By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the man for Oklahoma City in just his third year in the NBA.
The Thunder surprised the league last season by making the playoffs, but veterans Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams are no longer with the team. Even with all of those established players on the roster, Gilgeous-Alexander was the team’s leading scorer. He averaged 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Now, the franchise expects the 22-year-old swingman to carry more of the load.
“It’s something I’m excited about,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think I’ve worked hard enough to deserve that responsibility and trust from Sam (Presti) and the rest of the front office and the rest of the coaching staff. But really, I’m just ready to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given.”
Gilgeous-Alexander joins Lu Dort and Darius Bazley as the key holdovers from a young core that helped push Houston to seven games in the playoffs last season. Dort and Bazley were rookies who quickly proved themselves ready for the NBA.
“I think all those guys have been pushed to limits in which they’re uncomfortable,” said Presti, the Thunder general manager. “They’ve shown the ability to bounce back from setbacks. That’s a big part of our organization. It’s the reason why I think we’ve had success with some younger players over time, the resiliency they’ve shown.”
Gilgeous-Alexander went into the summer knowing his role likely would change.
“My biggest thing was getting my body ready for the bigger task at hand in terms of loads and things like that,” he said. “So I put on a little bit of weight, I got in better shape, I played a little bit more. Just being ready for the opportunity.”
Dort, 21, was on a two-way contract when he worked his way into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 6.8 points per game and started 28 of the 36 regular-season NBA games he played in. He gained visibility by using his defensive intensity and solid frame to make things difficult for Houston’s James Harden in the playoffs. He scored 30 points in Game 7 against the Rockets, and now, he’s on a full NBA contract.
“He was playing because we had some injuries and we didn’t have anybody really to play in that position without really I guess jumbling up the rotation,” Presti said. “He got thrown out there and didn’t fail. Next thing you know, he’s Lu Dort.”
Bazley started nine games last season as a backup to Gallinari. He was especially good in the regular-season bubble games. In one three-game stretch, he averaged 22 points and 8.7 rebounds on 56% shooting.
Now just 20, the 6-foot-8 forward compared the new situation to graduating from high school. He said he put in the work during the shortened offseason to take the next step.
“There’s been plenty of time to do much of everything,” Bazley said. “For the whole offseason, I worked, I lifted. I got on the court and worked on my game. It wasn’t as short as some people may think it is or what it may have seemed.”
Presti said the three have the right mental tools to handle the challenge.
“I hope they recognize that we’re putting some faith in them both on and off the court,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. As a young player, I think you want that, you want that challenge, the opportunity to prove yourself. They’re going to get that opportunity.”
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