Shaggy of hair, gangly of limb and fresh of face, he could easily be mistaken for a high-school prefect rather than a potential hardwood hitman. Maybe that’s why opponents and pundits alike, never see him coming.
Certainly, Lebron James probably didn’t know much about the scrappy kid guarding him on the wing in a match-up against the Thunder last November. It shaped as your classic ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment. A jolting, often humiliating greeting – sometimes in the form of posterising dunk, an ankle-breaking crossover, or a nasty blocked shot, that serves to remind a precocious rookie that while you might have been the best player at every level you’ve hitherto played, you’re now sharing the floor with some of the best athletes on the planet. You’re not in Kansas, or in Giddey’s case, Canberra or Adelaide, anymore.
For Giddey, the moment was surreal as much as anything else. All of 18 years old at the time, he found himself on ‘an island’ guarding the man who calls himself ‘The King’, others the GOAT.
“I got switched into a pick and roll and Lebron iso’d me on the wing,” says Giddey, who’s back in Australia to visit family and friends and promote the NBA’s 75th Anniversary. “He was backing me down and I had to try to stop him. He’s obviously a strong, strong guy. It was a tough task. He shot a fade away and missed it, but just having to guard someone you’ve idolised your whole life and then here you are on the same floor as him. It was a pretty crazy moment.”
You can see why Giddey might have been feeling a little discombobulated. A surprise pick at number 6 in the 2021 draft, a year earlier he’d been playing for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL. The year before that he was a schoolboy at the NBA Academy in Canberra. Giddey would feel the same kind of psychological whiplash at the 2022 All-Star game, where he competed in the Rising Stars tournament and the Skills Challenge. It was only a few years ago that he’d been excited to watch an All-Star Game for the first time from the stands. “In 2019, I got to go and I was sitting right at the back in Chicago watching all my favourite players in the dunk contest, the three-point contest,” he recalls. “Three years later I’m competing at All-Star weekend. A lot changes in a couple of years.”
It certainly does. But if Giddey’s neck is hurting at the speed of his ascent, it took less than a handful of games before he began to look like he belonged on basketball’s biggest stage. In a stellar rookie season, he tallied 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game, winning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honours four times before a hip injury sidelined him in March. In the process Giddey became the youngest player ever to record a triple double, following that up with three more in consecutive games, joining Hall-of-Famer, Oscar Robertson, as the only rookies ever to achieve the feat.
At 6’ 8”, Giddey’s canny playmaking and x-ray court vision have seen him and All-Star teammate, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, form a formidable backcourt combination that with some help from the Thunder’s war chest of first-round draft picks, could help the team make a deep playoff run in the years ahead. Giddey knows you can’t rush the process (you’ve got to trust it, right?) but it’s clear he relishes the prospect of playoff basketball. “I want to win as many championships as I can, all with the Thunder,” he says. “I know we’re young but I think we can take it one step at a time, first make the playoffs and then win some rounds. You can’t make the jump from being a rebuilding team to winning a championship in one year. Those things take time. But we’ve got a really hungry young group. And I think if we get a little bit better each year, that ultimate goal of being a championship contender can be a realistic one for our group.”
If that happens, Giddey has no doubt he’ll be ready for the spotlight and added intensity the playoffs bring. “Those big moments when the stadium’s full, they’re not moments I shy away from,” he says. “They’re the times I love to play. When the pressure’s on, the game’s on the line and you have to win to move on. I can’t wait for those moments in our arena, packed with fans. I’m excited for it.” Killers always are.
Right now, though, Giddey has work to do. His priorities for this offseason include adding a reliable jumper to his offensive arsenal and bulking up. The NBA is not necessarily more physical than the NBL, he says, but the packed 82-game season, with its long road trips, wears you down. “In the NBL, we played two games a week,” he says. “Here in the NBA, it’s every day of the week, where you’re playing in different cities on back-to-back nights. There’s a lot of late flights, getting into a city at 2am, having to back it up and play that night. The travel, the amount of games, the time spent on the road is a lot. A lot of sacrifices go into it. You’re away from your friends and family. But it’s my dream job.”
It has been since he was kid growing up in Yarraville in Melbourne’s east. Giddey played for the Melbourne Tigers juniors and was coached by father, Warrick, a former NBL stalwart and Aussie basketball icon, Andrew Gaze, whose son also played for the team. He credits them for establishing his pass-first approach to the game. “My dad always harped on me to be a team player and to get guys involved,” he says. “It’s something that’s stuck with me to this day.”
But it wasn’t until he was recruited to the NBA Academy in Canberra in year 11 that Giddey began to think he might have a shot at a pro career. Even then, he only really entertained the idea of making it to the NBL. The NBA? As he says, that was a dream. “When I went to the Academy, I wanted to be a long-time NBL player,” he says.
He starred for the 36ers, winning the NBL Rookie of the Year award and leading the league in assists with 7.6 per game. It was enough for most pundits to project him as a late lottery pick in the 2021 draft, but he stunned everyone, and himself to some degree, by being taken by the Thunder at 6. “I thought I would probably go, like seven to 15,” he says. “I really wanted to go six, but I thought maybe it was a little bit too high. It was a surprise, but also a lot of relief. I wanted to be in Oklahoma and for them to take a chance on me, it felt pretty special.”
With his rookie season under his belt, Giddey is conscious of continuing the proud legacy of Aussie players in the NBA. “It starts with Luc Longley and Shane Heal, and then Andrew Gaze set the bar in Australian basketball, and then Patty, Joe, through to Bogues,” he says. “I think the bar for Australian basketball’s been set high and I want to continue that legacy.”
Now 19 and only just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential, Giddey has a decent shot, not only of building on that legacy, but perhaps becoming the best of the bunch. Because as unassuming as he might seem, the softly spoken kid has steel in his step that could one day manifest on the playoff stage as ice in his veins. He also has a habit of setting goals for himself and then quietly ticking them off. If he keeps it up, there’s no telling how far he might go.
Indeed, the only real question left is how much longer he can be underestimated?