Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the next big thing

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the next big thing


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

SGA for three to win it
Image: Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way. This is not a trend piece arguing why Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander needs to be playing in a bigger market. SGA is just fine where he is. Sure, he could “save” plenty of franchises like the New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, or Los Angeles Lakers.

But, fuck that. The kid needs to stay in Oklahoma City because Sam Presti believed in him enough to give into Paul George’s trade preference to head to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers. The Thunder got a ton of picks back in that trade. But SGA was the best asset OKC received in the deal. All the early signs were there for the 6-foot-6 lead guard to be a star, as he was averaging around 11 points, three assists, and three rebounds, a preview of the all-around threat he would become.

Did you see what he did last night? How’s this cold step-back three, down two to beat the Wizards to cap off a 42-point night?

Throughout the last few seasons, SGA has grown more and more into a first option. It’s been a slow and steady incremental growth in his points per game and, more importantly, efficiency. He’s shown a willingness to take late-game shots and be both the initiator of the offense and the primary scoring threat. His current stats of 32.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 5.9 apg have put him in the conversation for the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player awards. His shooting percentages from the field (55 percent) and the free throw line (91 percent) are both career highs. All this led to Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault recently calling him “one of the best offensive players in the league.”

It all started in his first year with the Thunder. That 2019-20 team led by a casted-off Chris Paul over-achieved to 44 wins, making the playoffs and giving James Harden’s Rockets the business in a six-game series. SGA slotted in-between Paul and then-Thunder guard Dennis Schröder to form a potent three-guard line-up, leading a team of reclamation projects in scoring during the regular season. Nobody expected that Thunder team to compete, but as it has been since SGA arrived, the Thunder were too good to tank.

The biggest obstacle in his growth hasn’t been any opposing player, team, or coaching scheme. Nor has it been a lack of playing time, inept coaching, or a crowded roster. It’s been his own front office, as Presti has orchestrated one of the most egregious and perverse tank jobs in league history. In SGA’s first two seasons, he played 82 games in his rookie year and 70 in his second. Once the Presti tank commenced, his very real injuries were perhaps exaggerated to sit him longer. This approach saw the young guard only play 35 games in his third year and 56 games in his fourth season. That’s not to say he wasn’t hurt during those stretches. It’s an obvious assessment that Presti leaned on the side of “caution,” not for any further SGA injury, but not to hurt his lottery chances.

It worked to an extent. The lottery is all about luck, and they won the last two drafts, landing in the sixth spot in the 2021 Draft, where they took Josh Giddey, and third this past summer, where they selected Chet Holmgren. Many around the league wondered if SGA could handle all the losses, especially when it seemed purposeful. How can a player get better when he’s on the bench in street clothes, and his team is fielding a roster worthy of a YMCA pick-up game?

It seemed not to matter. This season, SGA has cemented himself as a top-three guard in the NBA and a harbinger of greatness to come. His emergence has fast-forwarded the Thunder timeline, perhaps to the chagrin of Presti. They are over .500 for the first time since the 2019-2020 season, capping a much shorter “rebuild” phase than anyone could have predicted after fumbling the break-up of the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook duo. This season, he’s been the point of attack for a Thunder team with eight-to-nine above-average players, but no real star talent outside of SGA. The team has scored 11.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, good for the 89th percentile among all players.

In just 13 games, SGA’s superstar turn this season has been magnetic. He currently holds the highest FG percentage by a guard scoring 30-plus points since His Airness, Michael Jordan, 32 years ago. Need more evidence? His current average of two steals and 1.5 blocks a game has only been sustained once throughout a season. By whom? Jordan. In the last five games, SGA has scored 37 or more points four times, as they went 3-2. Furthermore, he’s scored 30 or more points in 10 of the 14 games he’s played this season, a staggering feat for the 24-year-old guard playing in his fifth season. This season, his lowest point output was 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 5. SGA joined franchise greats Westbrook and Durant, as the only players in Thunder franchise history with three straight games averaging 35 points and five assists.

The wildest part? SGA can get even better. Once a healthy Holmgren rejoins the line-up next season, it’s not hard to imagine SGA’s assist numbers going up. His assist ratio is at a career-high, at 22.3%. He is already getting to the basket at will, leading the league in drives to the basket at 24 a game, according to Second Spectrum, overtaking second placers Ja Morant and Luka Dončić, who each average 22.5. As the best driving guard in the league, he’s collapsed defenses, allowing him to spray it out to open shooters (another reason the Thunder need to improve as a team from three drastically) and make quick decisions to find cutters or Euro-step to the basket.

Defensively, he’s made some major strides, not that he was ever terrible on that side of the ball. He’s currently sixth in the NBA in steals and ninth in deflections. His defensive rating of 110.4 is the second-highest of his career, while his PER of 28.9 is nearly eight points higher than his second-best season. There’s no reason SGA should not give the Thunder another All-Star this season, something they’ve lacked since Westbrook’s departure.

This season has provided SGA with the stage needed to exhibit the growth of all parts of his game. Next season will show how ready this Thunder team is to follow suit. With the addition of Holmgren, the continued evolution of Giddey Lu Dort, Tre Mann, and Jalen Williams, plus the 15 future first-round picks Presti has amassed, the future is bright. The Thunder are officially too good to tank. And that’s a great thing for the Thunder’s competitive culture and SGA’s future with the team.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.