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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Knows Only One Gear: Drive

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played a game against the Chicago Bulls last month that on the surface seemed conventional, if impressive. His numbers were great, although not unheard of, as he finished with 33 points and 10 assists in an overtime win. But his insistence on attacking the rim was historic. Approximately two out of every five times he touched the ball, he drove. When the dust settled, he had recorded 43 drives.

Since the 2013-14 season, when NBA Advanced Stats began tracking drives, only two other games saw players topping 40 drives in a single game.1 In fact, there have been only 15 instances of a player driving 30 times or more in a game this season.2 Gilgeous-Alexander alone accounts for nine of those games.

This season, he has been inevitable in his assault on the paint.

When Gilgeous-Alexander is playing, the Thunder are a decent offensive team. They score 9.9 more points per 100 possessions with Gilgeous-Alexander on the court than off it, which is in the 94th percentile leaguewide, according to Cleaning the Glass. That big-picture number is impressive enough, but Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive impact crystallizes when you look at specifically how he overcomes opponents as his team’s floor general.

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He currently leads the league with 25.4 drives per game, which is on pace to set the record since 2013-14. As a point of comparison, the team averaging the fewest drives per game, the Portland Trail Blazers, combines to average only a small handful more than Gilgeous-Alexander alone, 31.0 per game.

One outcome of Gilgeous-Alexander’s relentless aggression is that he has been one of the best players in the league at creating for himself — shots that are supposed to be difficult, inefficient looks in the modern game. He shoots 55.1 percent from the field out of his record-setting drives and 51.4 percent after three or more dribbles. Among the 11 players — all ball-dominant offensive leaders — who shoot five or more twos per game after holding the ball for six or more seconds, Gilgeous-Alexander is the most efficient scorer.3 He leads the league in the percentage of his twos that are unassisted.4 In the pick and roll, Gilgeous-Alexander is the second-most efficient scorer in the league, behind only Steph Curry.5

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Those interwoven numbers point to one conclusion: Gilgeous-Alexander is among the best in the league at creating and finishing shots inside the arc.

He is able to reach such heights because of his physical and skill advantages. At 6-foot-6, he has enormous strides for a point guard and a twisting handle that baffles defenders like plot twists do viewers of M. Night Shyamalan movies. His strength and balance mean that even defenders who manage to stay in front of him have trouble bumping him off of his lines. If defenders overcommit to halting his forward momentum, he slithers through horizontal cracks with ease. And when he reaches the rim, he’s a genius at manipulating his body and decelerating his arm to release the ball from practically anywhere along his comically large wingspan.

If defenders overplay Gilgeous-Alexander in his inevitable pursuit of the rim, he is one of the league’s foremost midrange artists because of his deceleration ability.

He’s only 22 years old, but he’s already a polished scorer from anywhere on the court. He’s shooting 64 percent at the rim, 43 percent from the midrange, and 43 percent from deep, excluding garbage time. He’s in the 92nd percentile for his position at drawing shooting fouls and is shooting 40.6 percent on pullup threes. With no holes in his arsenal, Gilgeous-Alexander is developing into a scorer the equal of any in the league.

Defenders focus on Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring as his primary threat. But his ability to manipulate passing lanes separates him from other young scoring phenoms.

If Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring is unique, his passing is close to that level, especially in the pick and roll. When defenders guard Gilgeous-Alexander and his screening partner with only two defenders, he will find creative ways to generate layups using his syncopated, unhurried style. He anticipates defensive rotations and uses his eyes to create openings. He short-circuits defenses with over-the-top passes that shorter players can’t make.

