Think about the most difficult situation a basketball player could endure. We’ll make our hypothetical player a point guard, the most difficult position in basketball. This player is also a rookie, making his learning curve exceptionally steep.
Now, let’s thrust him into the starting lineup of a playoff team. And for good measure, we’ll make his opponent the greatest team in the history of basketball. An NBA player may have undertaken a tougher trial, but the above scenario is near the top of the toughness scale. If it wasn’t already obvious, this is the story of Shaivonte Aician Gilgeous-Alexander.
Like every rookie in the non-Luka Doncic realm, it took time for Gilgeous-Alexander to acquaint to the NBA. The 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers traded up one spot to nab the Kentucky freshman. A 6-foot-6 point guard with a gangly 7-foot wingspan, Shai’s craft and skill at his size sparked intrigue among many. Jerry West liked Shai enough to move up in the draft for him, pegging him as the point guard of the future. At the trade deadline, the Clippers shipped Avery Bradley to Memphis, opening up more minutes for Gilgeous-Alexander.
Shai’s newfound comfort showed in his play, resulting in a terrific month of March. In 15 games in March, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 14.2 points, 4.5 assists and 3.3 boards. Breaking the common rookie struggle with efficiency, Shai’s true shooting mark of 62.4% was sparkling.
By the playoffs, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had become LA’s full-time starting point guard. It is rare for rookie point guards to make an impact in the playoffs. Doc Rivers knows this wholeheartedly and still trusted Shai enough to keep his minutes steady. Playing against the Golden State Warriors, this first playoff series looked like the wall for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And through five games, Shai is scaling the wall.
He has had his struggles, notably finishing at the rim. On the season, Shai shot 59% from within five feet. In the postseason, that number has plummeted to 38.5%. Given Shai’s lack of burst and vertical pop, he wins inside with master craftsmanship. His off-beat rhythm and creativeness on drives make him unique, but it can bottleneck his effectiveness against elite defenses.
Draymond Green’s positioning and strength help him bump the thin Clipper off balance, forcing a miss here:
He has attacked the rim without a plan, where his lack of athleticism resulted in difficult layup attempts:
Shai’s offense throughout the first round as a whole has been solid, posting a good 57.5% true shooting mark. Constantly attacking some of the league’s toughest defenders is a difficult task, especially for a rookie.
Considering the circumstances, Shai’s offense has been impressive. Since the Warriors have neutralized Shai’s trademark rim-terrorizing funk, he has had a chance to flash his jump shot. Shooting 50% from deep on the series, Shai has been firing with swagger:
When Golden State switches the smaller Steph Curry onto him, the rookie has been able to take advantage of the matchup. Curry is far from a slouch on defense, but Shai’s height and length advantage are significant. Hitting four of his nine pull-up jumpers this series, Gilgeous-Alexander’s frame allows him to rise up over the diminutive two-time MVP:
Though Shai has struggled to finish at the rim, the Warriors haven’t been able to fully erase that part of his game. The consistency isn’t there, but jaw-dropping flashes of high-level craft have befuddled Warriors defenders on multiple occasions. For a 20-year-old, Shai’s creativity attacking the basket is special, harkening back to the great Tony Parker. Parker made up for his lack of size and strength with a rare craft. Like Parker, Gilgeous-Alexander wins around the rim in the same way, despite his athleticism.
