Or what he’s like at game time. “I don’t celebrate too much. I’m not yelling at the refs all game. I know what I need to do every night and I go out and do it then I go home,” he says. “I guess I’m just comfortable in my own skin. Whatever I want to do, I can do. If I don’t wanna do something, I won’t do it. I’m confident in myself.” That’s another one of his parents’ secrets. They instilled courage in their sons. To nurture them. To protect them. How you carry yourself and present yourself to the rest of the world is massively important, they would tell Shai. You have to have a sense of work ethic if you are to succeed, they’d drill into Shai. They pushed him early, so no one would have to later. “Honestly, I’m not trying to show people nothing,” he says. “I’m not tryna’ impress nobody.”
Shai believes that he’s more transparent than we give him credit for: his game is more elite than we think, his style is more audacious than we believe and, his cadence is bolder than we know. He just refuses to raise his voice for you to notice what should be obvious.
“I know what I want to do with this game and ultimately, very few do,” Shai tells me. “I knew that if I got an opportunity, that I’d work hard enough and take advantage of it.” He thinks about his time before blowing up with the University of Kentucky’s legendary hoops program: how, as a high schooler from Canada sharing a bedroom with Nickeil in their coach’s home in Tennessee, he didn’t make the McDonald’s All-American Game. How he only had one offer from lowly Binghamton University, and how, upon signing with Kentucky, he became the team’s lowest-rated recruit. There’s a big gap from there to here: getting picked 11th pick by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2018, and now signing a max contract—five years, $172 million —extension with OKC this summer. “Ever since then, I never looked back. I want to be one of the best point guards to ever play,” he says. “I’m not playing this game just to be a good basketball player. I want to be one of the greatest to ever play.”
His first season in the league seemed from the outside to be a success story. He made the All-Rookie Second Team in the NBA and looked like the Clippers’s future at point guard. But his resilience was tested early: Kawhi Leonard had instructed the team to trade for Paul George, and so Shai became a trade chip, sent to Oklahoma. He maintains that the trade didn’t rattle him. “It didn’t really sting,” he says. “But it was surprising. It showed me at the end of the day, the NBA is a business. That’s what it comes down to. My job is to play basketball. That’s what I get paid to do, right? Whatever city that’s in, it won’t matter. I’m just blessed it’s in OKC.”
You don’t notice it at first, but there’s a workmanlike quality to Shai. Weirdly, I’m reminded of hard-nosed, blue-collar players of the ‘90s and early 2000s: the unflashy Aaron McKie, or Manu Ginobili. Shai is an unlikely throwback to that era. One of the players he really looks up to, he says, is the decidedly unfussy Steve Nash. Just like many of his style choices, his perception of the world around him is vintage. Aged. Slow. Similar to his game on the court. Methodical even. It’s like the old adage: I shouldn’t have to tell you that fire is hot.