Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become one of the preeminent rising stars of the NBA. He is one of the frontrunners for the Most Improved Player of the Year award this year. He plays incredibly under control and is a surgical operator of the pick and roll. This is a stark contrast to the last great Thunder player, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was known for his erratic style of play and off-the-charts athleticism, a far cry from the patience and smoothness of Shai.
These two contrasting players could be the two top talents mentioned when discussing the best Oklahoma City Thunder players of all time. However, the question remains, what can Shai Gilgeous-Alexander do to join that conversation? Can he pass Russell Westbrook for the greatest Thunder of all time? There are three things the 22-year old Gilgeous-Alexander can do to surpass Westbrook.
1) Remain Efficient
Efficiency was one of the major gripes Russell Westbrook faced his entire career. Westbrook has never once had a true shooting percentage above 56% and he’s only had one year where his true shooting even reached average. His shooting was never a strength but he never stopped taking jumpers. He loved to get into his mid-range pull-up despite it never being an efficient shot. He was an elite driver, but he never leveraged that to the fullest extent.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a true shooting percentage of 62.3% in only his third season. Efficiency is usually a sign of scalability and being scalable is one of Shai’s most useful traits. SGA is an elite finisher despite being nowhere near the athlete Westbrook is and his jumper is already better than Russell’s.
The two players’ contrasting style is likely what leads to the difference in efficiency. Westbrook played at 100 miles an hour every second on the court and that leads to erratic shooting at times. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the type to take his time and continue probing until he finds the best shot. If the Canadian can remain efficient, it will be an important feather in his cap.
2) Continue to Improve
Russell Westbrook started off his career playing second fiddle to Kevin Durant. He was known as a tenacious defender and athletic slasher early in his career. As his career continued, he became more and more comfortable as a true point guard and a star player.
Shai has already become comfortable as a true point guard, but that doesn’t mean he can stagnate as a player. The 22-year old still has some work to do to become a better playmaker for others, a deadlier shooter off the bounce, and a better on-ball defender. If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to grow in these areas, he can continue to make a case as the best Thunder of all time.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still yet to make an All-Star game, much less win an MVP like Russell Westbrook, but there is still plenty of time for him to do this. He will have to prove himself as a top point guard in the NBA.
3) Win a Ring
The ring conversation can be trite and wrought with logical fallacies, but it does make sense here. Russell Westbrook, for all of his elite talent and accolades, was never able to take a team all the way. Even in his MVP season, the Thunder were only a six seed in the Western Conference. The closest Westbrook ever got was a loss to the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, where he was still second fiddle to Kevin Durant.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not be the best player on a championship team, but perhaps he can be the Kyle Lowry to the next Kawhi Leonard. Maybe he can be the best player on a championship team and his proficiency on offense will allow for an elite team to be built around him. Either way, a ring would go a long way to making Gilgeous-Alexander the greatest Oklahoma City Thunder of all time.