CHICAGO — In the NBA, Billy Donovan was saying, improvement is a little like throwing darts.
Some guys aren’t quite sure what to target, the Bulls coach said Wednesday. Their offseason work lacks focus. There’s no strategy.
It’s different with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“Guys can throw that dart all over the board not get any better,” Donovan said Wednesday night, before the Thunder and Bulls opened their seasons at the United Center. “(Gilgeous-Alexander) knows exactly how to pinpoint where he’s got to get better.”
A few hours later, Gilgeous-Alexander had proven his old coach prophetic.
His 31 points, five rebounds and 10 assists buried the Bulls in Oklahoma City’s 124-104 win, and along the way, SGA showed that maybe he’s not the same guy who made All-NBA first team a season ago.
Maybe he’s evolved. Again.
You could see it Wednesday in the floor game, the way Gilgeous-Alexander would glide by his first defender, then keep calm as help collapsed.
Somewhere there was a shooter somewhere to be found, and often he found one, helping key a 19-for-39 3-point shooting performance from OKC.
Some of those shots looked so effortless that late in the third quarter — after Gilgeous-Alexander assisted on a Cason Wallace corner triple — an apoplectic Bulls fan loudly groused, “Why is everybody open?!”
Probably because there was so much focus on the guy dealing those darts.
And he stayed cool enough to keep throwing bullseyes.
Sometimes it looked like he could do it with his eyes closed.
It’s a product of that work Donovan was talking about. Thunder coach Mark Daigneualt addressed it, too, saying of Gilgeous-Alexander after the game that, “it’s taken him a long time to be able to cruise like that and just for the game to slow down that much.”
That doesn’t just happen.
It’s “trial and error,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. It’s going through the ups and downs of an NBA season — he’s embarking on his sixth — and learning where he can add to his game. And what to cut.
“I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to have a long leash in the NBA,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “A lot of guys don’t. I try things and I work hard, and the things that work I try to stick to and I try to do the most often. And I guess as a result of it, it looks like it’s slowing down. But I’m just figuring myself out as I go through the league, like everybody else.”
Maybe not quite like everybody else.
Donovan before the game called him “an elite, great player,” and Gilgeous-Alexander looked the part as much as ever against the Bulls.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s approach over time is “a good lesson that can be applied to anybody on the team,” Daigneault said, and just as it was apparent Wednesday that Gilgeous-Alexander has grown, it was obvious that so many of his teammates are just starting the journey.
Take rookie Chet Holmgren.
The 7-foot-1 center had pedestrian numbers in his debut — 11 points, four rebounds, three assists, no blocks — and got his “welcome to the NBA” moment when veteran Andre Drummond stripped the ball from him, ran downcourt, dropped him with a dribble move and scored.
Holmgren got dunked on. More than once. But before the game Daigneault said Holmgren is the kind of competitor who would get dunked on “10 straight times” if that’s what the game called for, saying “the vulnerability of that is something that I really admire.”
He’ll block some of those dunks, too, Daigneault noted.
Holmgren didn’t do it against the Bulls, but he made 2 of 3 3-point attempts and 4 of 7 shots overall. He altered some shots at the rim. Still in what Daigneault called “the infant stages of his career,” he has the first experience he can draw from in attempting to mimic Gilgeous-Alexander’s growth.
“A lot of good and a lot that (Holmgren) can improve on,” Daigneault said. “He’s a competitor and he’s also a learner. He’s a junkie, so I have no doubt that he’s going to dive into every single game afterwards and learn from it.”
It’s true of so many Thunder contributors
OKC on Wednesday got 16 points each from Jalen Williams (22 years old) and Josh Giddey (21). Nineteen-year-old rookie Cason Wallace pitched in 11 points; second-year forward Ousmane Dieng, who turned 20 in May, had nine.
And there were encouraging signs against the Bulls for a team so young.
The Thunder weathered an early flurry from Chicago, which had 35 points in the first quarter and 69 in the final three. And it wasn’t so much a defensive adjustment, Daigneault said, as it was the Bulls cooling off. The Thunder defense, he said, was pretty good.
But his team needs “the maturity to differentiate between when we’re off track and when we’re on track and we just got to stay with it,” Daigneault said, and the Thunder did it in the opener.
Some nights it won’t.
It’s the nature of a young team. And Daigneault knows what he’s dealing with.
But it helps when your best player has put in his time at the dartboard, picking his targets over time and making the most of his throws.
“(Gilgeous-Alexander) is a guy that has put a lot of work in, he’s grown through his experiences and the game slowed down for him,” Daigneault said. “And if we have a team full of guys that do the same, then their games will evolve as well. Takes time, though.”