From window-shopping to MVP short list: Inside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's improbable two-decade rise

The player Stephen A. likes for NBA MVP over Nikola Jokic (1:11)

Stephen A. Smith explains why Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is his NBA MVP over Nikola Jokic. (1:11)

WITH 6:56 LEFT in the third quarter of what should have been a fairly routine game in early March, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knocked down an 18-foot jumper to give the Thunder what should have been an insurmountable 84-60 lead over Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns. Oklahoma City, as it had been all season, was cruising.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the Thunder had become the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, fueled by their young Big Three in Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams. The Suns, behind their own Big Three, were tied for sixth, just a game out of the play-in tournament. Two teams on opposite trajectories -- one fighting to play the part of an NBA contender, the other fighting just to stay in the show.

Then, with their season teetering, Durant, a former MVP and two-time champion, answered with a 3. Forty-six seconds later, Grayson Allen added another one. Possession after possession, the Suns' onslaught continued unabated. For five minutes, the Thunder didn't answer, couldn't answer. By the end of the third, Oklahoma City's lead was down to 4.

A minute into the fourth quarter, it was gone completely. It was the kind of game young teams like the Thunder lose.

With his team down 5, Gilgeous-Alexander reentered the game with 8:27 left in the fourth quarter and calmly took over, powering an 18-5 run and leading the Thunder to a 118-110 win. It allowed OKC to remain atop the Western Conference standings for the second day this season -- exactly two days longer than anyone predicted for the league's second-youngest team.

The Thunder have become a contender this season ahead of even the most optimistic predictions because their 25-year-old MVP candidate continues to defy every expectation -- except his own.

This game, and the run that came to define it, is but one example of an improbable 20-year journey that began in the Toronto suburb of Hamilton, Ontario, extended to the bluegrass of Kentucky and continued to the NBA, in which Gilgeous-Alexander has been trying, planning, auditioning, to become the best basketball player on the planet.

"It's been the story of my life," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "I've always just gotten better."

He didn't make his high school's varsity team as a freshman. He didn't start until midway through his freshman season in college or as a rookie in the NBA. The Thunder didn't even think he'd be this good when they traded for him in 2019 as part of the deal that sent Paul George to the LA Clippers and started what has turned into a rapid rebuild.

This season Gilgeous-Alexander has improved at just about everything: scoring (30.4 PPG, third in the NBA), defense (a league-leading 2.1 steals per game), and learning how to control and win games like the one against the Suns in which he scored 11 of his game-high 35 points in the final six minutes.

"It's a mentality," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "The skill stuff I just hammer away at. But what makes a great player is how they carry that to the court. How they control fourth quarters and win games.

"LeBron [James] is LeBron because for 20 some odd years he's controlled games."

Gilgeous-Alexander was never ordained for greatness like James, whom Sports Illustrated anointed "The Chosen One" at the age of 15.

Yet he said he always believed he would get there one day -- his mother made sure of that.

THE PLAYER WHO has mentored Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the most, and made the most impact on him, is someone he played with for just 17 months.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in Oklahoma City, Chris Paul saw qualities and values in the then-21-year-old that mirrored his own: the unrelenting devotion to routine, the almost compulsive eye for details, the ability to see the longest view.

Gilgeous-Alexander was constantly over at Paul's condominium that year, trying to soak in as much as he could from one of the greatest point guards of all time. They trained together. Ate breakfasts and dinners together. Went to G League games and talked hoops for hours.

"Shai is just a basketball junkie," Paul tells ESPN. "Even now, we might be on the phone watching a game, just talking about what we see."

But just as Paul is about to continue describing a player he now considers family, he stops.

"You cannot write this story without talking to his mom," he says. "Hold on. I'll call her."

He patches her in.

"You OK?" she asks Paul, figuring he'd be calling her during the season only if something were amiss.

They've become close over the years. So close that she makes a point to attend Paul's games in Toronto each year, no matter which team he's on.

Paul assures her everything is fine. That he just wants to make sure her role in raising her son is fully understood.

Charmaine Gilgeous introduces herself as "a sprinter." And indeed she was -- competing in the 400 meters at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona for Antigua and Barbuda.

