Over the course of the last week, Oklahoma City have shown distinct improvement and ability to compete with top level teams. The Thunder have gone 2-0 this week and will aim for a clean sweep tonight against the Dallas Mavericks. It has been mighty impressive basketball when you consider that Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams have not featured at all.
Giddey is still absent with an ankle sprain and Jalen Williams will be returning tonight after suffering an orbital fracture in his debut game a few weeks ago. These are two of the Thunder’s better rotation players and so winning without them is a good sign of OKC’s overall strength.
There was one defining takeaway from the last week of action which stood out to me.
Shai’s game is now complete
SGA has played a fair few different roles during his time with the Thunder and it finally looks like that in his fourth season with the club, that Gilgeous-Alexander has found a way to weave all of those skills together.
In his first year, Shai played off the ball as a secondary creator and he was more reticent to let fly from deep. At that point in his career, Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper was slow and had a noticeable hitch in the mechanics. He was able to knock down outside jumpers but he preferred to work his way inside.
Shai was an excellent space-creator that season in the non-painted area, his side-step and step-back jumpers were nearly unstoppable. He combined crisp, clean footwork with great deceleration and found open shot after open shot.
Once Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Danillo Gallinari left, the shot creation burden was left to him. The secondary playmaking opportunities against collapsed defenses completely dried up and Shai’s task was to create good offense as the primary initiator while the other team completely keyed in on him.
In the 2020-21 season, Shai elevated the Thunder into being a competitive side by nailing pull-up jumpers at a remarkable rate from way downtown. He shot 50% on 3-point pull-ups which was a stunning mark.
Gilgeous-Alexander got this shot at will and his gravity changed how teams guarded the Thunder. Dort, Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley all got a lot of easy looks cutting to hoop when Gilgeous-Alexander was being doubled on nearly every possession.
Last season was noticeably more difficult for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The plantar fasciitis sapped his burst early in the season, it was harder to get to the basket completely uncontested. I think that those early season struggles benefitted Shai hugely as he became more comfortable finishing through contact at the rim.
So far this season, we have seen Shai use every single element of his game. The smooth, silky mid-range jumpers are back. The same can be said for his strong, panther-like drives to the rim. Gilgeous-Alexander is playing with grace, purpose and outstanding court awareness.
His shot diet is indicative of Shai’s completeness as a three-level scorer. 35.9% of his field goal attempts come in the short mid-range area (3-10ft). 81.5% of his total field goal attempts are shot attempts below the arc. His 3-point attempts have declined slightly from 28.2% to 18.5% but he is getting high-quality, assisted scoring opportunities, 57.1% of his makes are assisted.
Providing that Shai can sustain his performance levels, the Thunder may end up overachieving relative to preseason expectations. He is a unicorn in the sense that Gilgeous-Alexander is both a floor and ceiling-raiser.
If you look at the great shooting guards who have played in the NBA, they all added value to their teams in every facet of the game. Jerry West’s scoring was something to be admired but he made his money on the defensive end of the floor by making life difficult for elite players like Walt Frazier and John Havlicek. The same could be said for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Gilgeous-Alexander is nowhere near being an all-time great yet but he does add value to the Thunder every time he steps on the court. Shai can lock up the opposing team’s perimeter threat, bring others into play, get efficient baskets and execute with precision with the clutch.
He has done his part to be ready for the playoffs, it is now up to Sam Presti to build a roster that meets that desire and ambition.