According to Second Spectrum, Gilgeous-Alexander is one of 14 players in the league whose teammates attempt 8.5 or more shots per game on both 2-pointers and 3-pointers off of his passes. It’s a mark of a complete passer to threaten both sides of the 3-point line, and Gilgeous-Alexander joins an elite list.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in elite passing company

NBA players with at least 8.5 shots attempted per game on both 2-pointers and 3-pointers by teammates off of their passes, 2020-21 season

2-point attempts 3-point attempts
Passer Team Per gm FG% Per gm FG%
Chris Paul Suns 11.5 56.5% 11.3 33.5%
Damian Lillard Blazers 11.3 50.4 11.2 41.8
James Harden Nets 14.8 62.0 11.2 43.1
Ben Simmons Sixers 10.4 52.3 10.9 40.8
Russell Westbrook Wizards 13.6 56.0 10.7 38.1
Luka Dončić Mavericks 11.5 59.8 10.6 36.5
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Thunder 8.9 47.4 9.8 37.4
Draymond Green Warriors 11.4 63.1 9.6 41.1
Fred VanVleet Raptors 9.6 49.4 9.6 39.3
Nikola Jokić Nuggets 13.2 57.2 9.5 41.2
Jimmy Butler Heat 9.4 57.8 8.9 41.6
De’Aaron Fox Kings 9.9 52.2 8.8 35.6
Trae Young Hawks 12.8 54.1 8.7 39.5
LeBron James Lakers 11.7 56.0 8.5 37.7

Through games of Feb. 24.

Source: Second Spectrum

Since at least the 2013-14 season, only four players in the league have both finished top two in the league in drives per game and had teammates attempt 8.5 or more 2-pointers and 3-pointers off of their passes in the same season: Westbrook, Harden, Dončić and Ty Lawson. Westbrook and Harden are former MVPs, while Dončić won Rookie of the Year in 2018-19 before being named to the All-NBA first team in 2019-20. And this season, all three players enjoy at least 10 more touches per game than Gilgeous-Alexander does; the Thunder guard is keeping spectacular company, yet somehow there’s room for more opportunity.

Given Gilgeous-Alexander’s passing chops, it’s almost a surprise that he averages only 6.4 assists per game, tied for 19th in the NBA. But his teammates are not among the best supporting casts in the NBA, at least not yet. The two most frequent recipients of his passes for 2-pointers are shooting a combined 38 percent on those looks, and the two most frequent recipients of his passes for 3-pointers are shooting a combined 31.2 percent on threes after his passes.

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The Thunder are young and plucky, but they’re not ready to both complement and take full advantage of Gilgeous-Alexander’s abilities. The Thunder’s second-leading scorer is Al Horford, averaging 14.6 points per game, which is the second-lowest of any second-leading scorer in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats.6 In fact, most teams have three or even four scorers averaging more than Horford does. The Thunder are the fourth-worst shooting team from distance in the league.

Oklahoma City may well have intended to tank when it dealt Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul for assets over the past few seasons. But Gilgeous-Alexander blossomed into an offensive player too impactful for his team to tank. At 13-19, the Thunder are too competitive to outright lose for the top draft pick, but not yet good enough to compete for real playoff contention. But they possess a possible eight first-round draft picks in the next three years; in those, Gilgeous-Alexander should receive the support he needs to thrive. Draft picks are by definition rolls of the dice, but Gilgeous-Alexander has become the foundational star that all teams crave in the draft. The Thunder only need to build around him.

And he’ll be growing all the while. Gilgeous-Alexander is already a unique player, as talented a self-creating scorer as anyone in the league while possessing an advanced passing game. He is built to thrive against grinding playoff defenses with his midrange and halfcourt scoring skills. And the Thunder are structured to improve around him. For the young floor general to win an NBA championship, time and patience ought to be the only factors required.

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  1. Both of those games took place last year in the Orlando bubble, and both performances were by Luka Dončić.

  2. Through games of Feb. 24.

  3. The list is a who’s who of stars, including Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Trae Young.

  4. Among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game.

  5. Among players with six or more pick-and-roll possessions per game.

  6. The lowest second-leading scorer is Josh Jackson with the league-worst Detroit Pistons, averaging 13.6 points per game, although he has averaged more points per game than Horford since the Pistons traded away Derrick Rose on Feb. 8.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.