Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the principal return in Paul George, and he has excelled in Oklahoma City. Shai is the leading scorer on a playoff team, and he has adapted well to a different role than he occupied on the Clippers.
Shai has carried a more massive offensive load compared to last season, but his efficiency has not dropped as expected. Shai’s accurate shooting has marginally improved due to Gilgeous-Alexander knocking down shots from the stripe at a reasonable rate.
It has been an impressive season for the young guard. He has played well for a team that relies on him to contribute on a nightly basis. The young guard’s inside scoring has been core in Shai’s rise.
Alexander’s growth has been immense and warranted a closer look into his play; I wanted to learn why Shai has been so successful for the Thunder this season. It is relatively unusual for a second-year guard to play with such maturity and savvy.
I did not want to choose a sample in which Shai had put up big numbers against a below-par team. These games are not accurate indicators of Shai’s ability. These teams are usually pretty weak defensively, and therefore most players look good against teams like the Warriors or Hornets.
I settled on the game played against the Toronto Raptors just before the New Year. This game came off back to back against the Charlotte Hornets, and it was a tricky fixture for the Thunder. Toronto is one of the best defensive teams in the league, and it can be challenging to generate offense against a team that is so capable on that end of the floor.
The first play comes at the start of the game, Gilgeous-Alexander is located at the break with Patrick McCaw defending him. The match-up itself is a favorable one for SGA. The Raptors have significantly better guard defenders who can cause issues for Shai.
Adams comes over and the Thunder dummy a hand-off set, which has been an essential feature of Billy’s offense this season. Shai recognizes this situation and uses a pass fake to distract McCaw.
McCaw bites on the pass fake, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets the seam that he wants. The opportunity presented by McCaw’s decision is small, but Shai makes the most out of the slither of space. He uses a hard dribble to get himself past McCaw. The hard dribble is an intelligent decision from Shai.
SGA is aware that his long strides are more than enough to beat the first man, and therefore he only needs one hard dribble, he does not require any extra moves. Shai shows a lot of maturity in this regard, and he executes offense promptly without making mistakes.
The Raptors recover well defensively once the first line of defense is broken. A hallmark of the Raptors’ play this season had been a collective defensive intelligence, players have consistently made timely defensive rotations. At times, it seems like the five players on the floor are working with one brain.
The Raptors bring two help defenders over, and Kyle Lowry comes over from the weak-side corner to occupy the space vacated by Marc Gasol. The help defender playing Darius Bazley sags off Darius and moves into SGA’s path.
The Raptors’ defense means that SGA plays two defenders on the drive, and it is imperative to get a shot off before they can challenge the ball. Shai shows good awareness in this situation. He gathers his step before OG can knock the dribble away. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander uses the gather step to shield the ball from the defender, which prevents a turnover.
The gathering step beats Anunoby and leaves SGA to play just one defender, Kyle Lowry. Lowry makes a hard rotation from the weak-side corner, and he cuts over to the circle inside the paint. The rotation by Lowry restricts the lane that Gilgeous-Alexander has available to knock down an uncontested look.
Shai displays an understanding of space as he gets the layup off early. SGA gets the layup off first and chooses an angled glass finish, the finish is impossible for Lowry to contest. Kyle cannot challenge the shot effectively due to his size, and it is a bucket for Gilgeous-Alexander.
Although SGA scores, his footwork could be better in the second phase of the drive. Shai drives straight towards the rim, which is a dangerous game with Lowry, Kyle has made a career out of drawing charges out of straight-line drives.
Lowry takes advantage of any opportunity to draw a charge; Shai comes very close to allowing the referees a chance to make this call. Gilgeous-Alexander’s play needs to avoid these little moments, which could backfire.
I want to see more movement in the second phase of the drive; Shai needs to beat the final defender with his footwork. Shai could choose to elevate over Lowry into the layup, but I like the idea of Shai side-stepping around Lowry into the finish. It is a simple move, but it is useful.
This play starts with the Thunder running in transition, and it should be an easy, fast-break opportunity for Oklahoma City as it is four Thunder players against one Raptor. Fred VanVleet is the sole defender on the Raptors, and his responsibility is to hinder the speed of transition.
On this play, VanVleet needs to slow the attempt down so his team-mates can rush back to help or stop the look himself. VanVleet plays the transition correctly, he drops back to protect the rim and takes away the effortless look.
Chris Paul brings the ball up the floor for the Thunder, and he has three targets to hit with a pass for an easy score. Although there are options on the floor, there is very little space. The Thunder neglected adequate floor spacing on this possession.
Terrance Ferguson and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander do not attempt to space out to the corner three, getting to the edge will stretch the defense out. I do not care for Terrance Ferguson bricking open jumpers, but Shai is capable of knocking down this look.
