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Say Hey to Shai: What Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Means to the Thunder

Say Hey to Shai: What Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Means to the Thunder

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There’s a new point guard in Oklahoma City, and his name is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

After being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the infamous Paul George trade, Gilgeous-Alexander has a chance to become the first real building block of the Thunder’s upcoming rebuild.

Acquired by the Clippers in a draft day trade with the Hornets, SGA started his rookie campaign by coming off the bench behind starters Lou Williams and Avery Bradley. It only took the rookie nine games to send Avery Bradley to the bench and replace him in the starting lineup. From there on out, Gilgeous-Alexander started every game for the Clippers including all six first-round playoff games versus the Warriors. SGA’s success landed him on the All-Rookie Second Team.

Now, with a (presumably) expanded role on the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has his first chance to play extended minutes as a possible primary option in the NBA.

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He isn’t uber-athletic like Ja Morant and he isn’t as gifted as a passer/shooter as Trae Young, but Shai wins in his own way. SGA has no glaring weakness like some other point guards who have come out recently (mostly defense). He’s like the Al Horford of guards: he may never put up gaudy stat totals, but his overall feel for the game and high IQ at his age , especially in the pick-and-roll, should make him a high-impact player throughout his career.

What exactly is a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

SGA is a do-it-all guard. Standing at 6’6 in shoes with an absurd 6’11.5 wingspan, he has the ability to easily defend opposing guards and potentially smaller wing players like P.J. Tucker or Luka Doncic. Lacking elite NBA athleticism and a dynamic pull-up game, SGA uses his length and craftiness to get by defenders.

With the Clippers, he spent nearly 79 percent of his defensive possessions defending opposing guards, and nearly 19 percent defending opposing forwards, per Krishna Narsu’s data.  Although he wasn’t used much to defend forwards in 2018, I expect that number to continue to rise as he bulks up/grows into his body as he ages. Among players who are 6’6 or taller and appeared in at least 50 games last season, SGA was tied with Justin Holiday for the lightest player in the league, nine pounds lower than the second lightest player, per NBA.com. He can easily use his length to contest opposing players’ shots such as this play on Jeremy Lamb.

On offense, however, SGA is more of an enigma. Coming into the league as a crafty combo-guard who excels in the pick-and-roll, he has continued to live up to his expectations in that facet of his game. He ranked in the 58th percentile of PnR Ball Handlers last season, ahead of notable players like Trae Young, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Jokic, and even our former friend Russell Westbrook in terms of points-per-possession.

After many long years of Russell Westbrook and his continuous struggles shooting the basketball, it’s going to be refreshing for OKC fans to have confidence in their point guard’s ability to knock down open threes at a fairly consistent rate. While SGA isn’t a top tier shooter by any means, he’s more than capable from three, especially from the corners. Last season with the Clippers, he knocked down open three-pointers at a 39.3 percent clip, per NBA.com

He’s not shabby in isolation, either, ranking in the 87th percentile among all NBA players who appeared in at least 50 games. Despite my concerns about his weight, SGA uses his strength effectively on offense with deceptive push-offs to create space for himself. Shai is already one of the better finishing guards in the league, and he uses his length to his advantage in these situations with crafty finishes at the basket, where he shot 63 percent last season.

He’s even capable of using his height to shoot over defenders, including in the post. This is something Russell Westbrook tried to do on numerous occasions during his tenure in OKC.

I am aware that this is an arbitrary list, but here is a short list of guards who matched Shai’s rookie year numbers (Minutes, PPG, TS% and AST%) since the three-pointer was introduced. Pretty impressive company for the young guard.

Short term

With the Thunder, SGA has an opportunity that young guards dream of. Not only will he (hopefully) be receiving pointers/tips from one of the best floor generals of all time in Chris Paul, but he also won’t be pressured to win playoff series in the next couple of years. Typically in the NBA, younger guards are rarely a net positive on the court due to their inexperience and their lack of an NBA body (being small). Because of this, I believe SGA should have an extended leash for the next couple of seasons. Takes a bad pull-up three? Staying in the game. Throws a bad pass in the PnR? Stays in. Now obviously I’m not saying that he should continue to stay in if he’s playing poorly, or that I want the Thunder to forever be terrible and have him do whatever he wants on the court like Devin Booker does, but it’s good for a young player to be able to afford to make mistakes and not get yanked immediately. Your franchise building block needs this time to grow as a player. Two of the things I would like to see SGA improve upon in the next couple of seasons are:

  • Pull-Up Shooting
  • Weight

I’ve touched on SGA’s lack of weight before, but him becoming more confident in his pull-up shot (and hitting it more effectively) could do wonders for his career.

Pull-up threes only accounted for 3.1 percent of SGA’s total shots last season and he converted on a measly 31.8 percent of them. While it’s unfair to expect him to have a De’Aaron Fox type leap going into his second year, it’s interesting to know that during Fox’s rookie year, 9.4 percent of his attempts were pull-up threes. That number increased to 12.9 percent in his sophomore season and his percentage rose from 31.9% to 35.2% on those shots. While Fox’s attempts almost all came with 4+ feet between him and the closest defender, these are the types of leaps you have to make in order to move into the upper echelon of guards on offense.

Long term

The Thunder have set themselves up for a rebuild quite nicely with the addition of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He has all the tools to be a potential all-star in this league as he continues to grow both physically and mentally with more and more experience on the floor. While I don’t see a path for SGA to become the best player on a championship-caliber team, I do the potential for him to be the second or third best player on a contender in the mold of someone like Jrue Holiday. Gilgeous-Alexander will be just one of the many pieces of the puzzle that Sam Presti will try to fit into a championship-winning team.