The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the 2019-20 preseason with 20 players on their roster, be they on max deals or unguaranteed camp contracts. Only one of those players seems like a true lock to still be on the roster 2 years from now: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
SGA is fresh off an impressive rookie season where he started (despite being coached by a notorious hardass in Doc Rivers) on a playoff team that put up a surprising fight against the (at the time) healthy Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. And yet, despite thriving under the big lights, the Thunder’s young guard is still a bit of a blank slate. What kind of player is he, and what kind of player does he project to be?
Analysis of a young guard can often seem to come down to one thing: can he shoot? OKC fans know better than anyone that a point guard can reach the highest echelons of the sport without being a good 3 point shooter, but Russell Westbrook was an exception to a lot of rules due to his otherworldly athletic gifts. Most guards will need a credible 3 pointer to succeed in this era of the NBA (a good 3 point shot keeps defenses honest when guarding the pick and roll and makes players a threat away from the ball) as basketball becomes more positionless, being an offball threat is increasingly important, even for nominal point guards.
Is SGA a good shooter?
He shot 37% from beyond the arc last year, he has a smooth release that isn’t ultra quick but not ultra slow either, and the height to get his shot off over defenders is above average at the position.
But the 37% is potentially misleading. SGA attempted only 1.6 3 pointers per game last season, a sample size too small to draw real conclusions about his accuracy from deep. 133 of the shots SGA took last year were classified as “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com, and only 6 were classified as tight (and 0 as “very tight”). 116 of his shots were catch and shoot (he shot 37.1%).
Only 22 were off the dribble.
SGA should get an even higher number of catch and shoot 3’s this year, one of the benefits of playing alongside Chris Paul. If he can maintain his high percentage on something more in the range of three attempts per game it will be safe to assume he is a good off-ball shooter the kind defense have to respect when he’s away from the ball.
if Shai is a good defender, good playmaker, and good offball shooter, then he’s already an above average NBA starter.
Thunder fans and SGA himself no doubt want him to be more than that. It’s to Alexander’s credit that he was able to consistently get where he wanted to on the floor without the threat of pulling up for 3 or the kind of unbelievable explosiveness that defined the OKC’s previous point guard. His feel for the game and overall smoothness were what made him effective. Adding a credible, consistent pull-up jumpshot to his arsenal is what will boost him from solid starter status to all-star level.
The best time to launch those off the dribble jumpers will be when SGA gets the chance to run the offense solo.
Here, his fate is in the hands of coach Billy Donovan.
SGA is likely to start as the nominal two alongside Chris Paul, and while it’s not as if CP3 will initiate the offense on every single possession, expect the overall distribution of ball handling to skew firmly in the Point God’s favor. When CP3 heads to the bench, Dennis Schroder will be expecting to see heavy minutes off the bench. Donovan has already indicated that he will experiment with playing all 3 guards together, which is intriguing. SGA spent plenty of time last year playing alongside other ballhandlers like Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, and he can certainly succeed in such lineups.
Lineups without CP3 or Schroder present SGA with the best chance to spread his wings and get a high volume of reps as the team’s primary initiator, and his development is, frankly, more important than winning on a team that may not be playoff bound. For a nominal Point Guard, Alexander had a very low usage rate and Assist Percentage as a rookie. That means his passing and general ability to run an offense fall into a similar zone as his shooting. He obviously good at those things, but just how good is muddled by a small sample size and Alexander’s own youth.
Billy Donovan should try and give his young guard 10-15 minutes a night of running the offense on his own. SGA’s actual assist numbers and even the teams net rating will need to be taken with a grain of salt in those minutes (the thunder should be expected to lose those minutes for the most part), as he’ll likely be leading units heavy on other young players when he gets the chance to run solo.
The most interesting thing to watch will be how Alexander balances setting up other with his own scoring in those minutes. SGA, after all, averaged only 10.8 points as a rookie, as he was often a cog in a big machine. Can he maintain his scoring efficiency as a elad dog? Can he consistently create good looks for teammates who are far less polished than his old Clippers teammates? Can he do Both of those things? Can he do either while minimizing turnovers (His turnover percentage as a rookie, while not egregious, was a bit high. That’s to be expected for a rookie, but worth monitoring going forward).
Splitting time between the 1 and the 2 (and even the 3, if the Paul-Schroeder-Alexander lineups come to pass) will also give SGA chances to defend lots of different players. Here again is an area where SGA flashes promise but is still an unknown. He has the physical tools (at 6’6’ with a positive wingspan, he is truly the Prestian ideal for a point guard) to succeed, and seems likely to be a plus, but is he best at the point of attack, or chasing after wings? Is he strong enough to hang with bigger wings, and is he quick enough to dance with smaller guards? How will he adapt to Billy Donovan’s traditionally aggressive scheme? Can he make a positive impact as a help defender? SGA will get chances to guard all manner of players as matchups dictate, and the better he is, the more options OKC has as they look to build the team around him.
That’s why the best thing OKC can do this year is to give their young guard lots of chances and lots of roles. Shai may be the only player from this team still in OKC in two years. What kind of team the Thunder build around him depends on what he shows them this season.