Although he converts a layup against the Raptors’ defense, I would like to see Shai forcing Fred VanVleet to work harder. The floor being spaced better gives Chris Paul more options on offense.
Gilgeous-Alexander deserves praise for his calmness on this possession. Paul uses the bounce pass to take the sting off the ball. Shai recognizes the lack of speed on the ball and runs onto the pass in stride. SGA does not wait for the ball to be passed to him; he expects Paul to put the ball into space.
Transition opportunities are dependent on speed. The team attacking has to move quickly before the defense can set up. Shai’s small decision to follow the ball pays dividends in this sense. It does not create the opportunity for the offense to bog down and stagnate.
Shai creates a transition bucket for himself by being active on defense. At the start of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander was inconsistent when playing off-ball. He did not always put himself in a position to create turnovers or destroy possessions.
His development on the defensive end of the floor has been impressive, SGA is more alert and recognizes opportunities to nick the ball away from the opposing team. Chris Paul’s leadership has been essential in his growth as a player.
Paul does not hesitate to tell a player where they made a mistake and how this error can be corrected; it is central to Paul’s personality. He is a perfectionist on offense and defense; Chris wants his team-mates to learn how to be active on guard.
In this example, two Thunder players work together to create this opportunity. Ferguson fights over the screen and harries Lowry into a rare mistake. Lowry tosses the ball off target, and SGA steps into the steal. Shai steps across the defender and forces a turnover from the Raptors.
At the start of the transition opportunity, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays two defenders. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are both talented defenders at the point guard position, and it would be unwise for Shai to face the pressure head-on.
Gilgeous-Alexander isolates VanVleet and goes to work.
Gilgeous-Alexander uses a hard dribble to get away from the center of the floor and applies an arm to push VanVleet away. Shai displays strength in this situation. He does not allow the defender to invade his space and force mistakes.
The hard dribble is an excellent tool to use in a case like this; it will enable Shai to shield the ball from the defense.
It is difficult for Fred VanVleet to steal the ball once Gilgeous-Alexander has completed the hard dribble, VanVleet would have to foul SGA to get his hands on the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander receives full control of the ball as he crosses the hash mark on the Raptors’ floor.
Shai is a good athlete, but he is not a great athlete. Shai cannot turn on the after-burners and run away from the defense. It does not mean that Gilgeous-Alexander is not capable of acceleration; it is just that his gear needs to be used more carefully.
SGA deploys the turn of pace against Fred VanVleet, the increase in acceleration catches VanVleet off guard. The extra gear gets Shai’s front foot past VanVleet’s front foot and allows him to start setting up his finish of choice.
Shai’s drive towards the rim does not look like anything extraordinary, there is no bludgeoning physicality or flashy tricks; it is a simple drive past VanVleet. The beauty in Gilgeous-Alexander’s move towards the rim is that he gets the problematic work done early and gives himself time to consider the finish.
To VanVleet’s credit, he stays with Gilgeous-Alexander throughout the play. VanVleet keeps his hand in Shai’s face, but the change in pace has consequences for VanVleet.
His body is out of control as he contests, and his momentum means that he cannot stop fast enough to challenge Shai effectively.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s awareness comes to the fore again, Shai decelerates hard and lays the ball into the bucket. The deceleration allows SGA to beat the defense and score on an uncontested look.
Shai’s ability to change his speed is central to his effectiveness off the dribble. Gilgeous-Alexander’s game has an off-kilter rhythm that it is difficult for defenders to play. It is hard for players to predict when SGA will slow and drop into a shot.
The combination of timing and court awareness just works for Shai, and it gets buckets.
Shai plays Kyle Lowry in an isolation situation in the play above. Lowry is an excellent defender, and Lowry’s effectiveness on defense stems from his pest-like tendencies. Lowry likes to get into the body of the opposing player and harasses the other player relentlessly.
The intense pressure applied by Lowry usually leads to mistakes from the opposing player.
Beating Lowry can be tricky, but the first step in beating Lowry comes from creating separation. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is exceptional at creating space on this possession, and he lulls Lowry into a false sense of security by slowly dribbling towards the break.
The slow dribble implies that Shai is looking to dish the ball instead of drive inside. The move pulls Lowry away from the driving lane. The seam appears, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attacks the alley, he uses a quick reverse into a hard first step that creates the necessary space.
The combination of moves creates space for Shai to go downhill and attack the rim. Moreover, Shai’s movement is unexpected by the defense. There is a lot of time left on the clock, and Lowry expects SGA to run through the progressions of the offense.
Oklahoma City has tended to use the full 24 seconds of the clock this season. They have not attacked at the first opportunity, the Thunder have attacked when excellent opportunities present themselves.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s drive is surprising as it does not follow the usual norms of Thunder offense.