But she's referring to a mentality, not just her résumé.

"I never ran anything over 400 meters," she says. "That means I know what the goal is, and I don't do anything until I get the goal. That's how I'm orientated. And I knew I needed my kids to be like this. I had to raise them that way."

She never made a lot of money as a social worker, she says. The family had to move around often. There were constant pressures.

"No matter how horrible a situation looked, if I had to cry or scream, I would wait until they went to bed," she says. "They would never see me sweat. They would never see me frustrated."

This is where Gilgeous-Alexander gets his discipline, he says. This is why he seems so unflappable on the court.

"If you know his mom," Paul says, "you know him."

SINCE IT OPENED with a lavish, $75-per-person party in 1979, the Holt Renfrew store on Bloor Street in Toronto has been the place to go for those who like to dress to impress. It is a massive store. Four levels, a fancy chocolate shop inside, marble floors, hundreds of luxury designers and brands.

Charmaine Gilgeous used to take her sons, Shai and Thomasi, there to window-shop, spending leisurely afternoons dreaming about the kind of life they might one day lead if they worked hard and let nothing get in the way of their goals.

At the time, she was just thinking about guiding her boys to college and then steady jobs. But she didn't tamp down on any of the lofty dreams they had about being the next Kobe Bryant or Cristiano Ronaldo or Kevin Durant.

So Gilgeous took them window-shopping Saturdays. It was their routine. Forty-five minutes each way on the subway.

They'd wear polo shirts and slacks, look at all the Guccis and Versaces, grab a bite to eat at a restaurant in the city's so-called Mink Mile, then head back to Hamilton.

As a single mom, Gilgeous had a few nonnegotiables for her sons. Homework had to come first. Food had to be healthy. And no matter what was going on in their lives, they would always dress nicely.

"I don't play about how you look," she said. "My kids could run amok in my house, but when they stepped out that door, you better, as we say, 'fix up.'

"You better get it together."

"Growing up we'd always try to dress and look the part," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "That was very important. When we left the house, it was like, make sure your collar is down, make sure your shirt is not wrinkled. Make sure there's no boogers in your nose. Make sure there's nothing in your eyes."

This was about vision, not vanity. About looking the part even if you're not able to play it yet. About establishing routines, habits, a vision for the future.

Dress for the life you want to have, not where you are.

"You step out of the house, you look the part. You're representing the family," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "And that kind of transferred into what it is now."

What it is now is what Gilgeous-Alexander always believed it could be: That he could one day be on the short list for the NBA's Most Valuable Player.

Gilgeous-Alexander has said he has dreamed of winning an MVP since he was 6 years old. In high school, he and his cousin, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, would talk about their NBA dreams late into the night.

"We would stay up for hours talking about what we want to accomplish, where we wanted to go," Alexander-Walker said. "I remember him saying it then, too."

THUNDER GENERAL MANAGER Sam Presti likes to tell a story about a call and a visit he had with Jerry Krause, the architect of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

Krause was older and not in great health, but he wanted to get to know Presti and talk with him about his philosophies. Presti accepted the invitation.

"This guy was a baseball scout, too," Presti said in 2023. "He took it so serious, and he was talking about these, he called them 'electric moments' when you're scouting a player and you see something.

"It's a glimpse of something, and you stand up and you look around and you go, 'I hope that no one else saw that.'"

For Presti, the "electric moment" with Gilgeous-Alexander came during that 2019-20 season when he saw him playing against Paul during a practice. There was just something about the way Gilgeous-Alexander was competing, Presti said, something about the way he was finishing baskets that made Presti think he had found the next face of his franchise.

Presti had experienced that feeling before. He had famously drafted and developed Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden a decade and a half earlier and was at the beginning of what he hoped would be a similar rebuild around Gilgeous-Alexander.

Recognizing those "electric moments" is just one part of the process, however. Creating the right environment for great players to thrive is even more important.

"I do think that's one thing that sometimes in the league today is missing," Presti said in 2023. "People are not challenging.

"A relationship can't be built on appeasement, at least no relationship that I've seen be successful that way. ... You have to challenge and continually raise the bar."

