Before we came into the 2020-21 season, there were a few major questions surrounding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The first question being was how Shai would operate as the lead option in an offense. In his first two seasons, Gilgeous-Alexander was the third option on the floor in most situations.
The second question related to his position. Gilgeous-Alexander played as a point guard for the Clippers but his usage was low. In his first season for the Thunder, Shai played more like a shooting guard. He was focused on getting his shot first and then thinking about creating for others. Coming into his third season in the league, nobody quite knew what position Shai would play.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s play was a resounding success and he answered both of those questions. It is clear that Gilgeous-Alexander has the ability to lead a very good team and it is evident that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a point guard.
His numbers jump off the page. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists per game on 62.3% TS. Only eight players in the league averaged more than 23 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Out of those eight players, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the only one who is not an All-Star.
His shooting numbers are even more ridiculous. Gilgeous-Alexander had the same true-shooting percentage as Damian Lillard despite having significantly worse spacing than Lillard. 62.3% TS is an elite mark and is a decent indicator of Shai’s hyper-efficient scoring.
Gilgeous-Alexander grew into being a highly efficient three-level scorer due to his improvements in the two most important shooting zones. Gilgeous-Alexander shot 41.8% from behind the arc. In 2019-20, Shai shot 34.7% on 3PA. His efficiency took a huge leap and it changed how defenses guard him.
Opposing defenses got more aggressive with their coverages and went about trying to get the ball out of Shai’s hands way above the 3-point line. Gilgeous-Alexander stretched the floor with his marksmanship from downtown and this opened up the interior.
Moreover, Shai added a pull-up three to his game which makes him even more deadly out of triple threat situations. Gilgeous-Alexander shot 50% on pull-up threes last season and dotted the opposing team’s best defender whenever he crossed the timeline. His length and smooth, fast release made it very difficult for the defense to contest his jumper without fouling.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s driving game was effective during his second season but Shai elevated his game in his third season by adding strength. When Gilgeous-Alexander stepped onto the court against the Charlotte Hornets in the season opener, he was noticeably stronger. Over the offseason, Shai added strength to his long, lithe frame.
His footwork still consists of those changes in stride and shifts in pace but Gilgeous-Alexander is now able to bully smaller players out of his way. His newfound strength allows Shai to shrug the defense off and create an easy look at the rim.
His scoring arsenal has not changed greatly from the player he was in 2019 but Gilgeous-Alexander has refined his tools. His jumper is more fluid and faster. That marginal improvement in his mechanics has led to Shai becoming a sniper from downtown. His strength provides him with another method of attacking the defense to go alongside with his off-beat movement. Those variations create uncertainty for the defense. It is evolution not revolution on the scoring front.
His passing is where the most has changed in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game. Gilgeous-Alexander has grown into being a patient, creative floor general who knows how to find his teammates for good looks. It is clear that Shai has benefitted from his year with Chris Paul, SGA reads the court much better than he did in his sophomore season.
His game has fundamentally changed compared to his first season in Oklahoma City. He was a scoring guard when he played as part of ‘the Three Amigos’ lineup and posted an assist rate of 14.8%. In 2020-21, Gilgeous-Alexander posted an assist rate of 31.1% as he ran the offense for large portions of the game. The numbers reflect Shai’s change in his approach, he played with the team in mind rather than considering just his own production.
Shai’s passing in the pick and roll was precise and well-timed. Gilgeous-Alexander waits until he has the attention of two defenders before shovelling a dump pass to the big rolling to the rim.
The Thunder ran a lot of pick and pop action last season and Gilgeous-Alexander often flourished in this set. Whenever Al Horford or Mike Muscala stepped out to the perimeter, Gilgeous-Alexander would whip the acute angle reverse pass into their hands accurately before the defense could respond.
Gilgeous-Alexander became better at recognising body positioning. Whenever the defense disengaged from the weak-side corner to pressure the strong-side of the floor, Gilgeous-Alexander always seemed to notice the change in position. When that happened, Shai would flashed a cross-court pass over the defense to the shooter for an easy open look.
His improvements are best illustrated through film study and I will break down one of his games to show exactly where he generates value. I have selected his game against the San Antonio Spurs on February 24th as the source material for the reason that Gilgeous-Alexander dominated the game and led the Thunder to victory.
As I stated earlier, the pull-up three has been a reliable tool for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander whenever he is scoring in the half-court. In this possession, you can start to understand why Gilgeous-Alexander has become so efficient (50%) on this shot type.