Shai interrupts his drive, pausing for a beat. When Kevon Looney relaxes for just a millisecond, Shai explodes to the rim, throwing off Looney’s timing with the Parker-esque wrong-foot layup:
He has already perfected the inside-hand layup, scooping the ball beneath the outstretched arms of overzealous rim protectors:
Instead of barreling all the way to the rim, Shai takes advantage of a lumbering big’s forward momentum. Watch how vigorously Shai hits the breaks, extending his right leg to 45 degrees and dangling the ball out in front of him. When the defender flies into the cameramen, Shai calmy turns around and hits the short jumper:
As much as Shai’s scoring dexterity stands out, his passing grace is equally noticeable. For a rookie, Shai controls the game with a steady pace, fitting passes wherever he wants. Out of the pick-and-roll, Shai is already an aficionado, mastering all sorts of reads and dishes. A master of the wrap-around pass, Shai staves off Steph Curry with his length, before wrapping the pass around Kevon Looney to the awaiting Montrezl Harrel:
He makes tough reads look easy, squeezing this bounce pass through two defenders to Danilo Gallinari camping under the rim:
It is impossible to overstate the value of good decision-makers, and Shai is firmly in that category. These are the type of passes that won’t excite the typical fan, but add considerable value to any offense:
Snatching a lazy Steph pass out of the air, Shai gallops downcourt, and there’s that wraparound again:
Speaking of defense, Shai has arguably been even more impressive on that end, considering his matchup. For the majority of his minutes, Doc Rivers has put an immense amount of trust in his rookie point guard. Shai has been LA’s primary defender on Klay Thompson, chasing him around all manner of screens. His fluidity and length make Gilgeous-Alexander an ideal fit for this role.
It’s hard to ask for a better contest than this, but all-time special shooters hit shots no matter the length of the limb in their face:
Shai has fallen victim to Thompson’s unbelievable shotmaking at times, though he’s typically there to offer resistance, executing the top-lock scheme well and switching when needed. The Warriors have found ways to expose Shai on defense, as they do to almost all players. Lacking the requisite quickness to slide with the best player in the league, Shai has been vulnerable to Curry dribble-drives:
Despite his struggles with Curry in space, Shai has bothered Curry often. His length is a massive asset on defense, making up for less-than-ideal athletic tools. Going over the Curry-Draymond drag screen is a dangerous proposition, as giving the deadliest sniper of all time even a sliver of space is a bad idea. Shai, though, fared well here; this recovery is as good as it gets, clogging Curry’s airspace and getting a fingertip on his 3-pointer:
The Clippers have often switched the Warriors’ off-ball screens, negating any advantage. Shai’s length and quick decision-making make him an effective switcher, reading this split and offering a fantastic contest:
Shai’s long arms make this shot incredibly difficult, even for a 3-point shooter as elite as Curry:
I’m going to continue to laud Shai’s giant tree branches extending from his torso, which have been even peskier on team defense than individual defense. In passing lanes, Shai’s IQ and long arms muck up the offensive flow. His lanky dominance manifests in many ways, from tipping quick swing passes to blowing up backdoor cuts:
Gilgeous-Alexander’s feel as a team defender is rare for a rookie. Harrell stands little chance defending Curry and Shai processes this immediately, peeling off of his man to swat the Steph layup:
The Clippers’ switching defense has forced Shai to do a little bit of everything, guarding everyone from Curry to Andrew Bogut. Remember that length I won’t shut up about? Shai has even bothered Kevin Durant in the mid-post, a feat few guards can accomplish. Watch how high Shai’s arm reaches, meeting Durant at the apex of his shot and forcing the airball:
Shai is careful not to foul on these contests, meeting the perfect balance between not fouling and limiting breathing room. His hand is essentially on the ball here, leaving the best mid-post scorer ever hopeless in making his bread-and-butter turnaround:
Shai’s performance in the playoffs has been far from perfect. Against the mighty Warriors, nobody should expect it to be. Holding his own given the circumstances is a commendable accomplishment, proving he is far ahead of schedule in his development. The rookie has been a major contributor on this Clippers team that has exceeded all expectations and is one of many reasons they’re still in this series.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is no stranger to exceeding expectations. Before his freshman season at Kentucky, few considered him a legitimate prospect, let alone a top-10 talent.
Now, plenty of teams are regretting letting him fall out of the top 10 (looking at you, Orlando, New York and Cleveland). Before his rookie season with the Clippers, even his most staunch supporters would have been skeptical of his chances in the playoffs against the Warriors.
Gilgeous-Alexander should take the momentum from this stellar rookie campaign and run with it, exceeding the ceiling many set for him. Shai’s innate funk and craft aren’t going anywhere. When he continues to polish his craft, who knows how high Shai can reach as a 3-and-D creator. Forgetting any development, one thing is clear: there’s no stage too big, no lights too bright for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.