25-under-25: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at No. 5

25-under-25, Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was an incredibly efficient creator despite carrying the entire load for the Oklahoma City Thunder. What if they put more talent around him?

By the box score, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already looks like a star for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He averaged 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game last season on a 62.3 true shooting percentage. But even those impressive numbers sell his overall impact short and the degree to which his bag already holds every tool you want to see from a star lead guard and primary creator.

The first thing to know is that Gilgeous-Alexander can get pretty much any shot he wants. Nearly a quarter of his offensive possessions were used in isolation last season and only three players — John Wall, Julius Randle and James Harden — averaged more isos per game and he still finished in the 71st percentile in scoring efficiency. Give him a screener to work with and the defense is doesn’t really have a chance — he finished an average of 9.9 possessions per game as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll and ranked in in the 93rd percentile in scoring efficiency. Harden, Steph Curry and Damian Lillard are the only other players who ranked in the 90th percentile or better in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency last season on at least 7.0 possessions per game.

On a team whose second- and third-leading scorers posted true shooting percentages of 53.8 and 51.3, Gilgeous-Alexander held almost all of the defense’s attention. And still, he was able to create offense for himself, off the dribble, with elite efficiency.

This brings us to the second thing you should know about Gilegous-Alexander — he’s an unbelievable shot-maker. A whopping 55 percent of his shots last season were classified as tightly or very tightly defended, which means a defender was within four feet of him. He posted an incredible effective field goal percentage of 57.1 percent on those shots. For comparison, Bradley Beal posted an effective field goal percentage of 58.8 last season … just on wide-open shots with no defender within six feet of him.

Gilgeous-Alexander dominated the ball so thoroughly and took so many tough shots last season by circumstance. But he’s not only effective creating with the ball in his hands and he’s flexible enough to complement a second star if Oklahoma City’s rebuild should ever produce one. He made 43.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season and ranked in the 97th percentile in scoring efficiency coming off screens.

This brings us to the third thing you should know about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — he’s not just a scorer. He played mostly as a traditional point guard at Kentucky and in his rookie season with the Clippers, and his defensive potential was one of the biggest highlights of his pre-draft profile. While playing a direct hand in roughly 38 percent of the Thunder’s points per game, through his scoring and assists, he still managed to rate out as a net neutral defender per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. And even though his team has another tough wing defender in Lu Dort, he didn’t dodge any assignments. Among the 10 players he spent the most possessions defending last season, you’ll find Lonzo Ball, Dennis Schroder, Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards.

And while his 5.9 assists per game might seem a bit low for a primary creator who had the ball in his hands that often, remember that the players he played next to most often last season were Dort, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon, who shot 34.3, 29.0 and 33.5 percent from beyond the arc, respectively. Given the quality of shooters he had around him, it’s not a surprise that so many of his shots came with three defenders draped over him, and it’s even more impressive that he still found a way to rack up 109 assists on 3-pointers in just 35 games.

What will Shai Gilgeous-Alexander look like as the Oklahoma City Thunder add more talent?

The Thunder saw a lot of growth from their other young players last season and internal development should continue to both improve their record and make things a bit easier on Gilgeous-Alexander. But they’re also adding lottery pick Josh Giddey this season and a handful of other rookies who could play meaningful roles. And then there is next year’s draft. And the one after that. And the one after that. The Thunder hold nine first-round picks in the next three drafts, along with the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023.

Those picks could produce a franchise-changing talent to pair with the 23-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander while he is still approaching his prime, or be flipped to acquire an established star as he enters it. Right now, he’s producing at a star level but for a team that is winning less than a third of its games and is probably years away from competing for playoff berths. How long will he be content to show out in obscurity and sharpen his tools, waiting for a chance to use them in the settings that really matter?

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