OKLAHOMA CITY — With time winding down in the first half, Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dribbled the ball near mid-court.
Despite a strong shooting first quarter, Gilgeous-Alexander missed both of his shot attempts in the second frame. As Chicago Bulls guard Zach Lavine came out to challenge him, Gilgeous-Alexander aggressively attacked the rim, seemingly searching for his shot to end the half.
Gilgeous-Alexander made it to the rim but quickly kicked the ball out to center Al Horford, who calmly sank a 3-pointer to end the first half.
Although the Thunder lost Wednesday’s preseason game to the Bulls 124-103, that play, and the 18 minutes Gilgeous-Alexander was on the floor, gave fans another look at how the team’s offense may function this year with Gilgeous-Alexander at the helm.
The point guard’s command of the offense was fully on display on Wednesday. Gilgeous-Alexander regularly handled the ball in halfcourt sets and his teammates primarily looked to outlet the ball to him after defensive rebounds.
Gilgeous-Alexander finished the first quarter playing all 12 minutes, leading the team in points, assists and shot attempts. His night ended at halftime, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds and three assists on 4 of 8 shooting.
During a media availability earlier this year, Gilgeous-Alexander said he is comfortable playing as a lead ball handler.
“I’ve been a lead guard, a point guard my whole life,” he said. “So yeah, I’ve just been getting back to what I’m used to.”
That elevated role shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. The third-year guard led Oklahoma City at 19 points-per-game last season and averaged 3.3 assists, which ranked third behind recently traded guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder.
However, Gilgeous-Alexander spent large portions of last season playing off the ball, leaving Paul and Schroder as the team’s lead handlers of the ball.
Through the team’s early preseason schedule, Gilgeous-Alexander has proven capable of making plays with the ball in his hands. The Thunder’s offense was mostly fine with Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor on Wednesday — the team scored 26 points in the first quarter — though the offense struggled when he went to the bench.
The Thunder’s second unit scored just seven points in the second quarter before Gilgeous-Alexander reentered at the 6:48 mark. The second unit, led by the team’s now longest-tenured player, Hamidou Diallo, struggled to score without a true playmaker.
It’s possible newly acquired guards George Hill, who sat during Wednesday’s game, and Frank Jackson could help with the Thunder’s offense when Gilgeous-Alexander. Jackson finished with 15 points, two rebounds and one assist.
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault praised Jackson.
“He’s got great poise. He was a stabilizing factor for us in the second quarter,” Daigneault said. “He’s kind of a security blanket for us.”
Sophomore forward Dariuz Bazley, who made his preseason debut Wednesday, also showed flashes of being a competent secondary ball handler to Gilgeous Alexander. Bazley finished with seven points and two assists while shooting 3 of 5 from the field.
“I thought he looked really good physically,” Daigneault said. “He’s getting the ball off the glass and pushing the ball in his transition. He played in some pick and rolls with the ball … I was pleased with how he played.”
With the Thunder trading away key pieces of last year’s squad and in a rebuilding mode, the offense may be expected to go through some growing pains.
Still, all indications point toward Gilgeous-Alexander being given every opportunity to be the Thunder’s current and future point guard and leader.