Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not a high-flying leaper like Ja
Morant, a ball-handling wizard like Stephen Curry or a
court-mapping surgeon like Luka Doncic. Instead, one of the NBA's
premier driving threats is somewhere in the middle of his
According to NBA tracking data provided by Second Spectrum,
Gilgeous-Alexander led the NBA with 23.9 drives per game last
season. It's the highest per-game driving rate in the NBA's player
tracking history dating back to 2013-14. If Gilgeous-Alexander met
the minimum games played qualifier in 2020-21, he would have led
the league again with a whopping 25.2 drives per game.
The 24-year-old does it with an understated blend of sharp
angles, long arms, crafty contortion and aerial acrobatics,
stymying defenders by creating openings where they don't seem to
exist. (Our Nekias Duncan broke down his unorthodox driving
game in further detail earlier this spring.)
Gilgeous-Alexander is the lone member of the youth-movement
Oklahoma City Thunder to truly arrive at stardom. He put up a
career-high 24.5 points, 5.9 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game last
season, and popped off after the All-Star break to the tune of 30.4
points, 7.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds (with a 63.4% True Shooting
clip) across 13 games. SGA dropped those numbers while shouldering
some of the heaviest creation burdens in the entire
PBP Stats lists "self-created" shots as an attempt that takes
two or more seconds to generate. Gilgeous-Alexander generated a
stunning 90.3% of his field goal attempts via self-creation in
2021-22, just behind Trae Young (90.6%). SGA also cleared 90% in
2020-21 (91.5%), and holds 2 of the 4 seasons in NBA tracking
history with a self-creation frequency over 90%.
In short, Gilgeous-Alexander is responsible for generating a
ridiculous amount of offense in Oklahoma City. The Thunder had the
second-worst Offensive Rating in the league last season, though
they wielded a defense that looked promising at times. OKC's 43.5%
Effective Field Goal percentage on "assisted" shots (taking less
than two seconds to shoot) was dead last, per PBP Stats.
There's also this stat:
SGA has one of the lowest potential-assist conversion rates
across the NBA. Theoretically, this could stem from several causes.
Maybe Gilgeous-Alexander is throwing tons of bad passes, or his
pass selection involves more difficult shot locations, or his
teammates are poor collective shooters, or, it's simply bad luck. I
lean toward the latter two given OKC's team-wide
At age 24, Gilgeous-Alexander is still in the growth phase of
his pro career, but also notably older, more experienced and more
proven than most of his teammates. The Thunder (most likely) aren't
flipping the switch to "win now" quite yet, and should be content
to let the young guys ride through mistakes as the draft picks
continue to flow in.
But what does that mean for Gilgeous-Alexander and his
development? We just saw the San Antonio Spurs trade Dejounte
Murray, another talented breakout star guard leading a
prospect-laden squad, to the Atlanta Hawks. Is Gilgeous-Alexander
destined for a similar exit?
I don't think so. However, both the player and the team must
strike a balance to foster everyone's growth.
Gilgeous-Alexander is a phenomenal catch-and-shoot player,
having cleared 41% on catch-and-shoot threes each year in Oklahoma
City. Yet, his volume — already pretty low — dipped to under one
attempt per game last season.
For SGA to feel some creation relief, OKC needs additional
players — namely Josh Giddey and Tre Mann — to take serious steps
We never got to see Giddey hit a spring stride; he missed every
game after Feb. 24 due to a hip injury. Giddey landed on the
All-Rookie Second Team last season, but still took the classic
rookie point guard lumps.
Giddey ranked 10th among all players with 1.6 bad-pass turnovers
per game (per PBP Stats), and his 17.3% overall turnover rate was
third among all players who logged at least 800 minutes (per
Cleaning the Glass). He also shot 44.1% on drives to the basket,
the fourth-lowest among 61 players who averaged eight or more
drives per game.
The Aussie point guard relies on his court vision, size and
semi-natural touch to find driving lanes and make shots. He doesn't
have a quick first step, upper-body strength or contortion ability
to make many off-balance shots at this stage. When Giddey doesn't
get that initial blow-by, he struggles at times to create another
lane for himself with a defender in front of him. That should
change in due time, and, before his injury, Giddey did show some
increased aggression and a willingness to play through
Giddey also functioned well driving off the catch, where he
should continue to play frequently as Gilgeous-Alexander dominates
the ball. The 19-year-old's off-ball awareness lines up with his
on-ball vision, and he also attacks quickly and can keep defenders
from regaining their footing after a closeout.
If SGA can use his gravity to open up these types of changes for
Giddey, the latter will find easier chances for himself and, thus,
pull some of the focus away from SGA. Of course, I glossed entirely
over Giddey's passing as well, which will keep defenses on their
toes as long as he's playing basketball.
