The Defensive Prowess of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture is a cluster. Four teams separated by a half-game are all competing to avoid the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in the first round.

Scheduling, health and streakiness will play a large role in the final three weeks of the season in determining where teams are seeded.

Perhaps the least talked-about team among that group are the Los Angeles Clippers, a rag-tag collection of cast-off veterans and upstart youngsters scrapping for all they have earned. Despite trading best player (Tobias Harris) at the deadline and shipping away another veteran perimeter defender (Avery Bradley), the Clippers are 10-3 since the All-Star Break.

What makes them so dangerous?

A large part of their explosiveness comes from the hounding defense of rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Few players in the league, let alone rookies, can strike the type of fear in their opponents that he does in one-on-one situations on the perimeter. His length, athleticism, instincts and desire to defend are traits that separate him from others.

He has the upside to be great.

If the last few months have been his ascent, March 15th against the Chicago Bulls was his coming out party. Shai put up 17 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, three steals and one block in that one. For one stretch during the second half, he was swarming the Bulls during any ball drive they attempted, completely swallowing them up and ripping out their souls:

Such impressive athletic and defensive ability can be attributed to a combination of his length and his timing.

Gilgeous-Alexander deploys a wingspan greater than 6’11”, a unique asset for a traditional point guard and a perimeter defender. This allows him to take more gambles, reaching for steals or deflections, since his length can sneak up on people.

Sometimes, he simply reaches out his arms and pokes the ball from unsuspecting handlers who think he is too far away to make an impact. Those arms just emerge from his shoulders like the old Spiderman villain Dr. Octopus, creating a loose ball in the process:

When a player of this type of athleticism and physical profile gambles for steals, he’s going to lose from time to time. Particularly on the ball, a failed bid for a steal can lead to a direct driving line to the rim. But players like Shai can recover by covering a great amount of real estate quickly.

So many guards have gotten past those initial octopus-like arms and gained a step. Before they know it, Gilgeous-Alexander is there to swat them from behind and close any window they believed was open for a floater:

His length allows these plays to happen, but his recovery speed is a trait not many teenagers possess. He works hard on the defensive side, seemingly taking sadistic pleasure in snatching shots mid-air or poking them from behind.

The Clippers have been a traditionally conservative pick-and-roll defensive group. Head coach Doc Rivers instructed elite rim protector (and former Clipper) DeAndre Jordan to drop far below the level of the pick-and-roll in prior seasons. The same carried over to the lethargic Marcin Gortat, awkward Ivica Zubac and bouncy Montrezl Harrell.

Such a system, where bigs sag to about ten feet above the rim, encourages mid-range pull-ups and pocket pass to rollers. The length of Gilgeous-Alexander is a perfect compliment to such a scheme, as he can swallow shots from behind or reach in and cause a deflection on a pass to the screener.

Thanks to his length, the Clippers can incorporate more traps on ball screens. The wingspan from the point guard and a seven-foot big create quite the blanket of arms for a ball handler. Tiny guards struggle to see over the traps and execute their passing:

Of course, on-ball defense and guarding the pick-and-roll is only a piece of the puzzle. Elite defenders know how to rotate off-ball, communicate at the highest level, understand scouting reports and make instinctual plays as the flow of the game calls for.

Gilgeous-Alexander still has a ways to go on many of those accounts: He’s barely twenty years old and needs a lot of polish. But his instincts as a help defender are quite high, and as his leash gets longer, the Clippers are improving as a defensive unit.

One example of his improved help defense came in that same contest against the Bulls when Zach LaVine was posting Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (another accomplished defender). As LaVine and Beverley physically collided, Gilgeous-Alexander took the opportunity to spring from the top of the key and create a deflection. A known gunner, LaVine was the right player to gamble on because of his attack mindset:

From a macro perspective, it’s too soon to tell if the backcourt pairing of Gilgeous-Alexander and Beverley is going to last. On the short-term, the two are an electrifying tandem.

They execute any ball-screen coverages and contest those encouraged mid-range jumpers effectively. According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups featuring both Gilgeous-Alexander and Beverley surrender only 35.5 percent shooting on attempts between four and fourteen feet, good enough to place them in the league’s top-ten percentile.

Gilgeous-Alexander has helpfully made a three-pointer in ten straight games. He’s shooting 65 percent from deep over that span, while only taking a few attempts a night. He is otherwise snake-like on offense, slithering through lanes that barely reveal themselves while making nearly impossible layups. Any perimeter shooting he provides is gravy, but if his jumper finds consistency even on low volume, the Clippers can continue to roll out their pugnacious backcourt combination.

The Clippers may not have the offensive firepower of the other Western Conference contenders, but their defensive prowess should scare all. Gilgeous-Alexander and Beverley can limit the effectiveness of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry off screens. They would swallow up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in many of the Portland Trail Blazer ball screens. They have already beat the Houston Rockets twice.

Their defensive prowess and ability to swarm ball handlers are perfect for a playoff environment, and no rookie may have a larger impact on a postseason series than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 21, 2019.