The statement largely went unnoticed at the time. Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder had just wrapped up their season with a loss to the Timberwolves in the play-in tournament. The rest of the league was focused on the playoffs.

But the foundation of the giant leap Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder were about to take were there for all to see.

It was time to stop window-shopping. He had spent long enough looking the part. It was time to play it.

WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY coach Mark Daigneault visited his star player in his hometown two summers ago, it was as if he'd been invited by a project manager who wanted to show his colleague how he had optimized every part of his day.

Each morning, Gilgeous-Alexander would text his friends, telling them when he'd be by to pick them up. Around 9 a.m., they'd arrive at a local church gym to play. After that they'd come back to his house and lift kettlebells for hours. He didn't have much equipment and it was hard to get anything new into the country at the time, so he'd do pushups, pullups and whatever else he could with resistance bands.

"They're all in sync with each other," Daigneault said. "He shows up and all the rebounders are in there. They know the drills. Then he drives to the house and the trainers are there. The garage door opens, and they start training. Then they go home and the chef is there preparing their lunch and the dog runs to the door."

He began this routine in 2020, Gilgeous-Alexander said, after the season shut down for four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There was nothing to do, so I tried to be as strict and as organized as I could," he said. "I tried to be on more scheduled times."

The Thunder were stunned at his body's transformation when the team reconvened at the bubble in Orlando, Florida, in July.

"He was on a mission," Daigneault said. "We had three weeks of practice before we started playing games. I was an assistant coach at the time, and we were playing against each other for a bunch of time. Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul were on one team and he was on the other, and that was the first time you were like, 'Whoa.'

"He had the ball a little bit more, and he wasn't trying to fit in as much with those guys. He was just kind of rocking, and it was also on the heels of all that work. So the convergence of those two things ... . Everybody recognized that maybe there's another gear here.

"He wasn't this good when we traded for him. He's forged himself into this player."

Gilgeous said her son has always been set in his routines. If bed time was 9 p.m., he wouldn't answer a FaceTime at 8:45 because it was going to mess with his timing. He has always thrived, she said, on structure and order and had no trouble adhering to it.

His handwriting is exceptionally neat. His clothes always fashion-forward and sleek. He drives a Tesla Cybertruck around town, and it is always clean.

His teammates notice little things like the red apple he eats before every game and the pregame routines he adheres to religiously. But no one sees every detail. And Gilgeous-Alexander isn't about to call attention to himself. That's not how his mother raised him.

"I don't like overhyped kids. I can't stand cocky people," she said. "I raise confident people. I don't raise cocky people or loud people. The loud ones, you guys are doing too much. You've got too much insecurity. The confident, private people, you know you're good, but you just don't need credit from anybody else."

Daigneault marvels at Gilgeous-Alexander's consistency.

"None of it's complicated," Daigneault said. "It's the diligence and commitment with which he does it. That's what makes it exceptional."

And exceptional it is.

Consider this season's stats: Gilgeous-Alexander ranks second on the team in miles traveled per game but has the second slowest average speed doing so, every move purposeful and deliberate. He has scored between 30 and 34 points in 34 games, the most in a season in NBA history. He leads the league in drives per game at 23.7, the fourth-highest total since tracking began in 2013-14. The only player he trails? Himself, in three prior seasons. He leads the league in isolation efficiency, scoring 1.24 points per isolation possession, the highest among players to have run 250 or more such plays since tracking began.

And he's on pace to be the third player to average 30 points per game, 2 steals per game and 50% shooting in a season since 1973-74, joining Stephen Curry and Michael Jordan.

Gilgeous-Alexander is getting all kinds of attention and credit for the Thunder's success this season. But there's little doubt he has already thought through how to recalibrate to optimize his performance with the challenges that will come.

That mentality has been on display every night he takes the court this year. He's finally playing the part he dreamed of all those years ago, walking through the fancy department store.

"It's like I'm addicted to the feeling of getting better," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "I've made it this far. I've worked this hard. And I can only do it for 10 more years, if I'm lucky.

"So why not, these next 10 years, give them my everything and see what I can be?"