Is it possible for a young star to become too good, too quickly? Oklahoma City has done an incredible job resetting their assets after the Russell Westbrook Era, and find themselves with an arsenal of picks and three straight deep draft classes to restock from. Does that mean they’ll get back to the NBA Finals with a new young core in the future? Is it even possible for lightning to strike twice and for the Thunder to draft a Hall of Famer in three straight drafts again? Those questions will be answered in due time, but for now, they already have a budding star on their roster in third-year point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Chris Paul, Paul George, Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden have all played for this team in the last decade, and they’re all gone. All sacrificed for the future, which may never come. The discourse surrounding the NBA is oftentimes too preoccupied with the future, focusing on assets and draft capital and equity, to appreciate what it’s got right in front of it, and that might be happening for OKC. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be an All-Star this season, but statistically, he’s basically indistinguishable from one. As of this writing, he’s averaging 22.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists, and he’s shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 41.0 percent from three and 78.8 percent from the free throw line. Since returning from a knee injury, he’s had three 25-plus point games, including a career high 42 against San Antonio.
Compared to last season, it’s a jump, but perhaps not a superstar one until you factor in how the team around him has changed. There’s no Chris Paul, no Dennis Schröder, and no Steven Adams. The second best player on this team is likely 34-year-old Al Horford, who has only played in 22 games. Luguentz Dort and Hamidou Diallo have also been good, but neither is exactly an electric scorer (though both have improved). To take a leap in both production and, more importantly, efficiency in a season in which you lose most of the top-end talent around you, is extremely rare.
Gilgeous-Alexander has always been a uniquely talented shot creator. A 6’6’’ guard who plays mostly below the rim and has a relatively slow (if accurate) jumper, but he’s an elite “wiggle” guy, who uses his length, footwork, creativity and touch to basically manufacture shots in the paint out of nothing against set defenses. It’s partly why the Thunder’s relative lack of secondary scoring talent doesn’t really matter to him. When he’s right, he’s not really hindered by tough defenses. Most guards are too small, while most wings are too slow. Before now, particularly during his rookie year with the Clippers, Shai had trouble finishing over and around rim protectors, but his craft and ability to create distance between himself and the defense has almost eliminated that concern from his game entirely. In 2019, he was blocked on just over 16% of all his attempts in the restricted area (41 times in 253 attempts). Last season that number plummeted down to just over 9% (34 times in 365 attempts), while this season’s rate has ticked up slightly (10.1%, or 16 times in 157 attempts), his overall rise in efficiency can be most easily traced to his higher number of three point attempts overall, with a three-point attempt rate of .317 compared to .247 last season. Shai’s free throw rate has climbed upwards as well, landing at a very healthy .435 this season as compared to .352 last year and .272 as a rookie.
What all of these advances in getting to the line and hitting threes has done is fully opened the floor for Shai to do what he may potentially be the best in the entire league at: self-creating quality looks against set defenders.
SGA is just so good. In-n-out dribble, gather, funky-foot finish. My goodness. pic.twitter.com/3qOkuaNe3k
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 24, 2021
His willingness to shoot more from three and efficiency in doing so, creates the space to do things like this to defenders, most of whom just have no shot against him by themselves. He’s too quick and too unpredictable. People use “wrong-footed layup” with Gilgeous-Alexander a lot, but to be completely honest, he doesn’t have a right or wrong foot. He’s a true outlier athlete, able to finish off either foot and with either hand.
Shai’s season serving as an understudy for Chris Paul, long the NBA’s premier two-point shot creator, seems to have accelerated this facet of his game and jettisoned his value as an iso scoring threat into overdrive. Of all 50 players this season currently averaging 16 or more points per game, he has the lowest percentage of two-point field goals assisted, with only 7.7 percent of all his made twos coming from assists. He’s also shooting 55.8 percent on all twos, putting him behind only James Harden and Jordan Clarkson among all top 50 scorers to score at least 75 percent of their twos unassisted.
To really drive home just how much of an outlier scorer Shai is, here’s how some of the elite iso players in the NBA are doing at these same stats this season.
This is every top 50 scorer with under 20 percent of their two point makes assisted. Think about how often players like Doncic, Paul, Lillard, and Young hunt for iso scoring opportunities, how often they hunt for weaker defenders and pounce, and then think about what it means that a 22-year-old on a mediocre at best team is able to do it better than any of them can. The final result here is a player who creates easy shots for himself and others off the dribble (Shai is the NBA’s current leader in drives per game at 25.2, with only Doncic, Young and Ja Morant above 20 a night), who can also finish from incredible angles when the defense adjusts. He’s already into fairly elite territory historically, as his place on this list of the most efficient creators in recent history shows.
In terms of level of self creation was looking into this last night and this is every season since 96-97 (when Stathead starts its tracking) where a player attempted at least 100 FGA with an eFG of .500 or better, sorted by % of assisted FGs. pic.twitter.com/MnDT416ynU
— Dom Flaim (@bondom34) March 3, 2021
What he’s going to look like when he’s 27 or 28 is probably as close to James Harden as anyone since James Harden, and what that means for the Thunder moving forward, with the embarrassment of riches they have, could mean the difference between taking a few more swings in the draft or combining those picks and going after an established star to pair with Shai sooner than most assumed when they began their rebuild this offseason. Either way, it’s hard to dispute Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ascendance into the NBA’s young elite at this point, just as it was hard to do for Luka last year and Nikola Jokić and Giannis before that.