty work where it’s not pretty and you’ve got to stick with it. And if you want to come out the other side, you’re going to have to have a lot of ugly days—days where other players would be like, I’m just not good at that, I’ll stop doing that,” Nash said. “But if you’re able to persevere, you get this breakthrough and then you’ve added something profound to your game or your skill set.”

Ilic and SGA joke about those early days. It never takes too long for Shai to master the routines. They looked at a picture of Shai from his rookie season. “His legs have probably doubled in size,” Ilic said. For Simplis, working with Shai has always been easy. If anything, it’s put the pressure back on him: to match the level of dedication, to bring his own A game. “His level of focus towards the game of basketball is in line with the great ones,” Simplis said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “I’ve never had the privilege to work with Michael, but I’ve witnessed Kobe work out multiple times. And I know it’s premature, but that thing right there that they have, this kid has.”

As for Nash, who, for decades, has stood alone as Canada basketball’s guiding light, he couldn’t help but feel goosebumps watching Gilgeous-Alexander at last summer’s World Cup, earning the bronze medal and securing Canada’s first Olympic berth since 2000, when Nash was captain. “What an amazing thing for me to watch this generation, to watch Shai lead this generation and play at such an incredibly high level,” Nash said. “I mean, if he’s not already, he’ll be the best Canadian to ever play the game—and in short order.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has entered the conversations he’s always dreamed of being a part of. “I want to be known as one of the best players to play the game,” he’s said. “I’ve wanted that since I could remember.” Could that claim be true? There is video of Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin Alexander-Walker playing in a youth league circa 2008. They’re 9 years old. Was that dream with him then? Nickeil (wearing no. 13) is the clear star of the clip: perfect shooting mechanics; great vision and touch on overhead hook passes; an exaggerated, low-to-the-ground defensive stance straight out of martial arts class. Shai (wearing no. 11) is featured only once. He lacks the panache of his cousin, but the seed from which he emerged is there in the pixelated frames. Upon receiving a pass from Nickeil on the left block, Shai throws a ball fake to confuse two defenders. He takes a lethargic initial dribble before a more explosive, long-striding second dribble to get around the defense for a layup. It’s a setup not far removed from the way he confounds defenders in the NBA today. It’s an impressive understanding of tempo shifts and how to prey on expectations.

But it isn’t the work of a prodigy. If it weren’t for the benefit of hindsight, there would be no meaning imbued in this fleeting moment of a 9-year-old doing 9-year-old things. Still, it helps to have a token signifying both order and origin—a nascent, wisping curl of a cirrus cloud forecasting change on the horizon. A sense that, amid SGA’s rise and rise and rise, the unique rhythms, mechanics, and style that have made him an MVP-caliber superstar have always been there. Even if they haven’t always been apparent.

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