It’s no secret that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been struggling to score the ball effectively and consistently this year, with Saturday’s 12-point outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves his latest in a growing list of subpar performances this season.
Last year was his first as the undisputed number one option on a team, and his high level of play earned him a maximum contract extension. But through 33 games in the 2021-22 season, Shai has been unable to replicate that standard of play on a consistent basis. Of course, he’s had nights here and there where he has looked like a future superstar, but for the most part, this season has been filled with lackluster shooting and scoring performances from the fourth-year player.
The reason that stands out the most is his three-point shooting. Last year he shot an elite 41.8% from behind the arc, but this year that’s down to a measly 28.1%. This can be mostly attributed to his poor shot selection. 55.7% of Shai’s three-point attempts have been step-backs, a shot which he has fallen in love with this year but can’t hit at a high enough rate to make it reliable. He has made just 27.4% of these step-back threes. To put Shai’s obsession with the step-back three into perspective, only 53% of James Harden’s (widely known as the master of this move) three-point attempts in the 2018-19 season consisted of step-backs and he hit them at a 38.9% clip.
His efficiency is down dramatically across the board:
2020-21: 50.8% FG, 41.8% 3PT, 80.8% FT, 62.3% TS, 57.1% eFG
2021-22: 41.5% FG, 28.1% 3PT, 82.1% FT, 52.7% TS, 46.2% eFG
The 2020-21 campaign saw Shai emerge as one of the best there is at getting downhill and attacking the rim, but he’s had less success getting to the cup this season. Gilgeous-Alexander attempts 28.7% of his field goals in the restricted area this season, a heavy decrease from 39.4% last year.
Due to this, there has been an uptick in his attempts from the midrange area, a shot that has seen a vast decrease in popularity over the last decade throughout the NBA. In fairness, he is hitting the midrange at a respectable 42.3% clip, a 6.4% increase upon last season’s mark. With that being said, settling for the midrange as often as he has done this year is bound to cause a drop in efficiency.
You may ask, “what’s keeping Shai out of the paint?” I think a large part of it has to do with SGA being the only consistent and reliable scoring option on the team. Yes, you have Lu Dort averaging a career-high 16.3 points a night, but Dort’s incredibly inconsistent shooting from deep seldom helps take the defensive attention off Shai. There are five players on the Thunder who are averaging over eight points a game, with Mike Muscala being the only one of those five shooting over 40% from the field. Another stat that doesn’t exactly bode well with getting to the rim: Shai is double-teamed on 31.7% of his possessions this year which ranks amongst the highest marks in the league. When Shai beats his man off the dribble as he so often does, he’s met with a wall of help defense who have left their man to put pressure on Shai.
There is no player in the league who isolates more than Shai, but there are many who do it more efficiently. Out of 21 players who have three or more field goal attempts in isolation per-game, Shai ranks 16th in FG%. Last year he was in the 72nd percentile of isolation players; he’s in just the 60th percentile this year.
This recent hit in efficiency is no doubt concerning, but I am still confident in Shai’s ability as one of the better isolation scorers in the league. He is usually one of the best there is at getting to the rim, and his deep arsenal of moves combined with his long strides and length make him a force to be reckoned with in isolation.
Many were concerned that it was too soon to crown Shai after his 35-game season last year, feeling that the sample size was just too small. Frankly, he has not done anything to squash these concerns. Don’t get me wrong; I am by no means giving up on Shai. He’s the centerpiece of the Thunder’s current core in this rebuild and will continue to be. But with that being said, you can’t help but wonder whether Shai is the Thunder’s long-term #1 option or whether he’d be more suited to a #2 role behind a future acquisition.
A comforting sign for Thunder fans who are worried about Shai’s performance is that league-wide efficiency has taken a big hit this year, with many stars seeing a drop in production and effectiveness. Could this just be a blip on the radar for Shai and other underperforming stars alike? Either way, SGA needs to be better.