It’s the dead of NBA the offseason, after an eventful draft summer for the Thunder. With excitement around the new faces in Oklahoma City and chaotic player movement elsewhere, let's not lose sight of the most brilliant light at the center of the Thunder rebuild: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
OKC appears to be gearing up behind Gilgeous-Alexander for another, hopefully equally successful era of OKC basketball. With Chet Holmgren now in the fold, it’s only a matter of time before they start competing for playoff basketball again. Their ceiling as a contender is still unclear, but they already have more star oower in SGA than you might realize.
The art of the flourish
With his breakout 2020-21 season coming after OKC traded away almost every other competent player they had, Shai's rise to brilliance has flown under the radar. He’s sort of an odd player to conceptualize as well. How can a guy who doesn’t have a flashy handle, explosive athleticism, or absolutely elite shotmaking be such a dynamic offensive player? Without a typical star's scoring toolset, how did he average 24/5/6 on a blistering 62% TS in his (albeit shortened) third season, putting up 30/5/7 on 63% TS in 13 post-All Star Break games before being shut down?
There was a small sample size at play there, but we also know he’s not the 28 percent shooter from three he was in the first half of his follow-up season last year. After some regression to the mean, Shai took off once again to close the 2021-22 campaign. He’s eccentric on and off the floor, his unorthodox offensive style and movements pairing nicely with his flashy, askew fashion sense.
SGA came into Kentucky as the 7th-ranked recruit in their class. He had a modest showing at the FIBA U18s in 2016 for Team Canada, putting up a measly 7.8 points on 39% shooting in five total games, ending in a loss to Team USA. Later that year, he ended up committing to play for John Calipari at Kentucky.
His lone season in college was a success. After coming off the bench Kentucky in the first half of the year, he took over for Quade Green as a permanent starter in the second half of the year and exploded. During his final seven games in March, Gilgeous-Alexander put up 20/4/6 on a highly efficient 64% TS. Sound familiar?
In a few months, Shai climbed up draft boards due to his measurements (6’6 with a 7’ wingspan) and overall play. He was selected 11th overall before being traded to the LA Clippers, where he put up an impressive Summer League performance. That early play translated to a great rookie season, before he was traded to Oklahoma City as an intriguing part of the blockbuster deal for Paul George the following summer. He's accelerated ever since, now locked in until 2027 with a massive 5-year, $179 million dollar extension.
Now you see me?
Shai has not been getting his due in a lot of “national” media circles because he is playing on a bad team. While there are certainly cases of players putting up empty numbers on bad teams, Devin Booker and Zach LaVine have shown us that elite players will remain so even when you put other good pieces around them. Talent wins out in the end, no matter who is on your roster. We are truly looking at all-time great levels of self creation over these past two seasons for Shai. Considering the context around him and the results thus far, I don’t think you can argue against him as an established, elite talent.
It’s unfair to Shai that the perception of his game is based on factors out of his control, including lackluster teammates and conservative injury management by the Thunder. Still: he has a 91-game sample over the past two seasons averaging 24/5/6 on 47/34/81 shooting splits despite averaging the least amount of shot attempts with a touch time under two seconds in the NBA. This essentially means that he is creating everything offensively for himself.
What makes Shai so effective despite having to carry such a heavy burden on offense?
The thing that I love most about SGA is his slashing ability. He has led the NBA in drives per game for two consecutive years now, lapping the competition in 2020 and beating out Luka Doncic handily for the crown in 2021.
I’m a sucker for rim pressure. Watching Russell Westbrook for his entire prime has influenced my view on the game, and I just love players who can get to the rim consistently. The most efficient shot in game action is a shot at the rim; truly elite players have enough gravity to suck in weakside defenders and kick it to open corner shooters or other receiving players with an advantage. That's without even mentioning that most fouls occur in the paint, and that the best shot in basketball comes at the free throw stripe.
Watching a player get two feet in the paint time and again is magnificent to watch, regardless of how they do it. Since the team around Gilgeous-Alexander struggles mightily from three (ranking in the 8th percentile in spacing per BBall-Index) his ability to get to the basket consistently is all the more impressive. Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault agrees:
“We are the worst three point shooting team, so theoretically we are the easiest team to help off of, and he is still in there…that’s pretty elite.”
- Mark Daigneault
Here are some numbers to contextualize Shai’s driving ability (per BBall-Index).
- Unassisted Rim FGA / 75: 98th percentile
- % of Rim Makes Unassisted: 95th percentile
- Rim Shot Creation: 100th percentile
- Rim Shot Making: 95th percentile
- Finishing Talent: 99th percentile
Shai is simply the best driver of the basketball in the world at this moment, and there’s hardly anything opposing defenders can do to keep him out of the paint.
