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The benefit of struggles for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai has not performed at the same level as he did last season but there is little cause for concern

NBA: Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played at a level last season that was scarcely believable; he used his silky, unorthodox style of basketball to prey on unsuspecting defenses. He hunted mismatches and attacked the opposing team with little care for their response. Shai carried the Thunder hard and there was a lot of optimism around him replicating the same sort of performances this season.

So far, his shooting numbers are significantly worse than last season and the eye test would suggest that he is not the same player that he was a season ago. I would agree that Shai has not been up to par in the first 20 games of the season but there are contextual factors that must be remembered.

Gilgeous-Alexander had two excellent, efficient scoring seasons before the start of the 2021-22 campaign. In the ‘Three Amigos’ season, Shai greatly benefitted from the Thunder’s balanced starting five. Defenses had to pay attention to Chris Paul, Gallinari and Dennis Schroder as they could all run the score up.

Shai was able to lead the Thunder in scoring by operating in the shadows; he picked up a lot of points off easy drives to the rim as the secondary ball-handler in Billy Donovan’s sets. When he did operate on the ball as the lead play-maker, Shai was majestic in how he controlled the tempo of the game.

While Schroder played with breakneck, breathless speed and Chris Paul played with measured calm, Gilgeous-Alexander forced the opposing team to play at his pace. He slowed the game, lulled the opposing team into a false sense of calm before suddenly launching a step-back mid-range jumper.

In his second season in Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander was the lead scoring option but nobody around the league quite knew how he would operate as the main provider for the Thunder’s offense. He had always shared the court with other high-usage players who needed touches to be effective.

That unfamiliarity worked in his favour as Shai was able to slice defenses apart with his graceful, incisive movement or his physical, overwhelming drives. There were very few teams who had an answer for Shai in a 1v1 setting whenever he spotted a vacant circle near the bucket.

He has none of those advantages now; defenses know what he wants to do and have prepared accordingly. In the first game of last season against the Charlotte Hornets, the Thunder almost threw away a routine victory due to Gilgeous-Alexander struggling against doubles.

As soon as the Hornets started sending the second defender and pressing up on Shai, his back went against the wall and he lost control of his game. The Hornets forced him into mistakes and caused unnecessary turnovers. While Shai was able to steel himself and get the Thunder over the line, it was a hard win.

This season, he has faced some form of double every single time he carries the ball down the court. He is difficult to stop with just one defender so teams will happily sit off Bazley or JRE so that they can pressure Shai even more. The doubles have restricted his space and he is not able to get so many easy drives to the rim.

Every possession is harder for Shai to get and convert a quality look. At the moment, he is performing poorly but the defensive pressure he is facing is a valuable lesson for the long-term of his career. He will inevitably face doubles and triples when he plays in a postseason setting for the Thunder, why not start learning now how to resolve this issue?

Every elite guard has worked out a way to make the most out of their opportunities whenever they face a double. Damian Lillard developed his logo three into being a reliable, workable tool as a way of catching defenses off guard and finding himself an efficient shot without being completely crowded. Stephen Curry did the same with his willingness to run off the ball and get open for relocation threes.

Shai is currently figuring out his toolbox and crafting his moves for when it matters most. The pressure he faces on a nightly basis means that he is testing out his material in live game situations and gaining valuable insight for later down the line. I am not saying that he is deliberately tanking games but it would not surprise me if Shai was using the rebuild to learn and future proof his game.

Elite guards are voracious learners who need to learn a new skill every single summer to further their growth and maintain their position at that top table. Shai is simply doing the same; he is not taking 7 3s a game by accident or because he has developed a habit of settling for bad threes. This volume of threes is all about testing his long ball and making the necessary refinements.

The decision to rely on sidestep threes or step-back jumpers is driven by necessity. In the postseason, all easy looks are off the table. It is incredibly wise to have a few polished moves that can be used to take good defenses apart. These struggles are forcing Shai to adapt his game which only prepares him better for the long-term.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s growth will not be linear, it will come in dribs and drabs. The important thing to keep in mind that current challenges are important for forging a well-rounded capable player in the long-run. Shai’s star can only get better, no matter what the numbers currently say.

Author’s Note:

By the time this article goes out, you will have probably seen the news. Our esteemed friend and beat writer, Clemente Almanza will be moving to USA Today to cover the Thunder. It is an amazing opportunity for him and we truly wish him all the best. It has been a honour to work with Clemente over the last three years and to see him grow into being one of the best writers on the Thunder beat.