This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Unorthodox in nearly every manner, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading the Oklahoma City Thunder in scoring early in the year, a massive leap after putting up 10.8 points as a rookie.
The move to Oklahoma has given him a new chance to prove himself, not just as a wiry mismatch slasher, but a focal point. His shot attempts have doubled, he's taking way more threes and has supplanted Chris Paul as the top option late in games.
And, hey.... Gilgeous-Alexander is just wildly enjoyable to watch:
This is no surprise to Shai's former coach, Doc Rivers. Jovan Buha of The Athletic, spoke to Doc ahead of their matchup with the Thunder where he expressed his anticipation of Gilgeous-Alexander's star power:
"...as excited as I was when we know that [Paul George] deal was going through, when Lawrence [Frank] told me that Shai's name was still in it, you were sad, disappointed. He's such a good kid. I think he's gonna be a superstar. I said that last year, so I'm not breaking news here. But you rarely get a kid that's such a good person. Easy to coach. Wants to get better. For me, those are the guys that give you life in coaching."
High praise from an NBA championship coach.
SGA is already elite in three areas: He's a versatile plus-defender, a swiss army knife of a finisher and uses some extraordinary footwork to decelerate into a one-two-step finish that few youngsters can. Gilgeous-Alexander plays the game at his own pace, which makes him a difficult matchup in one-on-one situations.
How much growth is ahead if he plans on becoming the alpha on a contending team while improving those elite skillsets? Put aside his hot start; There are legitimate superstar vibes ahead for the second-year Canadian.
Everything starts with pace and footwork.
SGA is a strange blend of Pascal Siakam and Trae Young when he drives, using a bevy of spin moves and lanky finishes while perfecting his wrong foot takeoffs and finishes. He plays at his own speed and doesn't rush his drives—a luxury afforded by his great length. Shai is a crafty ball handler in tight windows, too, unrattled by help defenders in his way.
More than anything, Gilgeous-Alexander has mastered deceleration in the lane. Though this can often lead to a lost advantage for someone whose game isn't predicated on speed, SGA doesn't suffer from playing too slow because he's so damn long-limbed. He can slow down and not lose ground to defenders since he covers so much in the first place.
Whether a euro step or a simple one-two step, Gilgeous-Alexander is super effective:
He looks like he's moving in slow motion compared to the other players, and that's because he is. Shai is never rushed on a court, whether it's in the lane or dealing with a double-team on the perimeter.
He just gets when he wants to go.
For all his length, Gilgeous-Alexander is not known as an above-the-rim threat. He's fairly grounded as an athlete, so his array of patient moves is vast and the tricks up his sleeve numerous.
When confronted with size and rim protection, Shai is fundamentally sound. Instead of trying to get into a jumping match and finish over a bigger defender (a fight he'll lose), he firmly plants off two feet, pivots and uses his length to hook around into a crafty finish:
Everything about Shai's game is opened up by his finishing ability. He's a career 63.4 percent scorer within three feet, where nearly one-third of his attempts come from.
Quicker backcourt defenders won't crowd him on the perimeter when they know he's going to patiently worm his way to the rim and still finish. Then he can take his time at that slow pace once he has room to operate while unleashing some deadly head fakes.
Watch here how SGA uses the same lanky one-two step to get to the rim, but this time pay attention to his eyes. He stares at now-teammate Steven Adams, sucking Adams' defender into staying home to anticipate the pass. Once he shows a subtle ball fake, Shai freezes Robin Lopez and gets around him for the layup:
The inverse is also true: Gilgeous-Alexander is such a threat at the rim that he commands those secondary defenders to commit. Like any star-in-the-making, he cannot force contested shots as a youngster and hope they go in.
Real maturity is shown by making the right play and the right pass.
He can sliver into the paint and start a similar slow-motion takeoff, but also use his tentacle-like limbs to stretch around the help defender and gift-wrap a dunk to a rolling teammate:
Shai's a great passer, though he does not have incredibly high assist numbers. His value comes from how he can deliver dimes with both hands.
A natural righty who finishes mostly with his dominant side, there are some absolute perfect passes he's made with his left-hand, including some hook passes that land exactly on target:
These aren't new additions to his game, either. The finishing and passing in Oklahoma City confirms what we saw from SGA's rookie season with the Clippers. In order to put both on display frequently, he needed to become multi-dimensional on the perimeter, both in his driving game and in knocking down open shots.
To be a superstar, the ball needs to be in his hands, and he has to make those around him better. Multi-dimensional scorers (ones that can shoot, drive and pull-up) are the ones that are trusted with such a creative burden on great teams.
For Sam Presti and the Thunder, that's the aim, and they won't move the goalposts. The organizational priority for the Thunder was on featuring Gilgeous-Alexander this season during a transitional period to see if he's capable of being the guy they trust late in the clock and as a primary creator of offense.
He's passed all tests so far.
Start with the shooting first. Shai's form leaves a lot to be desired: His feet are close together, he's a tad bow-legged and narrow and has a slow, hitchy two-handed push shot release. The arc on his shot is like a rainbow, nearly touching the rafters before dropping back to the hoop. The mechanics are all over the place, but the results are consistent. His moon-raking jumper has gone in more than forty percent of the time, registering 50 attempts already on this young season.
So if he keeps making them at that efficient clip, who cares about his mechanics?
With 71 three-point makes in 94 career games, the shot is effective enough that opponents have to close out to him. That most of them swish is an encouraging sign, but the ultimate sign of respect for a player's jumper is how teams choose to play him in catch-and-shoot scenarios. If they leave their feet to contest, they'd rather force a drive than give up the 3-pointer.
Such closeouts are taking place for Gilgeous-Alexander this year, where he can punish teams by then re-penetrating to a score:
The ability to punish poor closeouts is the best trait a complementary playmaker can have. The Thunder have grander plans for Shai to become more than just a supporting piece, and step one down that road is making threes off the dribble.
While his jumper is effective in spot-up situations, he also has to speed up the release to where he can reliably get it off when he has an ounce of space. Once that happens, the volume of his attempts should go way up as well.
Shai isn't quite there yet, but he's getting closer. The ability to create space on his drives helps with this, where he can get to his step-back without fear of running into a defender. If he's able to continue knocking down threes when defenders go under ball screens or hit on step-backs when they apply pressure, he's going to be a tough cover on the perimeter:
Reliably creating his own shot will allow Shai to be the top option in a successful offense.
He's had a few good takes and iso scores, as well as some great assists when defenses collapse on him. But the sample size is small, and he's had the good fortune of high-caliber shooting surrounding him. Danilo Gallinari and Chris Paul are both above 42 percent, while Terrance Ferguson is hitting an asinine 46.4 percent of his treys. Those three all start with Shai; those four with Adams in the main lineup have played 215 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. They log 112.1 points per 100 possessions and are in the 84th percentile of effective shooting percentage—likely far above their heads.
Should the hot start cool, space around Shai disappears, as does his room to create in isolations or one-on-one situations. How he responds to that is a massive test for his star power.
We should celebrate the strides a young player like Gilgeous-Alexander has already made nonetheless. In a short time he's gone from young and intriguing slasher to auditioning as the lead guy. We're too early into said tryout to know if he'll be given the role, but he's certainly earned a major spot in the cast.
Keep an eye on him and see if he sustains this level of shooting and playmaking throughout the season.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).