Oklahoma City Thunder fans still vividly recall their first game last season. At very least, they remember final possession. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had the ball in his hands with the game on the line against the Charlotte Hornets.
With the score dead even at 107 and just seconds remaining on the game clock, SGA made his move from half court against Cody Martin. It wasn’t anything fancy – just a few dribble moves followed by a hesitation to get his defender off-balance before going in for the kill.
Reminder that SGA hit this game winner in his first game as the face of the franchise pic.twitter.com/x4F4P5Cfv1
— 𝑪𝒐𝒏𝒆 🌩 (@Three_Cone) January 18, 2021
“I got a couple moves I like to get to on the iso,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said postgame. “After that, it’s just read and react…that’s a shot I practice a lot.”
Simple yet effective answer, just as he is on the court. The Oklahoma City Thunder started the season well following this SGA game-winner, then eventually tailed off to fall to a bottom five record in the NBA last season. But it gave Shai enough time to showcase just how good he can be.
The Thunder star posted averages of 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists in 35 games last season. The raw numbers made him worthy of some All-Star consideration last year, but it was his efficiency that really turned heads. His excellence flew under the radar given the Thunder’s poor season, but it deserves the spotlight before he comes back for his fourth act next season. Here are two (2) ways Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was ridiculously effective last season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s underrated jumper
A minor drop-off from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shooting splits wouldn’t have been surprising given that he was no longer playing alongside star guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. However, with all the defensive attention shifting their focus on him, SGA somehow got better. He went from 47.1 to 50.8% from the field and a shocking leap in three-point shooting from 34.7 to 41.8%. Had his three-point shooting qualified, that puts SGA just 0.1% off the Top 20 shooters in the league.
What’s even more impressive is the manner at which he was getting those shots. Of Shai’s 71 made three-pointers last season, 50 of them were unassisted, meaning he created them off the dribble. That comes out to a rate of over 70% of his triples being self-created.
To put that into context, three-point percentage leader Joe Harris had 0% (!!!) of his 211 threes unassisted while runner-up Marcus Morris had just 6.4% of his not coming off a pass. Even some of the league’s best outside scorers didn’t come close to SGA’s self-creation from deep last season. Kevin Durant, who also played in 35 games like SGA, was unassisted on just 35.2% of his three-pointers made. Stephen Curry is the poster boy for off-the-dribble deep shots, but even he had majority of his assisted. The Golden State Warriors star only had 41.2% of his threes self-generated.
Now there are various factors that come into play here. The sample size for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t as large, both in number of games played and number of attempts per contest. However, 35 games was only a game shy of half the season while taking 4.9 deep shots per game, which is still a pretty significant amount.
SGA’s need to conjure up his own attempts is more of a testament to the dearth of talent around him compared to some of the league’s other marquee players. But the very fact that he’s facing that handicap and still playing efficiently as heck bodes well for how good he’ll be in his prime once he has a talented roster around him.
SGA – Best penetrator in the NBA
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has improved by leaps and bounds from distance. But what makes him truly special is his ability to get into the paint. The Thunder guard has a knack for getting to the rim at awkward angles and finding ways to finish despite not having extraordinary speed and athleticism.
It’s a sight to behold seeing his lanky frame slither his way past the opposing team’s best defender. He was able to do so with ease last season basically every single night.
Among the 151 players who scored at least two points off of drives per game last season (min. 35 games), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ranked 15th in the entire league in scoring efficiency at 55.4% shooting off drives. That puts him right behind Stephen Curry (55.5% off drives) and Kawhi Leonard (55.8% off drives) in terms of converting drives into made baskets.
And while you could argue a small sample size when it comes to SGA’s three-point shooting numbers, there’s no way to invalidate his proficiency off penetration. That’s because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the entire NBA in drives per game and it wasn’t even close.
The difference between Shai’s league-leading 25.2 drives per game and runner-up Luka Doncic’s 20.3 is bigger than the gap between Doncic and 13th place Donovan Mitchell, who had 15.5 drives per game. Leading every NBA player on the planet in drives while rating at the 90th percentile in efficiency is impossible to write off. His finishes may not always make the highlight reels, but he’s downright lethal at finishing them.
Combine his much-improved three-point shooting with his league-best drive game and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s path to stardom is undeniable. All he needs is a bigger spotlight and better teammates for the league to take notice. With the Oklahoma City Thunder owning the largest war chest of draft assets in the NBA, it’s just going to be a matter of when and not if.