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Early Returns: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a point guard

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Shai has been excellent in the first twelve games of the season

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the season started, there was a lot of debate about Shai’s natural position. Gilgeous-Alexander played incredibly well at the shooting guard spot last season; he averaged a career high in points on good efficiency. In many ways, SGA was the perfect complement to Chris Paul in the back-court.

Paul managed the game and focused on setting up teammates while Gilgeous-Alexander used his off-beat footwork to get downhill for looks at the rim. There was a good synergy between the two guards and that seemed like the best way to get the most out of Gilgeous-Alexander’s talent.

The Thunder traded away two of the ‘Three Amigos’ in the offseason. Dennis departed for Los Angeles while Chris made his way to Arizona to team with Devin Booker. The lack of shot creators has meant that Shai’s role has increased hugely. Gilgeous-Alexander is the lead option on offense; the ball defaults to him when the game gets tight. SGA no longer has the luxury of an experienced closer beside him, that responsibility rests on his shoulders.

Gilgeous-Alexander has performed admirably so far; his playmaking has been crisp and Shai has displayed an eye for the pass. Gilgeous-Alexander has slowed down and worked to find his teammates in good spots.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s statistical impact can be viewed in his 13.6 potential assists per game for the first eleven games. Potential assists can be a noisy stat; the statistic makes the assumption that all assists are created equally which is untrue. A pass to Hamidou Diallo in the left corner for three is not necessarily a good assist.

However, potential assists give a sense of SGA’s creativity on the court and the volume of looks that he can create for a teammate. Gilgeous-Alexander’s production as a point guard is in line with other elite creators; Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry are both around the same mark. The numbers would suggest that SGA is operating at a high level as a point guard and that his ball-handling can be truly elite.

Shai’s turnovers have shot up from 1.9 per game last season to 2.7 turnovers per game this season. His ball retention has slipped with the increase in responsibilities; this slippage has occurred because defenses play him differently this season. Shai has faced more doubles this season than he has faced during his first two years in the league.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder’s primary creator and defenses have hounded him late in games as an attempt to force turnovers. The game against Charlotte is the perfect example of Shai having issues against an aggressive press. SGA did not get a breather to survey the floor and work out the action; the Hornets’ pressure flustered him.

Charlotte was able to force two turnovers in quick succession as a result of Shai’s discomfort when facing two defenders. Charlotte almost stole a win away from the Thunder as a result of these errors. It was a costly mistake but a valuable learning experience. Shai will eventually figure how to play doubles and how to use his body to shield the ball from pressure.

Shai’s shift in role can be seen in his AST%; Shai is looking to assist teammates on 29.5% of his possessions. That is a marked increase from last season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s AST% stood at 14.5% in 2019-20. The balance between his passing and scoring is still being worked on, Shai is not perfect as a point guard yet.

On occasion, Shai has been too willing to pass the ball instead of converting a good look for himself. His willingness to pass is admirable but it can lead to the Thunder’s offense stagnating. When the ball is being shifted from side to side without the defense being punctured, the Thunder leave themselves with little time on the clock to find a good look.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been best making plays off the drive. Gilgeous-Alexander is an efficient inside scorer, 62.1% on all looks inside 5ft this season and he uses his inside game to pressure a defense. SGA’s crafty finishing and body control means that the opposing team has to bring over a help defender to guard Shai. Gilgeous-Alexander has been ruthless at exploiting these situations.

Coach Mark Daigneault has designed the Thunder’s offense so that there is a person sitting in the corner at all times. Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley are two of the players who have played the floor-spacer role within the offense. When defenses help off Dort or Bazley, Shai has found the pass to the corner easily.

Dort is getting 1.4 3PA per game off passes from Shai; Lu is converting these looks at a 46.7% clip. It is a similar story for Darius Bazley, Bazley is getting 1.9 3PA per game off passes from Shai. Bazley is only shooting 19% on these looks but these are good shots to take and his shooting will eventually come around.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to find the corner repeatedly creates 2v1 situations in that area of the floor; the pass forces the opposing defense to make a decision about who to guard. The defender making the help rotation to the corner opens the opportunity for Bazley or Dort to swing the ball to George Hill for an open look. In either example, OKC get a good look from beyond the arc.

Coach Daigneault has also ran a lot of pick and pop actions this season. Al Horford has been a key beneficiary of this set. Horford will set a screen for Gilgeous-Alexander and then pop behind the arc.

Gilgeous-Alexander has become adept at whipping the ball behind him into Horford’s hands. Horford is getting a lot of wide open looks from 3-point land, 4.0 3PA per game. At the moment, Al is only shooting 27% on these looks but I would expect those numbers to tick upwards. Horford is a career 35% shooter from downtown.

Shai has always been a patient passer but his instinctive passing seems to have improved as well. The Thunder’s motion offense has involved a lot more cutting this year. Hamidou Diallo has often operated as a cutter from the corner or the dunker’s spot. Shai has been pretty solid at spotting cuts and making the play.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring is similar to last year; his field goals attempts have increased marginally and his field goal percentage has improved to 48.8%. Shai’s true shooting currently stands at 59.4%. His numbers have largely stayed the same but his shot diet has changed quite a lot.

Gilgeous-Alexander is taking 4.9 3PA per game which is a career high for him. Shai has traded some of those twos for threes. He is taking more pull-up jumpers, Gilgeous-Alexander has taken 36 pull-up 3-point attempts this season. Shai is making these jumpers at a 36.1% clip and the quick, pull-up has added another layer to his game. When defenses are backing off him, SGA has been more than happy to take threes off the dribble.

Gilgeous-Alexander took 34.9% of his looks last season from the mid-range. Shai was very good at using his footwork to stop quickly and get good shots from mid. Defenses in the today’s league like to funnel towards this zone and Shai repeatedly punished teams. SGA shot 50% on all long twos last season which is frankly remarkable.

In the offseason, Shai put on muscle and he is using that newfound strength to bully his way to the rim. Gilgeous-Alexander has been very good at using his frame to shrug off defenders and find looks within 3ft. It is a small change in his shot diet but Shai’s willingness to attack the basket means that he has become much more efficient. Marginal gains all add up.

Shai still has to work on his game; I would like to see his ball retention improve and I think that Gilgeous-Alexander could be very effective off the ball. SGA has the shooting and playmaking to be effective making plays off a screen. However, he is a special player and there will be All-NBA teams in his future.

At this moment in time, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an efficient three-level scorer who can run the offense efficiently and productively. There are very few players in the league who have such well-rounded scoring games and there are even fewer who can complement that ability with very good shot creation. Shai is a rising star in the NBA and it will be awesome to watch him ball out over the next three or four years.