He is one of the best advantage creators in the NBA. Beating the defense from a standstill and setting your teammates up is an insanely valuable skill that all the league's best offensive players possess. This fantastic statistic from SIS really paints a picture of how elite Shai is on the offensive end:
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Sleight of hand: flexibility and deceleration
James Harden, another one of my all-time favorite players, has been a poster boy of deceleration. While not being an amazing vertical nor bursty athlete, Harden has been one of the best downhill attackers in the NBA for a decade based on his elite deceleration, change of speeds, and strength. Shai comes from the Harden school of deceleration, but he may be even better than the former MVP. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone stop on a dime as effectively as Shai does. A behind-the-scenes detailing of Shai’s workout approach hasn't seen the light of day, but I assume it’s something similar to what Harden does.
“Harden’s main points of emphasis in the weight room are balance, stability and body control. Different sets of weights are used, but the goal is maintaining a center of gravity. To aid his quest for achieving balance, Harden participates in yoga and pool workouts.”
- Kelly Iko, The Athletic
Shai’s general flexibility and ankle flexion are off the charts. I would love to find out how long he has been doing plyometrics.
It’s almost like he’s made out of rubber, able to stretch and twist his ankles and lower half in any way he wants without repercussion. To be able to do this on a night in and night out basis is extremely difficult and must require a lot of training and/or yoga of some kind. He has essentially mastered movement and movement efficiency on a basketball court.
It makes sense that with a player going downhill as often as Shai, defenders would most want to stop him from penetrating. But Gilgeous-Alexander uses his deceleration and change of speed the most against backpeddling defenders, often slowing himself down on the way to the basket to get his shot off in the mid-range. In addition to stop and start ability, Shai’s gotten really good at using his off arm to create space as well. While this trick of the trade (that he may have learned from Chris Paul when the latter was in OKC) is sometimes called for an offensive foul, it's worth the gamble as it almost catapults him away from his defender, adding to the space that he's already established.
Combining these two dangerous weapons is a pivotal part of Shai’s game.
The name of the game with SGA is how crafty and patient he is. His defenders are always off-balance and in limbo when they watch him break them down off the dribble with his herky-jerky movements. Even the weakest man can push the strongest man down if he is off-balance.
It's in plays like this where Shai’s deceleration shines. The amount of force he puts on his front leg can make you squeamish if you slow the tape down and pay close attention. He has become exceptional with movements like this that, combined with his high release point, make his jump shot practically unblockable.
This clip against Herb Jones and the Pelicans is one of my favorite clips to illustrate this skill:
Jones is already one of the very best perimeter defenders in the NBA and even he can’t stop Shai and his deceleration. One moment Shai is driving to the basket, intent on putting the game away, the next he firmly plants his left foot and stops on a dime to get up an uncontested runner up--sealing the game while Jones is still floating backward from his momentum.
Shai could probably be a good edge defender in the NFL if he wanted to be. He’s special at getting low to the ground to get by his defender. Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have the quickest first step in the league, so these little microskills and techniques are essential for his offensive game. “Bend”, as it's called in the NFL, is just ankle flexion in layman’s terms. Shai has a whole lot of bend. For being 6’6, he’s quite effective diving to snake around his defender or split a double team. Unlike other stars like Harden or Luka Doncic who have similarly crafty games to Gilgeous-Alexander, Shai doesn’t yet have the strength to bully or dislodge defenders consistently with his frame. Despite this, his general flexibility and ball-handling ability get him to the paint at will, where he draws a whole lot of fouls. I suspect his excellent .395 FTr over the past two seasons will rise even more with better offensive talent around him.
Here, Shai gets low between the screener and the defender.
This is where general flexibility helps, as SGA is able to gain leverage with his dribble, snaking and splitting double teams that stiffer players cannot. To consistently be able to do this at 6’6 is impressive.
We see a great combination between Shai’s bend and lengthy strides. It’s impossible to stop him when he is going downhill due to the pristine footwork and all the heady counters he has in his repertoire.
Doesn't it look like Shai’s about to trip in the photo above? The balance and core strength to keep yourself upright while hovering this low to the ground is some special stuff. Plenty offseason videos show him training his balance and core strength on exercise balls, and it's clearly paying off. It is so impressive to watch him every game, consistently appearing to be falling over before immediately bolting upright while keeping the ball.
Despite the lack of ankle breaking highlights, Shai has one of the better functional (and most underrated) handles in the NBA. You can’t get into the paint consistently with no spacing and mediocre burst without a very effective handle. While he doesn’t have BallisLife shiftiness like a Jamal Crawford or Kyrie Irving, he excels at keeping the ball on a string at a variety of angles. Shai might also possess one of the better in-and-out moves in the league. I’m not sure anyone uses it as frequently as he does, one more method he uses to keep off-balance defenders guessing.
As shown in the clips above, Shai might split double teams better than anyone else in the association. He's doubled almost as much as anyone in the NBA, and still manages to score in bunches on above league average efficiency.
