Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is moving towards stardom, a special talent who is already making the most of every possession.
Watch the first possession of the finest game of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s career. After the opening tip, he jogs to the weakside corner. As Steven Adams jockeys for post position and Chris Paul tries to find an angle for an entry pass, you can see Gilgeous-Alexander lean slightly to peer around his defender. But his feet stay planted, motionless, for a good six or seven seconds. Eventually, the ball ends up out of bounds, and Gilgeous-Alexander reanimates long enough to bring himself to the other end of the court.
By the end of the game, he’ll have run 2.68 miles, the most of any player on either team. He’ll have scored 20 points on just 12 shots, and added 20 rebounds and 10 assists — at that point, just the fifth 20-20 triple-double of the last decade. He is, of course, just 21 years old and in his second season, making him the youngest player to accomplish this feat in the 3-point era, by nearly two years.
What makes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander such a unique talent?
Gilgeous-Alexander made an enormous leap this season, from raw, fringe role player to borderline All-Star. In doing so, he secured his place among the next generation of rising NBA stars. A generation that is, in large part, defined by its kinetic energy. Luka Doncic is highly skilled but physical power elevates that skill. Ja Morant and Trae Young never stop moving. Zion Williamson never lands. They are not all blinding sprinters or explosive leapers but, from Jayson Tatum to Devin Booker to Donovan Mitchell, they are incredibly productive and incredibly young. And while they will probably all get better, they won’t get younger. They will never run faster or jump higher than they do right now.
And of this group, no one’s brilliance seems as removed from their gross-motor gifts than Gilgeous-Alexander.
To be clear, Gilgeous-Alexander covers ground. Only six players ran more miles on NBA courts than he did this season. He’s all over, at both ends of the court, and he can outrun a defender in transition or blow past a backpedaling opponent in the half-court. But he does it without electricity. He’s not lazy, and he’s not some loping, laconic slasher like Tracy McGrady, drifting through the defense in a waking dream state. He just appears to be saving it all for the exact moment he needs it.
The effect is camouflage. He’s the old parable about the player you don’t notice until you check the box score and realize he put up 18 and 7. The numbers just pile up but they’re simple enough in isolation — a smart dump-off, a rebound and push in transition, a strong drive against a lazy closeout — that you can lose track of their aggregate volume. The key, obviously, is that he has the size and skill to take advantage of all those openings.
Gilgeous-Alexander is already a strong, perceptive and disruptive defender. The length that he uses to block shots and shut down passing lanes also allows him to slink around rim protectors and leverage his soft touch. He has the 6-foot-7 body of a wing but the muscle memory of a point guard. He is a dangerous spot-up shooter and robotically precise inside the arc. And, for all the tools at his disposal, he doesn’t seem obsessively loyal to any of them in particular.
There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that the restraint and simplicity in Gilgeous-Alexander’s game is circumstantial. He started alongside three veterans and played about a third of his minutes alongside two other point guards who demand primacy — Paul, by well-earned reputation, and Dennis Schroder, by impenetrable and largely unjustifiable self-confidence. If Paul’s domineering style could turn down the volume on James Harden, should we really expect to hear a 21-year-old, second-year guard belting out solos? In this scenario, what else is there to do but spackle the holes and shine in complement? Maybe underneath the facade of control, there is a ball of fast-twitch fiber waiting to be fired, an inner Westbrook waiting to be unleashed.
But I’m when it comes to developmental arcs and aesthetic mentoring, I’m a hopeless romantic. I’d like to think that Gilgeous-Alexander is what he is, style-wise. That, if pressed, he’d admit a certain disdain for the hyperactivity of his peers. And that his leap this season is not just by virtue of confidence or reps or a different supporting cast, it’s all of those things and the validation of learning from the NBA’s premier control freak.
Chris Paul is a man who wastes nothing. As a basketball player, he is a recycling system of peak efficiency turning everything — inches of space, an off-balance defender, an emotionally vulnerable referee, an untucked jersey — into positive point differential. He has thrived among gazelles and cannonballs and freakshow acrobats for more than a decade, in large part by refusing to cede control of the moment. He will not be run ragged and he will not run at all, unless the moment calls for it. He will walk you to exactly where he wants you, and then he will destroy you.
I don’t really know that seeing Paul’s physical and emotional artistry up close has been in any way liberating for Gilgeous-Alexander. His game certainly lacks the hard edge, the implied anger and violence of Paul’s. But for a player uniquely suited to succeed in any moment it must be inspiring to have a mentor who doesn’t wear himself out chasing every scoring opportunity that moves, to see, in real-time, that basketball time and space really can be bent to your own designs.