Patty Mills picks up on Shai at the point of attack. Gilgeous-Alexander holds the size advantage but Mills is an active, handsy player on defense. Isaiah Roby sets a meaty screen which puts Mills behind the play. From that point onwards, Shai has Mills on his back and can create in the 4v4 setting.
Watch the rest of the floor once Mills is taken out of the possession. Eubanks closes out on Shai but angles his body towards the weak-side of the floor where there are two help defenders. On the strong-side of the floor, the player guarding Maledon is completely focused on Shai. His feet are well-positioned if he is willing to attempt a strip.
Shai processes all of this information and recognises that driving to the rim is not the best option in this action. The space available to him is only available in this instance, a split second later and Patty Mills will have closed the separation. Gilgeous-Alexander ends up draining the easy pull-up jumper.
He generates the shot smoothly with effortless footwork. Shai hops into the jumper with both feet to preload momentum for the jumper. He does not need to dip down and waste time off the clock setting himself up for the pull-up shot. The hop aligns his feet towards the rim and makes his knees springy with kinetic energy.
It is simple footwork executed to a high level. The other point worth noting about this pull-up jumper is how savvy Shai is. If you watch the film closely, you can see Patty Mills grabbing at Shai’s arm before SGA goes up for the jumper. That contact is illegal and usually results in free throws, a highly efficient look. Gilgeous-Alexander goes up quickly with his jumper to get a clean look but to also make the foul obvious to the sideline referee.
In this instance, Mills pulls his hand away at the last moment and does not leave a hand in the cookie jar. However, there will be less diligent defensive players and Shai will start to earn frequent trips to the stripe if he continues to be smart with his body.
I thought this possession was representative of what Shai did for the Thunder this season time and time again. He catches the ball late in the shot clock at the end of a tight game. A well executed possession puts the game away for the Thunder and secures the victory. It is a pressurised situation and Shai performs incredibly well.
He receives the ball from Kenrich with little time on the clock and with Patty Mills in his jersey. The entirety of the Spurs’ defense is focused on stopping him. Mills is aggressive at the start of the possession as he tries to deny the pass from Kenrich Williams.
Like the majority of Shai’s baskets, everything starts with his footwork. Gilgeous-Alexander uses a hard dribble to feint a drive to the rim and tricks Mills into stepping backwards. The hard dribble is complemented by a long first step; that stride allows Shai to get in front of Patty Mills.
After the first move, it is difficult for Patty to guard Shai effectively. His momentum is travelling backwards and there is enough separation for Gilgeous-Alexander to release a jumper. Even if Mills decelerates quickly, he is off balance and scrabbling to close distance.
Shai takes away all of his forward travel as he plants his right leg onto the court. That aspect of footwork transfers energy from forwards to backwards and provides Shai with the spring needed to hop back behind the 3-point line. It is a fluid, smooth move that puts even more distance between Shai and Mills.
From that point onwards, the late shot-clock situation is elementary. Gilgeous-Alexander has more than enough room to get his shot off but he delays slightly. Shai makes sure that he gets a clean look at the hoop by faking Mills out of his own shoes.
The combination of footwork and control is oddly reminiscent of James Harden. Harden is one of the best space interpreters in the NBA and always seem to know where he is on the court. Shai seems to have develop the same situational awareness.
The use of the step-back is the other parallel to Harden. In recent years, a step-back jumper has become one of the most important tools in a scorer’s bag. Harden is clearly the best player in the league at hitting this difficult look with consistency. James Harden will dribble the air out of the ball, lull the defense to sleep before launching his shot.
Gilgeous-Alexander uses the step-back in the flow of the offense much like Damian Lillard. Shai’s step-back is a release valve for the Thunder’s offense whenever Shai cannot get to the rim.
Shai has been an efficient isolation scorer during his time in Oklahoma City. During his first season in Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander was comparable to Jaysom Tatum in terms of efficiency in isolation actions. SGA has found another level and his improvement is pretty clear in this video clip.
The possession starts with Trey Lyles guarding Shai out on the perimeter. Lyles is a mobile forward but he is on an island against a smooth, cerebral point guard. Shai has a clear mismatch on this possession and he attacks the match-up ruthlessly.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is aware that Lyles wants to maintain his position in the non-painted area and wall off the rim. His first task on this possession is get Lyles moving and open up a driving lane to the hoop.
The first combination of dribble moves achieves that goal without much wasted motion. Gilgeous-Alexander crosses through his legs but it is his body position that sells the dribble. Shai makes it seem like he is driving hard to the rim. That feint forces Lyles to drop back a half-step towards the painted area.
