Paul didn’t have to be this guy to these players, particularly Gilgeous-Alexander. Turns out, you can compete and mentor at the same time.
Last week, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the influence of a player like Paul can be huge, assuming the younger players have the character to accept mentorship.
“Who knew Shai knew how to play post defense like that,” Paul said.
It’s fitting that Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander were a part of this weekend together. At the end of a long January, the Thunder polished off a win in Phoenix and had two days off before returning to practice. Paul was going home again.
“He likes to jump on pump fakes,” Paul said unprompted on Saturday in Chicago.
Chris Paul was going home to see his family in Los Angeles. Paul extended an invitation to Gilgeous-Alexander — who played in L.A. his first year in the NBA — to join him on the flight.
When camp opened, however, Paul was spending more time in post-practice with Gilgeous-Alexander and 19-year-old Darius Bazley than anyone else.
Then, Paul couldn’t resist. All season, the two have gone playfully back and forth at each other like brothers. Paul will quip with a southern style straight out of a Winston-Salem barbershop. Gilgeous-Alexander will attack back with Hamilton, Ontario-bred politeness that suppresses a comeback that was meant to bite.
“Any time there’s any individual accolades and honors, it’s always a shared, team thing. Everybody is a part of that.”
“It’s a great honor from Chris’s perspective, it being his 10th All-Star, him maybe having to battle through some injuries the last several years,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “… for him to put the work in the way he’s put in, for him to help our team the way he’s helped our team, and for him to be recognized.
It doesn’t hurt that Gilgeous-Alexander has made a leap in his play in Year 2. It’s not just Gilgeous-Alexander benefiting from Paul.
Amid the jokes, Paul doesn’t forget to build up the Thunder’s rising star.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to play multiple roles in the offense has helped Paul save his scoring energy and assume responsibility in the fourth quarter as the Thunder’s primary composer. In the fourth quarter this season, the Thunder are No. 1 in the NBA in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage with Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul playing together (min. 200 minutes), and are sixth in net rating (22.5).
Paul reassured him on the way out. I’m not gonna leave without you.
“Chris is an alpha. He’s a natural leader. He takes no prisoners. He suffers no fools. He’s there to win, and Timmy (Duncan) was the same way. When you have somebody like that it really influences the entire crowd for sure.”
It initially seemed like Gilgeous-Alexander was irresponsible, forgetting to prepare before the Thunder set off on a road trip. But this was a different opportunity.
The tone was similar at every stop: skepticism about Paul’s fit in Oklahoma City.
“You’re crazy if you like him,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Just like he said he would be, Paul was courtside Friday night at the United Center. Gilgeous-Alexander was playing for Team World in the Rising Stars game and Paul was there with his wife and children.
Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t as frantic as before in Oklahoma City but still anxious, wide-eyed like a kid who’d been pranked too many times by friends. He couldn’t be late.
“I know I’m probably like a burden on Shai at times,” Paul told the media Saturday in Chicago. “I think about a lot of coaches I’ve played for like Doc (Rivers). People always said that me and Doc didn’t get along, but there’s a lot of stuff that Doc said to me that I still use all the time. It’s like that even with my coach (at Wake Forest) Skip Prosser.
The role of mentorship is often cast upon older players before they’re ready or willing. Some react defiantly, refusing to groom the person who will eventually take their place.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was in a panic. He was asked to speak to the media. He didn’t pack a bag.
When the Thunder acquired Paul in a July trade with Houston for Russell Westbrook, Paul arrived in Oklahoma City at a crossroads, which left questions about what role he’d assume next.
BARACK OBAMA SHAKES SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER’S HAND, AND TELLS HIM HE’S DOING GOOD. OBAMA ASKS SHAI IF CP3 IS TEACHING HIM ANYTHING. WHAT A COOL A MOMENT.
“Some young guys can’t because they think they know everything,” Popovich said. “If the young player can understand what a Chris Paul can give them, then it’s a huge boon to his career.
“So some of the stuff I say to Shai all the time sometimes he don’t want to hear it, but he’s starting to see.”
One is the Thunder’s present, a 34-year-old future Hall of Famer who will go down as one the finest point guards in NBA history. One is the Thunder’s future, a 21-year-old with the potential to become one of Canada’s greatest players.
There was a verbal exchange between James Harden and Paul during the playoffs about style of play in a second-round loss to the Warriors. Paul’s previous three seasons were hindered by injuries, which didn’t make the remaining three years and $124 million on his contract look like a good investment. To start the season, from city to city, the chatter about Paul – from media members to scouts to front office executives who talked to The Athletic – came with a tone of toxicity and inevitability.
Still, Paul was coming into a team with two other point guards (Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder) and less talent than some of the retooled Western Conference teams. Dating back to the Clippers, Paul has consistently been a part of some of the most veteran-laden teams in the NBA. Now, he was playing with four rotation players under the age of 21.
Paul then showed up in Oklahoma City healthy. (He started a plant-based diet in June even before he knew he was going to be traded.) The Thunder had a history of trading for players with imperfect reputations (Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, Dennis Schroder) and helping them. Without Paul George or Westbrook, Paul would become the unquestioned leader rather than having to balance with another superstar.
The Rising Stars game is rarely taken seriously, but Paul saw some serious habits rubbing off. The ball went out of bounds and Gilgeous-Alexander quickly tried to get it to the official so the World Team could rush down court. That’s a Paul staple.
“But Shai’s going to be so good.”
The Thunder had a couple of days before their next game in November and Gilgeous-Alexander was legitimately freaking out, scared he’d miss his opportunity. The 21-year-old was so pressed for time, or so he thought, that he begged a Thunder staffer to pack a bag for him (this did not happen) while he fulfilled his media duties.
Gilgeous-Alexander is comfortable enough in their relationship to throw shade at Paul in a conversation with President Barack Obama. At an NBA Cares community event Thursday in Chicago, Obama called Paul “his guy.”
Besides LeBron James (16 All-Star appearances), no player voted to the 2020 All-Star team has as many appearances as Paul’s 10. But Paul has gone four years in between All-Star appearances, his last coming in 2016. Other than this year’s first-time All-Stars, Paul has gone longer in between appearances than any player selected to Chicago.
— FARBOD ESNAASHARI (@FARBOD_E) FEBRUARY 15, 2020
For as long as Paul is in Oklahoma City, there will always be eyes on the relationship between Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s a relationship that has illuminated Paul’s influence on the Thunder and it’s only appropriate that the two experienced NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago together.
Paul has consistently used his media platform to send messages to Gilgeous-Alexander about his defense. After Gilgeous-Alexander won a game for the Thunder on the road with his post defense in the fourth quarter against Charlotte, Paul’s first comment was like a warning shot to keep Gilgeous-Alexander humble and hungry.