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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took the leap

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For anticipatory fan bases, rookie smoke often dissipates into sophomore disappointment. Not this time.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Hyped rookie puts together strong first season. The fan base is excited. A new savior has arrived. Season 2 begins. H’s game is unrecognizable. It doesn’t work. He fades away along with all the hope placed upon his shoulders.

The notorious sophomore slump. The afflicted include Derrick Williams, Tyreke Evans, Michael Carter-Williams, and Emeka Okafor among others.

Safe from its victim list is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Boy Wonder, Kid Dynamite.

SGA has taken the leap with force. His sophomore season with the Thunder has him, at time of writing, averaging 22/6/3—that’s a very good basketball player. Per 36 minutes (a useful tool for comparing season by season stats), Shai has increased his: field goals made and attempted, his field goal percentage, his 3 pointers made and attempted, his 3 point percentage, his free throws made and attempted, offensive, defensive, and total rebounds, steals, blocks, and points. He has decreased his turnovers and personal fouls. Except for small dips in his FT% and assists, SGA has improved as basketball player in almost every single possible way.

This is no small feat, but SGA has done this while playing 9 more minutes a game, and a ~7% spike in his usage percentage. It’s hard to impress how difficult this is. A true achievement would be to maintain statistical rates having the ball more, but to become a better player in every way while having the ball more—that’s rare.

Imagine your boss asking you to work extra hours every day. Do you expect your work to get better or worse?

An unexpected surprise has been SGA’s defense. He has all the tools to be a great perimeter defender, and his progress in this area shows. His length, athletic ability, and basketball IQ should fare him well as he progresses.

SGA is a more poised and confident player, and there’s reason to believe this is a crucial part of his progress thus far.

This is a player who is hesitant. Indecision is crippling. It throws off natural rhythms, it interrupts the cadence, and it totally bridles game flow. This was a common piece of the SGA pie last year.

The above is a really great example. SGA is praised for his poise, but poise is a sort of still confidence—the clip above is the opposite. This is not knowing what to do, feet stuck in mud, and making a snap decision. A huge part of SGA’s development comes from his foresight—knowing his plan before he engages.

What SGA before he shoots the ball. He’s ready in a shooting stance, ready to receive the ball and fire. For a player with a slow release, this is critical. It looks like his release is a bit faster, but being ready to fire keeps precious milliseconds in the holster.

SGA’s increased confidence and aggression (traits necessarily linked) have not gone unnoticed by Thunder players and coaches.

From Erik Horne’s story in the Oklahoman:

“Shai can really shoot it, but having the ability to shoot it and break down the defense, it makes him that much more dangerous,” Paul said. “The good thing about Shai is if he misses a couple he doesn’t shy away from the next shot. That’s what’s going to make him tough for a long time to come.”

Billy Donovan spoke of his increased aggression:

“I want him to maintain a level of aggressiveness inside what we’re doing,” Donovan said. “He’s got to find ways to incorporate everyone at the same time. I thought he did a much better job against Dallas when he was out there, whether he was by himself of with another guard.”

A healthy upper of confidence begets aggression, and aggression rooted in still confidence is poise. In the case of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, this booster cocktail is crafting a player who scores, defends, and assists like a 10-year vet.

Here, SGA decides to fall back into an iso situation with his man, then confidently launches a step back 3. Some second year players wouldn’t have the stones to make this decision, some would but it wouldn’t be rational, and the Thunder find themselves with the beautiful third option: a player who is confident enough to make that call and has the chops to execute it.

Look at him attack a player far bigger than himself, finishing right through him. Here’s some more clips below of SGA attacking and playing with confidence, free of commentary. Meditate on this.

We’re in a good spot, crew.