SGA and Lu Dort: The Yin and Yang Of Leadership

On Canada's -- and Oklahoma City's -- leaders.

After earning Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Canada has put the basketball world on notice. But it’s only the beginning for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global powerhouse in the sport. In preparation for the 2024 Olympics in France, I take a look at some of the individual journeys of the eccentric personalities that comprise Canada’s Men’s Basketball team. You can find the rest of the series here.

It’s strange being the veterans of a team at ages 25 and 24 years old, respectively like both Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Lu Dort are for the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

But this isn’t necessarily anything new. Both Shai and Dort have been on the Thunder since 2019, and they’ve seen all the different iterations of this team: young, younger, and younger than that. 

Of course, hailing from Canada, the relationship the two have developed with one another started much earlier than their debuts in Oklahoma. 

“When I first met Lu, he didn’t even really know English,” said SGA to a scrum of media members as the Thunder arrived in town in mid-March to play the Toronto Raptors. 

“Come on bro,” Dort answered from the back — listening in on the scrum. 

The media shared a laugh with them as they hashed out conflicting origin stories. Eventually, Dort succumbed and Shai went on to describe the growth he’s seen from his long-time Canadian teammate: 

“His growth on and off the court. He’s been one of those guys who has been overlooked for the majority of his career. To see him kind of persevere through that and become who he is –  that’s special.” 

Dort is enjoying his most efficient season. He’s knocking down a career-high of his threes, finishing inside the paint more often – and generally, has gotten better at picking and choosing his spots in the Thunder’s high-octane offense. 

“He’s had a breakout season especially more from an identity standpoint,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault about Dort’s growth this year. “He’s always been a great competitor, great defender, and a fearless offensive player, which I don’t think should be taken for granted. Sometimes those defensive guys, you have to beg them to play offense. And he’s never been like that. He’s always been aggressive.” 

That aggressiveness has been harnessed now and the reasoning for that is simple, especially in Dort’s mind: He got a taste of what competitive basketball felt like this summer with Team Canada, and coming into the season, he was willing to do whatever it took to help OKC do the same. 

It’s for that reason that Dort has become a quiet, soft-spoken leader for this Thunder team. While OKC now has Gordan Hayward, Bismack Biyombo, and Kenrich Williams as true veterans, Dort is the everyday man’s veteran – an embodiment of what it means to take pleasure in doing the less-than-glamorous things required for the greater good of the team. 

“Everybody wants to be the star,” says star guard and MVP candidate Gilgeous-Alexander. “Everybody wants to score 100 points. And to find guys that do the little things, play their role at 100 percent, and sacrifice the majority of their game for the team is hard to find, especially at this level. We have so many guys on the team that do that. And it’s the reason we have success. So people like Lu don’t go unnoticed, especially in our locker room, and we appreciate them.” 

Becoming a master of your domain, however big or small, is a tough task. Gilgeous-Alexander understands that concept very well. He’s made every nook and cranny of the basketball court his domain as one of the most formidable scorers in the league. 

I don’t have to detail his resume because you already know. He just became the Canadian Athlete of the Year after a First Team All-NBA 2023 season and leading Canada to Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, hitting dagger shots over international powerhouses. And now his current MVP-worthy 2023-2024 season, his best yet, pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder from play-in participants to full-blown championship contenders in just a single season. 

“It’s been a blessing. A lot of people put in work and do a lot of the right things, but aren’t blessed with the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with. So a little bit of it is humbling, just to know that everything I’ve done has worked out and paid off. There’s a little bit of luck going into it. But it’s everything that a kid from Canada could ask for,” said SGA about his meteoric rise. 

It’s easy to see the through-line from Canada’s rise internationally in basketball and the Thunder’s rise in the NBA. It’s some of the same players, after all, at the core of each program. In both cases, when you have the talent and identity, success is bound to follow. 

But there’s another parallel aspect that should be highlighted, especially when it comes to Dort and SGA: commitment. 

Both players were first in line to pledge themselves to the three-year commitment Canada Basketball asked for. And both, even through some rough stretches of Thunder basketball, stayed committed to the long-term vision the organization had. 

Seeing the success that Team Canada had this summer, winning a bronze medal and clinching a spot in the Olympics, only added to their resolve that the same can happen with Oklahoma City. 

“They took a tremendous amount of pride in how historic that was,” said Coach Daigneault. “They weren’t just like playing ball in the FIBA games, they knew what they were representing. And I thought they took that very seriously. And you could feel that and how they talked about it leading up to it and coming out of it. I thought, for different reasons. It was great for both of them and great for us to see that same mentality transition to the season.” 

Daigneault went on to mention how both players picked up things from their FIBA experience. Lu learned to pick and choose his spots more. And Shai dealt with even more comprehensive defensive coverages, targeted at limiting his scoring in a playoff-like environment. 

“We’ve had a young team, but we’ve always had this fearless spirit to us and it starts with him (Shai),” said Daigneault. “He has just learned from every single competitive experience. He’s not afraid of any situation. He’s not afraid of any matchup. And that has a contagious effect.” 

In that sense, both Shai and Dort are perfect yin and yang as far as leaders go in the Thunder locker room. While Dort helms the role players, Shai’s demeanor provides a calming effect for everyone on the roster. 

And now… the time is here for them to prove it again. With a playoff spot clinched, the Thunder will have their first big test this postseason, and with all the questions about experience, it’s safe to say that the team will look to Dort and SGA in times of need. 

“We’ll see how we respond to different situations that we’re in,” said Daigneault. “As it relates to experience, there’s only one way to become experienced: go through the experiences. And so we’ve gotten through some great experiences that are at a young stage of our team. We’ll continue to accumulate them, we’ll be successful, and some of them will fall short, and others will learn from both and will grow through every experience that we have.” 

In that sense, the FIBA World Cup was a blessing for both Dort and Shai – who have a combined total of 19 games of playoff experience under their belt. Instead of playoff experience, they have ‘we need to win this game against Spain or else our Olympic chances are toast’ experience – and that in itself can galvanize a player and prepare them for the next time they’re faced with an adverse situation, which likely will happen in the postseason. 

There’s no telling how the rest of the Thunder roster will react to the pressures of playoff basketball. Who will sink and who will swim? 

But if this past summer was any indication of how Shai and Dort will lead them through times of peril – it’s safe to say they’re in good hands.