The Imminent Rise of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Kelvin Kuo – USA TODAY

In July of 2019, the Los Angeles Clippers traded rising sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of a package for Paul George. The Thunder later traded off Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. These two moves were a sign of a fast approaching rebuilding stage for the Thunder after a decade of success headlined by Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

In the following season, an aging Chris Paul III helped lead the Thunder to a surprising playoff appearance. Vegas set the over/under for the Thunder’s wins at 32.5. They went on to crush that figure, winning 44 games in a pandemic-shortened season and taking the contending Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round.

After that relatively successful season, general manager Sam Presti pulled the trigger on a franchise reset. Presti traded away Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams. That’s three of the 2020 Thunder’s five starters along with their Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Schröder.

The keys of the offense were now in the hands of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While the 2021 season serves as a throwaway year for the tanking Thunder, it also provided an opportunity for Gilgeous-Alexander to develop in a lead role. Unfortunately, Gilgeous-Alexander has missed the last 12 games and it’s unclear when he’ll return (as the Thunder arguably have an incentive to sit him for longer). But through his 35 games played, Gilgeous-Alexander has absolutely thrived.

Scoring Prowess

Gilgeous-Alexander began his NBA career with a solid rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was named to the All-Rookie Second Team for his efforts. In the 2020 season, Gilgeous-Alexander took a leap in his scoring as his volume increased dramatically yet he still managed to increase his efficiency. And through 35 games played this year, SGA has taken an even greater leap — his efficiency has skyrocketed along with his volume.

Gilgeous Alexander’s field goal percentage on two-point attempts has jumped from 51.2% last season to 54.7% this season, a career best on great volume. He’s nailing 2.0 three-pointers per game at a 41.8% clip, easily a career best as well. Finally, Gilgeous-Alexander is also steadily improving his ability to get to the free throw line as his free throw rate of 0.405 is also a career best.

So, how exactly is Gilgeous-Alexander scoring his 23.7 points per game? Simple: attacking the rim. Approximately 55% of Gilgeous-Alexander’s total points this season came from drives. His 25.2 drives per game lead the league by a wide margin and put him at 4th in total drives despite only playing 35 games. He may not have played many games, but it’s still a substantial sample to analyze. And his efficiency? Absolutely impressive.

With volume at the top of the league and the 9th highest field goal percentage on drives, Gilgeous-Alexander has proven himself to be an elite slasher and finisher. The Thunder frequently put use of Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring ability through pick & rolls. He serves as the ball handler on these plays which allows him to take slash to the rim whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Once again, Gilgeous-Alexander has been involved in enough of these plays to for us to assess the data even though he’s missed considerable time this season. He has recorded the 17th most possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler in the 2020-21 season.

There are two different methods of quantifying scoring efficiency shown in the graph: field goal percentage and points per possession. Field goal percentage is defined as the number of made field goals divided by the number of total field goal attempts. Points per possession are defined as points scored divided by the total number of possessions. While these metrics are obviously strongly correlated, the differences in them illustrate player aggression. While Steph Curry isn’t really one of the absolute most efficient shooters on these plays, he’s more likely to attempt a field goal on these plays than other players. Thus, he leads in points per possession but not field goal percentage.

Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in field goal percentage as the pick-and-roll ball handler. And it’s not that close — Kawhi Leonard is right behind him at second, but there’s a sizeable gap after that. And while Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite as likely to shoot the ball on these possessions (nor on drives, as you may have noticed from the table earlier), that trend isn’t exactly surprising from a young player who isn’t yet a superstar. The important thing is his efficiency.

Those were a lot of stats. Let’s take a break from the numbers and look at some tape to figure out exactly why Gilgeous-Alexander is such an effective scorer.

Three-Dimensional Scorer

The ability to score at all levels of the floor is invaluable in the NBA. Every team wants a true three-level scorer who can attack the rim, hit mid-range jumpers, and be a threat from beyond the arc. That’s exactly what Gilgeous-Alexander offers.

When Gilgeous-Alexander is given a screen to free up any amount of space, he’s able to put his uncanny acceleration to use and get to the hoop.

Terry Rozier is just a step behind Gilgeous-Alexander on the first play, which is enough room for him to kick into his second gear and finish through contact. Even within the paint, Gilgeous-Alexander has plenty of different ways to score. He can carefully dance past a big man for a nifty reverse layup or finish an and-one through contact from larger defenders.