Gilgeous-Alexander decelerates quickly with a hard plant of his lead leg; that deceleration allows Shai to progress fluidly into a step-back opportunity. By that point in the possession, the combination of dribble moves has opened up plenty of space for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The creation of space means that Lyles is no longer in control of the possession. Trey cannot dictate Shai’s offensive options anymore with his body positioning and he is left reacting blindly to the threat that Gilgeous-Alexander presents. Lyles’ panic means that he closes out hard and opens up the seam for Shai to attack.
Gilgeous-Alexander turns the corner with a long, striding step and steps onto an open runway to the basket. It must be noted that the Spurs’ defense is porous in this instance. Dejounte Murray should slide from the corner and rotate middle. Keldon Johnson’s rotation to the painted area should be quicker. SGA feasts on the weak defense and sinks a sweet reverse layup.
The Thunder run a soft screen with Kenrich Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The screen means that the Spurs switch defenders and Trey Lyles ends up guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It is a good match-up for SGA and he wastes no time getting into his offense.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s first step is hugely effective on this possession. Gilgeous-Alexander is not necessarily an elite athlete in terms of explosiveness but he is very good at using his long legs to stretch past the defense. He easily bypasses Lyles and faces the rest of the Spurs’ defense.
His recognition of defensive pressure is impressive in this instance. Gilgeous-Alexander sees Bates Diop rotating middle and understands that he has very few offensive options left. Going to the rim will be difficult due to the presence of a rim protector.
There are not any easy passing options either. DeRozan refuses to help one pass away and stays tethered to Dort in the corner. San Antonio also have two players on the weak-side of the floor who can pick off cross-court passes. The only option for Gilgeous-Alexander is a tough pull-up jumper.
The footwork to create the jumper is faultless; Gilgeous-Alexander slides his lead leg and changes the direction of his movement. Shai goes from travelling North-South to moving East-West as he approaches the rim. That shift in direction creates just enough angle to get a shot off for Shai.
The leg slide also creates enough lift for Shai to elevate and release a fadeaway jumper. With one shift of direction, Gilgeous-Alexander creates a shooting window for a quick jumper while three defensive players converge on him.
Muscala sets a solid screen at the break and gets Shai Gilgeous-Alexander into open space. At this point in time, Gilgeous-Alexander plays Jakob Poetl. Poetl is well-positioned to stop the drive and is a solid rim protector.
Poetl steps out to close the driving angle for Shai and prevent any path to the rim. It is smart, solid defense but Shai reads the situation correctly. SGA flicks a reverse pass into Mike Muscala’s hands who drains the open three.
Shai leverages his scoring threat really well here and draws two defenders. He understands the threat he presents and knows how a defence will respond to him. The pass itself is beautiful, it is such a casual pass but the difficulty of the dish is really tough. Shai is throwing an acute angle pass directly into Muscala’s hands while Muscala is unsighted.
Gilgeous-Alexander has grown exponentially as a playmaker. The year that he spent learning from Chris Paul has clearly improved Shai’s court awareness and passing vision. I truly believe that Gilgeous-Alexander would have averaged eight assists per game if he had better outside shooting around him. There were countless times when Shai found the corners and there would be a missed jumper.
Things to Work On:
While Gilgeous-Alexander has improved greatly as a scorer and as a playmaker, there are still areas for him to improve. Gilgeous-Alexander has proved that he can lead an offense in an efficient, productive manner.
The next step for Gilgeous-Alexander is improving on the defensive end of the floor. Gilgeous-Alexander was pretty poor defensively last season. He did not get into a defensive stance enough and had a terrible habit of disengaging from the play once his man had beaten him.
The addition of Giddey should mean that Shai’s load as a playmaker is reduced this season and he should have the energy to commit himself to the less glamorous end of the floor. Gilgeous-Alexander has all of the physical tools to be a competent defensive player but he needs to expend more effort on defense.
Gilgeous-Alexander needs to stay attached to his assignment and the best way to achieve this goal is for Shai to improve when it comes to navigating screens. Eddie Jones was excellent at sliding his body around the screen and sticking with his man on defense.
When a screen does not create separation between the defender and their assignment, it is easier to pressure the assignment and force mistakes. Good defense at the point of attack is highly important for a sound team defense and the Thunder can achieve that goal if Shai takes defense seriously this year.
Gilgeous-Alexander can develop into being a legitimately great NBA player. He already took that first step last season when he made hyper-efficient winning contributions to a team that had no business winning games. The Thunder were 16-19 with Shai on the court and were just outside of the play-in.
Without Shai, the Thunder were absolutely awful. The important thing for Shai is for him to continue refining his scoring arsenal and becoming more competitive on the defensive end of the floor.