By inking Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to a max rookie extension this past offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder confirmed what everyone already knew: he is the foundational star of their rebuild. The goal entering this season was to discern more clarity regarding who among the team’s other nine 23-and-under guys could emerge as a complementary player next to Gilgeous-Alexander’s stardom.
During the early portion of 2021-22, 19-year-old Josh Giddey has been the leading candidate for that role. Through seven games (all starts), the Australian ball-handler is averaging 11.3 points (49.5 percent true shooting), 5.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.4 steals. Already, he is Oklahoma City’s premier passer and one of the better distributors around the Association.
According to Cleaning The Glass, among players classified as “wings,” he ranks in the 100th percentile in both assist rate (32.8 percent) and assist-to-usage ratio (1.38). If it weren’t for the poor offensive talent around him, those marks would look even gaudier. Whether it’s leveraging his 6-foot-8 frame to rifle feeds over the top or set the table with laydown deliveries, he’s a marvelous interior passer, and can also laser feeds from a live dribble.
The Thunder have done exceptionally well to put him in optimal situations offensively, often ensuring he catches the ball on the move or with a slight advantage already constructed, so he can wield his size and creativity to maintain that advantage. They’ll deploy him in many early offense or secondary actions, such as side pick-and-rolls or dribble hand-offs, and avoid asking him to attack a structured defense.
He’s also empowered to push the tempo for fastbreak opportunities. Giddey is succeeding in these avenues. He doesn’t (yet) have the burst or handle to frequently initiate from a standstill, so he is not typically required to. His success is a testament to a team recognizing how to utilize its young talent and fashioning a game-plan to convey that understanding. Giddey deserves much of the praise, but not every franchise achieves this. Kudos to everyone involved because it’s breeding a lot of fun, snappy decision-making like this on the regular.
Although his scoring efficiency is subpar — 49.5 percent true shooting is more than five points below league average — he’s exhibited some pretty funky, effective and versatile creation ability. He’s already a foremost floater connoisseur. According to Synergy, among 32 players to take at least 10 “runners” this season, his 35.5 percent frequency (22 shots, 45.5 percent shooting) ranks first and is only rivaled by Tyrese Haliburton’s 32.3 percent frequency.
While they’ve predominantly been wide open, he’s also taken 25 pull-up two-pointers and netted 10 of them through seven games. Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, he struggled mightily in the first half against their switch-heavy scheme. Yet he adapted impressively well following intermission for 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting (three points, 1-of-4 shooting, three turnovers before the break).
He better blended applying his size vs. his off-beat approach for advantages, targeted Ivica Zubac in drop coverage more commonly for open floaters and even crossed up Paul George for a drive and bucket. The floater is his safety net, but he’s rapidly incorporating wrinkles to ensure he can be a multifaceted, paint-inclined scorer as a perimeter handler. His footwork, cadence, size and touch are engineering some encouraging shot-making (the varied stride length on the final clip is delightfully impressive).
Giddey has struggled to score at the rim (50 percent, 18th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass), only has 11 free throws in 204 minutes and is fairly unwilling to let it fly beyond the arc (6 of 19). To significantly boost his scoring efficiency and be more impactful, he’ll have to establish at least one of those facets as a reliable source of offense.
Sub-50 percent true shooting for a 19-year-old in his first seven games on a clear lottery-bound team isn’t something to worry about, but the results and shot profile are something to monitor because they’re far from ideal. However, he’s demonstrated pretty significant growth in various aspects over recent seasons and appears malleable, so expecting further strides is quite reasonable, even if not decreed.
Defensively, he also seems to have refined some holes in his pre-draft arsenal. He’s a fairly agile screen navigator and executes some heady rotations as a weakside defender on the interior. Ball-handlers with any sort of shiftiness or explosion can cook him, though. As a perimeter helper, he’s performed some impactful stunt-and-recovers from the wings. At this stage, he’s not consistent in any one area, but the outline of a 6-foot-8 dude with high feel for his basketball responsibilities becoming a good, or at least tenable, defender is crystalizing.
The top of the 2021-22 rookie class is quickly endearing itself to the league. Top-10 picks, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Franz Wager, look stellar. Davion Mitchell’s on-ball defense is badgering, carrying his “Off Night” moniker to the NBA level. Chris Duarte’s shooting, playmaking and ball-handling craft have entrenched him as a crucial starter for the Indiana Pacers.
Among the crop of dazzling first-year guys is Josh Giddey, who, with passing, flexible scoring and budding defense, has quickly joined Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a mainstay in their Southwestern digs. The Thunder have much to continue deciphering over the next few years, but initial returns suggest Giddey will help to ease the pressing nature of those questions.