The NBA has seemingly forgotten about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (again). But don’t worry, that’s not going to last much longer.
SGA was overlooked entering college as well. Though he was offered and accepted a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, he wasn’t the traditional five-star recruit that John Calipari and Big Blue Nation had been accustomed to bringing in.
By the time the team’s annual pro day rolled around, word was starting to trickle out that Gilgeous-Alexander looked like the best player on the team. At the end of the season, those rumors had been proven true.
However, the Canadian combo guard dropped to 11th in the 2018 NBA Draft. Originally selected by the Charlotte Hornets, he was traded on draft night to the Los Angeles Clippers for the 13th pick (Miles Bridges).
Though earlier picks like Luka Doncic and Trae Young captured the headlines last season, SGA became the apple of the Clippers fans’ eyes during his rookie campaign as Doc Rivers quickly realized what a steal he had. Gilgeous-Alexander was elevated to a full-time starter by the tenth game of the year and was soon one of that team’s best players.
At 6’6”, with long arms, he’s part of a new-age crop of bigger guards and ball handlers that have become more prevalent in the NBA. He plays at his own pace, never too fast or slow, all while getting to the spots on the floor he needs in order to be most effective.
Most important, his versatility and willingness to fill in all the gaps has enabled him to stay on the floor in just about any lineup and with any kind of backcourt partner. If last year’s offense needed Lou Williams on the floor, SGA was fine. If a defensive stop was called for, then it would be Patrick Beverley next to him.
By the end of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander was a critical piece of Los Angeles’ only playoff team. In the final 19 games of his rookie year, he averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. The postseason provided a bigger spotlight to showcase his skills nationally.
It didn’t hurt that the Clippers’ first-round matchup came against the Golden State Warriors—the best team in the league. During that six-game series, SGA scored double digits in three of the games, including 25 and 22 points in Game 3 and Game 6, respectively. His biggest development came with his perimeter shooting, as he converted 50 percent of his three-point attempts while taking three per game.
The expectation was that the young guard would be a big part of the team’s future even as they chased after high-profile free agents. Yet, they were forced to trade him away in order to secure pair Paul George with Kawhi Leonard.
Gilgeous-Alexander wound up in Oklahoma City to take the torch from a beloved former MVP. General manager Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook had decided that it would be best for the team and player if the All-Star was sent to a contender rather than hang around for what was likely to be a rebuild in Oklahoma.
With all the changes made to the Thunder roster, many perceived that the franchise would be more focused on their future than the present. As 2020 begins, however, OKC is 18-15 and sits in seventh in the Western Conference. Chris Paul—acquired in the Westbrook trade to the Houston Rockets—has proven to still have something left in the tank, as has shooting forward Danilo Gallinari.
Together with center Steven Adams and Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City has put together a tough, hard-nosed team that doesn’t back down from any opponent.
Of late, it’s been the play of the second-year guard that has helped spark the team’s results. In December, they went 11-4 and he scored a season-high 32 points three times (12/20 vs Phoenix, 12/22 vs Clippers and 12/29 vs Toronto). Each game has been a testament to the leap he’s made from his rookie year to this season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last 5 games: 28.8 PTS, 4.2 REBS, 2.4 AST, 2.2 STL, 1.4 TOV, shooting 55% from 2 and 53% from 3 (3.4 attempts per game). OKC is 4-1 during that stretch. Still think there's a chance SGA eventually becomes the 2nd best guard out of 2018 draft behind Doncic. pic.twitter.com/ivKvi4kogm
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 30, 2019
His consistency is Exhibit A: His scoring average has increased by nine points as his minutes have gone from 26.5 to 35.3 a night. Even as teams now focus on stopping him, he’s still finding ways to exert his will. He’s more than doubled his perimeter attempts, forcing defenders to respect his shooting stroke when he’s off the ball.
His next progression is to become a primary ball-handler, even as he’s been asked to play a lot more wing this year due to Paul’s presence as well as young point guard Dennis Schroder. Eventually, OKC may have to thin out that logjam, but all three have proven they can play together, largely because of SGA’s versatility to slot next to any guard’s skill set (as he did with Los Angeles).
And there’s no better teacher in the NBA than Paul when it comes to controlling an offense. It’s already rubbing off on Gilgeous-Alexander as coach Billy Donovan staggers their minutes during the course of the game. SGA’s ability to control the pace and work out of the pick-and-roll is reminiscent of the Point God, particularly within the six to eight-foot range. He had a decent floater as a rookie but has now added other finishes to his repertoire.
If his progression continues at the rate we’ve seen so far, Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be certified baller whenever the franchise fully hands over the keys to him.
It still seems like there isn’t as much hype around Gilgeous-Alexander this season even though he’s having an all-around better year than his solid first campaign. The flashes and glimpses of stardom he produced as a rookie have become nightly occurrences, but as fellow members of his draft class like Doncic and Young have reached the next level, Gilgeous-Alexander has been brushed under the radar.
2020 is shaping up to be a big year for him, though. If the Thunder chooses not to make any moves at the deadline, there’s a real chance he could be back in the postseason. And with the Olympics on the horizon, he’s already committed to being part of the Canadian National Team as they try to secure a spot in the event.
He’s been hiding in plain sight for a few years now, but this can be the season Gilgeous-Alexander finally breaks through into public consciousness.