People don't yet realize how special of a talent SGA is on the offensive end of the floor. His handle, athleticism and unique slashing ability led to a season last year where he ranked second overall in isolation frequency (27.7 percent of his possessions) but still in the 80th percentile in points per possession, before he had even turned 24 years old.
Now you don't: striding away
Did I mention this guy has a 7’0 wingspan? Shai has some seriously lengthy limbs, and he uses these to his advantage on the basketball court. He is fantastic at varying his stride length. He oscillates between small pitter-patter steps into a giant step, allowing him to gain separation from his defender and create an open shot at the rim.
I love this play coming against the Kings last season. Shai blows by De’Aaron Fox with the varied strides I've described. Shoutout to the broadcast for this replay, as it really encapsulates how Shai differs up his steps in order to get to the basket:
You can see how Gilgeous-Alexander starts Fox off slow, almost nonchalantly driving past him with these smaller steps. Fox is bodying him up well, but is flat-footed on this first step by Shai. At this point, it doesn’t really look like SGA is going to get by Fox.
Shai explodes out of his second step and takes a massive stride toward the rim. Fox has already lost. Shai gets an easy layup out of just two steps. Of course, it’s helpful to have the length that he possesses, but not every player with that requisite length can vary up their strides to keep their defenders guessing as often as Shai does.
You can see just how hard it is to contain Shai from getting to the rim. One second you’re even, thinking you have him locked up, but in the next second he takes one giant step and is all the way to the rack.
If you’re Deandre Ayton, you almost have to run to where you think Shai is going to be to try and beat him to his spot. Once Shai crosses the free throw line, it’s curtains.
From January 1 to the end of Shai’s season, he put up an impressive 26.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game on 59% TS in a 25 game sample. This was before and after his ankle injury that kept him out for a couple of weeks.
“I feel that way every night I play, that no one man can guard me. It doesn’t change late in the game. That’s just my confidence.”
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
This isn’t even touching on the variety of creative and ambidextrous/wrong-foot finishes that are in SGA's bag. I could write an entire piece on that aspects of his game alone. His unpredictability makes him nearly unstoppable going toward the rim.
Shai's shot: an illusion or the real thing?
The only thing missing from Shai’s game is a consistent, above-average three point jump shot. The biggest contrast in his third and fourth seasons was that he suffered a massive decrease in pull-up three point efficiency. He went from 40.9% on such attempts in 2020-2021 to just 27.3% this past season, a stark drop-off responsible for tanking his overall percentages.
Why am I not too concerned about this?
To start, Shai has been an incredibly consistent free throw shooter. Despite his varying percentages from three, he has been between 80 and 81 percent from the line in all four of his seasons in the league.
And for these last two seasons, Shai has been hamstrung with a well below-average supporting cast on offense.
Over the past three seasons, Shai has shot 42.2% on catch-and-shoot threes on an acceptable sample of 175 attempts. That's not a definitive volume, but there has been a steady stabilization of these percentages for SGA in the three seasons. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more C&S opportunities as the talent around him gets better, because I am confident he would be a highly efficient off-ball shooter.
DARKO, a box-score projection system created by Kostya Medvedovsky, shows confidence in Shai’s outside jumper as well. While not projecting Gilgeous-Alexander as the prolific 41 percent shooter he was in his shortened 2020-2021 season, it still puts him as an above league average shooter from beyond the arc. This correlates well with my belief that Shai is right between his 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons from three (41.8% two seasons ago, 30% last year).
Despite all these poor percentages, Shai still ranked in the 99th percentile in 3PT shot creation and in the 87th percentile in Perimeter Shooting talent per BBall-Index. He takes, and makes, incredibly tough jumpers. He was only open on 11.4 percent of his threes last season, ranking in the 12th percentile in the NBA. I firmly believe that once there is more offensive talent around him, we will see those percentages rise rather quickly.
His dismal shooting display in the first half of the season can be attributed to a change in mechanics and shooting variance, and it looked much better in the second half of the year. Shai was much more efficient from three after the All-Star break, shooting 39% on his 56 attempts. A small sample, but it seemed like he made some changes to his jump shot over that period. His release was looking quicker and he relied much less on his “push” shot mechanics (where he almost shoots the ball without jumping).
Shai’s sidestep and stepback threes are beautiful to watch. The aforementioned flexibility in his lower body helps him get these off from almost anywhere at any time. His footwork on these shots and in general is immaculate; he never gets his feet crossed up, employing phenomenal counters while stepping in and out of the lane.
These are incredibly difficult shots to attempt, let alone make. The frequency of attempts like these and the general lack of openness on his three point jumpers are the leading factors in his anemic three-point shot quality, where he ranks in the 2nd percentile per BBall Index. He takes very difficult shots all the time, and I expect things to stabilize with (hopefully) a full season of play--alongside better teammates--ahead of us.