Jackson Frank brilliantly dissected Tre Mann's game
towards the end of last season. His piece covers the necessary
growth steps for Mann to become a consistent pull-up scorer and
passer. I'll let Jackson's piece speak for itself, but here's an
observation he made that applies in this context:
For many scoring-inclined prospects or young guys, a hurdle that
often exists is the inability to create open or comfortable looks
when transitioning from their pre-NBA context to the league.
Whether it’s athletic shortcomings, atypical shooting mechanics or
something else, the capacity to consistently find clean shots
prevents them from burgeoning into high-level scorers.
With Mann, that’s not a problem because he’s routinely producing
open, replicable shots for himself. He’s not hitting a ton of them
thus far, but the process is encouraging. Shot-making is a staple
of developmental curves, even if it’s usually just implied rather
than stated analysis. He views offensive decision-making through a
lens of distinguished creativity."
Mann might be the only player like this currently on the Thunder
roster — aside from maybe SGA himself. I'm excited to watch Tre's
development next season.
Luguentz Dort and rookie lottery pick Jalen Williams should get
in on some of the self-creation action next season, and maybe we'll
see a bit from Aleksej Pokusevski, Chet Holmgren and Ousmane Dieng.
However, Giddey and Mann are the primary drivers (literally and
metaphorically) behind Gilgeous-Alexander and will lead the
Gilgeous-Alexander will still carry a sky-high usage rate
though. To maximize his effectiveness as a playmaker, others need
to step up and hit shots they simply did not make last
According to the NBA's tracking data, nearly 52% of SGA's passes
last season went to four players: Giddey, Dort, Darius Bazley and
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Bazley was the only one of the four to
shoot over 37% from the field on those passes. None of them cleared
30% from beyond the arc.
As a team, Oklahoma City converted a paltry 32.6% of its
catch-and-shoot threes, by far the worst mark in the NBA. The
Thunder attempted the most "wide open" threes (no defender within 6
feet) of any NBA team last season and shot the second-worst clip in
the league at 35.1%. And on top of that, they were also dead last
in efficiency within 5 feet from the basket (58.3%). Yuck.
Giddey and Dort quite simply must improve as off-ball shooters.
For Giddey, adding a viable catch-and-shoot three-ball will only
make things easier for him when he attacks a closeout; right now,
defenses can relax when he's spacing the floor. Dort, meanwhile,
launched 7.7 triples per game last season, but converted only 33.2%
Robinson-Earl is an interesting case. Barely a stretch forward
at Villanova, he took 47.0% of his shots from behind the arc as a
second-round rookie. Robinson-Earl made 35.2% of his threes, which
is pretty solid at this stage and a very positive launch pad for
Bazley has not arrived as a consistent shot-maker since going
No. 23 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. He brings value on the
defensive end, but has poor shooting splits no matter the context.
About 44% of Bazley's shots came at the rim (83rd percentile, per
Cleaning the Glass), but he made them at just a 58% rate (20th
And now, in addition to that quartet, OKC has three new lottery
picks to add to the mix. Holmgren and Williams, in particular,
could help space the floor right away.
Holmgren balled out at his two Summer League showcases in Salt
Lake City and Las Vegas. We saw a bit of him in pick-and-pop-type
actions, and he seemed undeterred in freeing himself from the
screen defender and setting himself quickly to shoot. Holmgren has
been an elite perimeter shooter and rim-finisher since high school;
expect that to translate very quickly to the NBA. Imagine defenses
having to constantly monitor Holmgren's space on the court when
he's also in an action with Gilgeous-Alexander.
Williams has been billed for his versatility as a playmaking
option, and he also spaced the floor well at Santa Clara. The
6-foot-6 wing made 20 of 41 catch-and-shoot looks as a junior, per
InStat Scouting. He knows how to subtly shift into passing lanes
and confidently rise up with consistency. Even before discussing
Williams' on-ball skills, he at least has a stable floor as a
relocating wing who can be another outlet for SGA, Giddey, Mann and
Of course, Williams and Holmgren are still only rookies, and
they won't be surefire successes in just one year. This circles
back to the broader challenge for OKC: How do you continue the
youth movement (not using the T-word yet) with a scoring guard
capable of putting up an All-Star season in 2022-23?
This is where Gilgeous-Alexander must simply trust the process.
He assuredly has room to improve on the defensive end, and his
pull-up efficiency dropped off last season after stellar numbers in
2020-21. SGA is talented enough to take over possessions and get
his own buckets, but that isn't always in the best interest of the
team's development. He'll have to be patient and continue being a
supportive teammate as the others catch up.
The 2022-23 Thunder season will ultimately be a trust exercise
between one star and one organization. Oklahoma City is putting the
pieces around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that he needs to ultimately
thrive. We'll see how much time it takes for the rotation to