Gilgeous-Alexander has complemented his diverse layup package with the development of a capable floater. When he’s not able to maximize his efficiency with a shot directly underneath the basket, Gilgeous-Alexander has the ability to take a running floater closer to the free throw line.

In the second clip, Gilgeous-Alexander likes the amount of forward space he has off of the pick-and-roll and rises up for the floater near the charity stripe. His ability to take advantage of absolutely any holes in defensive coverage allows him to exploit any matchup.

Gilgeous-Alexander is also able to keep defenders honest by nailing jumpers from inside the arc. Whether it’s a long two-point stepback or a turnaround fadeaway jumper, SGA’s bag of tricks is not limited to a three feet radius around the rim.

Gilgeous-Alexander finished last season with a 47.8% FG% on mid-range shots, the 13th best clip in the league among players with at least 100 such shots. This aspect of his game hasn’t been as great this season, as he’s hit just 36.7% of these shots in the 2020-21 season. Granted, the sample size is far lower with just 49 attempts so I wouldn’t read into it too much.

Finally, Gilgeous-Alexander’s three-point shooting ability stretches out the defense and forces them to not give him room to shoot. Let me be clear here, though. It’s silly to just look at his 42% 3P% this season and assume that he’s made the jump to being an elite shooter. No, that’s likely not the case. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted 170 three-pointers this season. That’s not a super small sample, like his 49 mid-range attempts. However, there is good reason to expect regression. On “tight” or “very tight” three-point shots, shots in which the nearest defender was within four feet away, Gilgeous-Alexander shot 0-16 through the first two seasons of his career. This year, Gilgeous-Alexander hit 15 of 24 such attempts for an absurd 62.5% rate. Yeah, that’s not sustainable. If he nailed nine of those 24 shots instead (which is pretty generous), his three-point percentage would fall to 38.8%. Good, but not as elite as his actual 41.8% sounds. But again, it’s pretty good.

It’s also worth mentioning that 77.6% of Gilgeous-Alexander’s three-point attempts this season were pull up jumpers, which tend to be more difficult. Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander hit 41.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes. I wonder if it’s best for him to shoot more threes off of the catch while maintaining his ability to create for himself elsewhere, similar to Devin Booker’s role on the Suns.

Playmaking & Defense

I believe that playmaking is Gilgeous-Alexander’s clearest room for improvement. His adjusted assist to pass percentage1 of 13.9% this season is the 43rd best rate in the league among 228 eligible players. His adjusted assist to pass percentage of 10.8% last season was even worse, ranking right outside of the top-100 of 254 eligible players.

Why? Gilgeous-Alexander suffers from tunnel vision at times, a problem that plagues many great scorers (and what adds to the greatness of players like James Harden and LeBron James). Even in some of the clips in this article, Gilgeous-Alexander takes tough shots instead of passing it to wide open teammates for a more efficient look. While he made the shots in those instances, there are many others where he does not. And when he does kick the ball out, it’s often too late. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged three turnovers per game this season, a disappointing total for a guard averaging under six assists per game.

It’s also my impression (which isn’t backed up any statistics, so take it with a grain of salt) that playmaking isn’t as easy to develop as some other skills. I can’t think of many players who suddenly attained great playmaking vision. With my perception of Gilgeous-Alexander’s low playmaking ceiling what I previously said about him ideally shooting more catch-and-shoot threes in the future, I don’t see him being a primary playmaker at any point. I think of him as more of a higher ceiling CJ McCollum. And part of the reason I say higher ceiling is because he has the tools to be a positive on the defensive end.

A young combo guard with great scoring ability. We’ve heard about many of these players in recent years, and they are almost always poor defenders. I think Gilgeous-Alexander has a bit more potential in that department. Yeah, his defense thus far has been below average: his teams are better defensively with him off the floor, he grades negatively in adjusted defensive plus/minus metrics, he doesn’t get as many deflections or steals as you might expect, and per DXeFG%, his eFG% allowed is higher than expected. But he has the tools — he has great lateral quickness and length (6’11 wingspan) and he was a great defender in college. I think he clearly has more defensive potential than other scoring guards like Devin Booker and CJ McCollum.

Conclusion

The future looks great for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has the most assets in the league, and their roster includes promising young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort. Gilgeous-Alexander’s potential is unclear, but I think he projects to be an elite scorer with solid defense. Certainly not a bad player to center a rebuild around.


  1. Per the NBA Stats glossary: The percentage of passes by a player or team that are assists, free throw assists, or secondary assists.
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