The Oklahoma City Thunder will look vastly different this season. It’s now Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s team. Can the 13th-best young player deliver?
Praise showered down from the heavens — and from the keyboards of fans and journalists alike — when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded star wing Paul George to the L.A. Clippers in the summer of 2019. The foundation of the trade was built upon a cadre of draft picks, as well as a lanky guard who was selected 11th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft out of the University of Kentucky.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander displayed a fair amount of promise during his rookie campaign in Los Angeles, starting 73 games and averaging 10.8 points per game for a team that would ultimately fall in six games to the not-yet-injury-depleted Golden State Warriors. However, his star truly began to shine following his move to Oklahoma City.
Gilgeous-Alexander immediately found success on a Thunder team that surprised many in and around the NBA when they finished as the fifth seed in a competitive Western Conference. The success was most apparent when he was slotted next to point guard Chris Paul.
In 1,507 minutes in which the two shared the court, Oklahoma City outscored its opponents by 237 points and posted a net rating of plus-7.4, according to NBA.com. The presence of Paul — as well as sixth man Dennis Schroder — allowed the Thunder to utilize Gilgeous-Alexander like a Swiss Army knife on both ends of the court. (Quick aside: For as impressive as the Paul-SGA combination was statistically, Schroder-SGA was arguably more effective, as they posted a point differential of plus-222 and a net rating of plus-8.8.)
Standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander was able to adapt to his environment like a liquid in a glass. Oklahoma City frequently played him off-ball at the 2 and even the 3 on occasion — though he did also get his fair share of ball-handling duties — and sicced him on opponents’ second-best perimeter-oriented wing with Paul or Schroder most-often lining up opposite the best.
Getting Gilgeous-Alexander a bucket wasn’t always the primary focus of the Thunder’s offense, but where he excelled when given the opportunity was out of screen action.
His best weapon is his ability to gain a vertical advantage on his defender with a quick and long first step. While he doesn’t embody speed like fellow former Wildcats De’Aaron Fox or prime John Wall, opponents had a difficult time staying in front of Gilgeous-Alexander, particularly when they were hindered for even the slightest of moments by a screen; he ranked in the 79th percentile (0.96 points per possession) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2019-20. He also was highly successful once he reached the paint thanks to tremendous touch and in-air athleticism. It wasn’t uncommon for Gilgeous-Alexander to absorb contact while in mid-air, adjust and lightly toss the ball through the net. He shot 61.7 percent from within three feet of the rim and frequently deployed a tender floater to thwart the verticality of opposing rim-protectors.
Gilgeous-Alexander developed a nice rapport with center Steven Adams, particularly during pick-and-roll situations. Adams excels at setting solid screens, and he was able to free up Gilgeous-Alexander from hounding wings at a high frequency. From there, SGA would either take it to the rack or dish off to a rolling Adams, neither of which was particularly appealing to opponents.
However, for as good as he is, the Canadian is not without his flaws.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s outside shot remained mediocre at best, due in large part to a hitch in his form that ebbed and flowed in its obviousness; he shot 34.7 percent across 251 3-point attempts last season. Additionally, his defensive numbers — 3.0 defensive win shares; 0.4 defensive Box Plus-Minus, according to Basketball-Reference — don’t always match what is seen on film.
His slender physique — he checks in at a meager 180 pounds or so — was often exploited by opponents last season, subjecting him to screen after screen. His overall lack of strength prevented him from fighting through or resulted in him being pushed under the screen, granting opposing guards a window to wreak havoc; Gilgeous-Alexander ranked in the 30th percentile (0.94 PPP) when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers last campaign, according to NBA.com.
Additionally, it wasn’t uncommon to witness him standing still opposite the ball when it wasn’t in his hands, and his awareness in the team defense wasn’t always the sharpest, as he often rotated over or recognized specific actions too late.
However, for every defensive lapse or ugly jumper, there is one that fully encapsulates Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to be a legitimate two-way force in the NBA. Like here, for instance:
What will Shai Gilgeous-Alexander be able to accomplish with an inexperienced supporting cast?
Oklahoma City will look much different during the upcoming season than they did last year. Gone is Paul; gone is Adams; gone is Schroder; gone is Danilo Gallinari (the only teammate he had for both seasons in his career); gone is head coach Billy Donovan. The Thunder are now, arguably, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s team.
Will he continue to progress toward becoming the All-Star-level player and foundational piece that he displayed at times during the 2019-20 season? Or will it be proven that he is better off as a supporting character? The upcoming season may be the true beginning of the tale of Gilgeous-Alexander’s career.
The Thunder acquired guard George Hill and center Al Horford in separate trades this offseason in part to add to their draft capital munitions, but also to help address the Paul, Schroder and Adams-sized holes in their rotation. While neither is as good as those that departed before them, new head coach Mark Daigneault will likely look to utilize them in similar roles, at least to start the season.
It would seem likely that Gilgeous-Alexander will assume the lead ball-handler role left void by the departure of Paul, which will push Hill off-ball for large chunks of the game. Hill isn’t what he used to be offensively and is a massive downgrade from Paul and even Schroder, but he still packs a punch on the defensive end of the court. This may prevent Daigneault from having to deploy Gilgeous-Alexander to defend the opponent’s main ball-handler and allow him to focus on having as great an impact offensively as possible.
Meanwhile, while Horford took a major step back on both sides of the ball during his lone season with the Philadelphia 76ers, there is solace to be taken in the fact that he will no longer be tasked with slotting alongside a fellow center as was the case with Joel Embiid. He will have the paint all to himself on each end and was previously viewed as a legitimate pick-and-roll threat during his time in Atlanta and Boston. He’s no Adams, but he may be an effective facsimile if last season proves to be a fluke.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander deserves to be in the top 25-under-25 rankings, but where he lands has as much to do with what he could show than what he has shown. He’s a legitimate talent who has displayed flashes of greatness on both sides of the ball, but the 2020-21 season will go a long way in determining whether he continues to climb up the board or stalls out. The Thunder are clearly focused on building the team around him, but whether that is a prudent choice remains largely unknown.