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Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to impress his coach and teammates

Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to impress his coach and teammates
Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander poses for a portrait during media day at the Clippers training facility in Playa Vista on Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a lottery pick in the NBA draft in June and a head-turner at summer league in July.

He didn’t accomplish everything he’d hoped during his first summer as a professional. Take the goal of adding weight to his 6-foot-6, 181-pound frame.

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“Yeah,” he said. “It didn’t go as planned.”

No matter. The Clippers believe their rookie guard is built for NBA success.

Coach Doc Rivers cautiously praised Gilgeous-Alexander as a potentially “special” talent last week but almost wished he hadn't, lest he create outsized expectations for the 20-year-old.

Such concerns apparently no longer bother the coach just two days into training camp.

“His vision, his size, his competitiveness, he’s got a chance to be a really special player,” Rivers said Wednesday. “He’s not going to be special tomorrow, but he may be special soon and he has it in him, there’s no doubt.”

His is not a lone opinion. It’s to the point that hearing Gilgeous-Alexander described as “special” is almost no longer a special occurrence.

“Potentially,” guard Patrick Beverley said, “a star in this league.”

Gilgeous-Alexander arrived here by way of childhood in Toronto, high school in Tennessee, one season of college at Kentucky and a trade from Charlotte, which picked him 11th in June’s draft. He wore a floral-print suit on draft night, then held more attention in Las Vegas summer league by averaging 19.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He used his nearly 7-foot wingspan to collect 2.3 steals per game while guarding multiple positions.

“I feel like Shai can be a special defensive player,” guard Avery Bradley said.

The same hesitation dribble he used to carve a path into the lane in Las Vegas was again on display Tuesday in Honolulu, as he drove left-handed for a contested layup during a drill simulating late-game scenarios during the Clippers’ first practice of training camp.

One day later, Hall of Famer and team consultant Jerry West, whose own rookie season began 58 years ago, waited to speak with Gilgeous-Alexander as he walked off the court.

“I don’t know if you can attack him,” Rivers said. “Honestly, he’s too long, too athletic. What I love about him offensively is you’ve got Avery Bradley and Pat Beverley guarding you every day in practice and it doesn’t affect him at all. He’s just so big that it has no impact on him.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is one of nine guards competing for playing time on a 20-man camp roster that eventually will be cut to 15. That roster construction was by design. The Clippers used a forward-heavy roster last season and the decision bit them as injuries whittled down an already thin backcourt . Seven guards missed a combined 183 games.

How Gilgeous-Alexander emerges from this expanded guard competition, despite his early praise, remains to be seen. Rivers is allowing any noncenter to bring the ball up the floor and no longer wants the offense to initiate solely through a point guard’s call. That point was emphasized during a portion of Wednesday’s practice in which players were prohibited from speaking as a way of forcing them to read and react to the defense.

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“If we can do what we did today, every day, we’ll be pretty good,” Rivers said.

Gilgeous-Alexander feels “good” about his absorption of the playbook, but knows his slight build will be a target for opposing defenders. Beverley, who hounded then-Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball into a miserable three-point debut last season, has similarly turned up the pressure by getting “first dibs” on guarding Gilgeous-Alexander.

Gilgeous-Alexander counters by never playing faster than he is comfortable.

“Shooting will come, passing that will come and scoring comes over so much time as you get stronger,” Beverley said. “But the size that he has — 6-5, 6-6 — to be able to play at his own pace and not get sped up is real rare in this league.”

Some might even call it special.

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