The combination of dribbles moves and the element of surprise means that Kyle Lowry is forced into a position where he is playing desperate, recovery defense. The side effect of SGA’s aggression implies that he takes the first help defender out of the play as well.
In the second phase of the drive, Shai shows game intelligence when selecting a look to knockdown. A lot of players are aware of the numbers surrounding basketball; they know that looks inside three feet are one of the most efficient shots in the game.
There is a desire to get to the rim for good looks.
In this example, a shot at the rim is an inefficient opportunity. Serge Ibaka and Patrick McCaw have both rotated over towards the paint to contest a potential shot at the edge.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would have to play three defenders to get a chance off in this area of the floor, and this would be an inefficient look.
Gilgeous-Alexander shows excellent awareness in pulling up for a mid-range jumper instead of taking the ball to the hole. The situational awareness shown late in the game by SGA is hugely impressive; he understands that easy is not always right in the scheme of the offense.
The pull-up jumper requires a lot of work during this scenario; Gilgeous-Alexander needs to slow down before the defense can react to the deceleration. The look requires Gilgeous-Alexander’s form to be technically sound, and a small mistake will mean that the ball rims out.
Shai does well on this possession, and he plants his right leg hard onto the court. The plant kills all forward momentum and allows SGA to stop on a dime. Gilgeous-Alexander’s quick deceleration creates space to pull up for the jumper.
It is a brilliant decision on Shai’s part, and he finds space inside when defenses are close to him.
The form on the jump shot itself is excellent; the high release point is difficult for the defense to challenge. SGA elevates nicely on the mid-range jumper, and his jumping path does not have any wobbles.
Gilgeous-Alexander goes straight up in the air, and there are no little errors that can affect the thrust on the jumper.
This play comes at the end of the game, and it is different from the possessions above. All of the examples above have Shai as the primary ball-handler. Chris Paul is the primary ball-handler on this play, and the ball only drops to SGA as part of the desperate, secondary opportunity.
Shai shows calmness and control in a pressure situation where it is easy to get flustered and make mistakes. This is a positive trait on the part of Gilgeous-Alexander; he has the mental strength to execute in these situations.
The play made by Gilgeous-Alexander is pretty simple in itself, but it is the qualities that he displays that stands out to me. SGA’s mind works quickly, and he executes without mistake. The defense is scrambled, Lowry’s rushing into defensive positioning can throw off a player, but Gilgeous-Alexander keeps his head.
The side-step works allow Shai to dodge the primary defender and get into the open space he wants. It would be easy for a young guard to chuck up a shot with the clock running down. I have seen plenty of young players get panicked and just shoot the ball.
Gilgeous-Alexander takes his time to work the ball and find a good shot. He is aware of the pressure that stems from a low-shot clock situation, but it does not drastically affect Shai’s process.
Gilgeous-Alexander maintains his focus on creating a good shot, not a quick shot.
The finish is pretty good, Shai gets off a weird, jumping bank shot that drops through the hoop. The finish is unorthodox, to say the least, the defense does not expect SGA to use such an unusual finish.
The finish uses the element of surprise expertly, and it means the look is relatively uncontested.
It is vital for Gilgeous-Alexander to have these unusual moves in his bag; the steps add a layer of unpredictability to his game. Shai needs that element of unpredictability in his game, and these tricks make it harder for the defense to guard him.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an impressive young basketball player in terms of his skills and mentality. His maturity and sponge-like learning ability will stand him in good stead for the future.
Gilgeous-Alexander will need to spend more time working on his inside scoring and growing his efficiency from this area of the floor.
Steve Nash is a useful model for Shai to look towards in terms of becoming a better finisher inside. Nash was not a brilliant athlete, but his body control and sense of timing on offense were crucial to Steve being such an efficient offensive player.
Any basketball fan widely discusses Nash’s passing ability with a basic understanding of motion offense, Nash’s scoring is less considered as he was not known as a scorer. Steve Nash was hard to stop inside because he had every trick in the book.
Nash had feints, off-hand finishes, wrong foot layups, and you name it, and Steve Nash had it. The sheer variety of tools and his speed of thought in chaining combinations together generated good looks when it did not seem possible.
This needs to be required reading for Shai as Steve Nash proved that a player who relies on technical ability to beat defenders rather than physical attributes could succeed at the highest level.
I would like to see Shai spending time with Nash over the season going through the moves and understanding why each trick worked. I would also like to see Shai work with Chris Paul to develop his body control.
Paul’s ability to contort his body and slide into gaps that other players cannot reach is one of the reasons why he is such a capable finisher.
He does not allow contact with his body to disturb the shot, and this is something that Gilgeous-Alexander will have to learn.
Elite point guard has to be able to finish through contact if they want to play at the highest level.