I’m very curious to see if Chip Engelland helps Shai's jumper with any noticeable mechanical tweaks here and there. If that hire helps develop a consistent 37% three-point shot from Shai, while still including some insane shot difficulty that he already makes, we could be looking at a very, very remarkable player.
Underrated Playmaking Talents:
One aspect of Shai’s game that lags behind some other star guards like Trae Young and Ja Morant is his playmaking. At least on the surface, there are no gaudy numbers that stand out for Shai as a distributor. He's averaged a modest 5.9 assists per game over the past two seasons. Despite that, I’ve been really impressed with the growth Shai has made in PnR reads and overall decision-making since becoming the lead ball-handler in Oklahoma City. Some of his playmaking metrics compare favorably to other primary ball handlers in the NBA (you can read about these specific statistics here):
- Potential Assists / 100 Passes: 95th percentile
- Passing Efficiency: 73rd percentile
- Passing Creation Volume: 73rd percentile
- Box Creation: 84th percentile
- Assist Rate: 94th percentile
- Playmaking Talent: 78th percentile
He’s improved in the PnR by making accurate and timely pocket and slip passes. SGA's has showcased the ability to make PnR reads with either hand, and can fit the ball into the tightest possible windows for the roll man. The Thunder have severely lacked a competent roll man for years now, and hopefully they can find a partner for Shai (and Josh Giddey as well) soon. OKC has quality bigs in Holmgren and Mike Muscala, an excellent pick and pop option, but powerful roll man gravity at the basket isn’t on this roster yet. Chet was rarely used in the PnR at Gonzaga, so I’m hoping Daigneault employs him more in that role his rookie season.
Shai’s playmaking and slashing ability are synergistic with one another. Collapsing the defense on nearly every possession leads to open shots if you can find them; luckily Shai can, with his excellent court vision and height. As a matter of fact, Shai ranks 11th in the NBA in scoring gravity, which opens up a lot of open shots for his teammates. The issue with Gilgeous-Alexander's assist numbers is that his teammates do a poor job of converting off of his passes. OKC ranked dead last in three point percentage as a team this season. And despite Shai passing out of his drives 40.2 percent of the time, only 7.5 percent of the time did those passes lead directly to an assist.
But his scoring gravity and ability to get in the paint at will has helped Shai develop his playmaking game, regardless of the assist totals. When so much attention is on you offensively every possession, the reads and passing lanes start to open up for you instinctively. A good scoring baseline like Shai's can help bring along your playmaking as you develop, as it has for other stars like Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell.
Here is a chart made with numbers from PBP Stats:
On/off numbers are noisy, but there is a pretty large difference between most of these players and their efficiency with Shai on the floor compared to when he is off. Lu Dort and Darius Bazley both had over 1,000 minutes on the year playing with Shai, and both have some of the biggest positive correlative differences on the roster. With Shai's scoring gravity and ability to find his teammates on the court, his teammates have been better set up to succeed as shooters, particularly thanks to more open threes.
Timing is everything
Shai is never sped up with the ball in his hands. He can dance with it for seconds before slowing up and waiting for a cutter, or waiting that extra beat for the weakside defender to leave his man so that Shai can hit him for an open three. Chris Paul is and has always been really good with the overhead whip and behind the back passes to the top of the arc, and Shai has developed nice chemistry on passes like that with Muscala, about the only above average shooter on the team. With the Thunder bringing in Holmgren and Jalen Williams as rookies this upcoming season, along with more reps for other potential shooters on the team, I’m hopeful those assist numbers increase along with the shooting talent and floor spacing.
And if the conventional stats tick upward for SGA and the Thunder--shooting percentage, assists, and crucially, wins--expect Shai to gain a much bigger national audience. He's already my favorite player to watch, the guard with the most fascinating game in the NBA. His unorthodox style of play and--especially--slashing ability is beautiful to behold, as he effortlessly glides to the basket and finishes through a variety of angles and circumstances. Hopefully, as the Thunder put on a more competitive show every night, Shai will be in the spotlight so more basketball fans can appreciate his mesmerizing act.
Despite his breakout occurring on two terrible teams over the past couple of years, OKC is building something promising around Shai. He is firmly a top 25 player in the world right now, and with a better team around him, he could elevate even higher in the eyes of the public.
Is he a championship level lead initiator? Maybe not, but it would be foolish to rule out the possibility considering his age and difficult context of his breakout. There is no reason for him to be considered in a tier below players like Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker, he has a pretty good chance at becoming the second best guard in the 2018 draft class behind Luka Doncic. This level of historic self creation and paint touches are pretty rare for a guard who hasn't even entered in his prime yet.
It hasn't always been obvious with the atypical Gilgeous-Alexander, but the Thunder have a great one on their hands.