The Long Two: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s improvement and the Hawks’ struggles

Atlanta Hawks, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has added a new trick to his bag this season, and the Hawks’ offense has struggled to get off the ground.

Much of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s career has unfolded in relative obscurity, but the absence of a spotlight has done nothing to stall his growth as a player. The 23-year-old made steady, substantive improvement in each of his first three NBA seasons — including a quiet leap into fringe All-NBA territory last year — and put himself in the company of some of the NBA’s best guards.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s usage rate climbed by more than seven points in 2020-21, his assist rate doubled and his true shooting percentage eclipsed that of Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Bradley Beal. His most noticeable progress came from behind the 3-point line, where Gilgeous-Alexander dialed up his volume and accuracy on a far more difficult shot diet.

Refining a right-to-left stepback helped him shoot a sparkling 41 percent on nearly four pull-up 3s per game, and his ability to fire off the dribble became a needed counter to defenders playing off him or ducking under screens in the pick-and-roll.

What new tricks has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added this season?

This year, he’s added a left-to-right side-step 3 to his arsenal:

Gilgeous-Alexander took that shot 11 times last season (many of which came out of desperation at the end of shot clocks and quarters) and made four of those attempts; through his first nine games this season, he’s 9-of-13. At 6-foot-7, Gilgeous-Alexander covers huge swaths of ground when he steps back, and his length gives him a high release point despite not getting much elevation on his shot. He’s taking nearly two additional 3s per game this year — many of the side-step variety — and now that he can shoot on the move in either direction, he’s opened up more than just a deeper bag of tricks.

For someone like Gilgeous-Alexander, who relies upon change of pace, shifting directions and subtle movements to create advantages, the threat of a move can be as important as the move itself. Taking something away against a great player necessarily means giving something else up, especially when that player can turn the slightest lean or false step into a costly error. If defenders have to chase him over ball screens, Gilgeous-Alexander has an easier time getting downhill and either scoring at the rim or setting up teammates. The more mindful a defender is of a pull-up 3, the more likely he is to be caught off-balance and vulnerable to getting beat off the dribble; protecting against the drive, however, only gives Gilgeous-Alexander more room to shoot:

One of the biggest questions about Gilgeous-Alexander early in his career was whether his languid movement and deliberate set-shot would allow him to reliably create space against athletic, like-sized defenders. A 45-game sample isn’t enough to completely quell those doubts (he only played 35 games in 2021), but Gilgeous-Alexander currently leads the NBA in isolation scoring by a wide margin, ranks second in points off of drives and is one of the league’s preeminent pull-up shooters. That unique combination makes him an exceptionally well-rounded scorer, even if his volume and playmaking keep him a rung or two below the league’s best offensive weapons.

There are times when Gilgeous-Alexander becomes slightly too scoring-focused, dancing into unnecessarily tough jumpers or eschewing an opportunistic pass to methodically dribble out the possession. He has improved as a passer since being traded to Oklahoma City, but still doesn’t have quite the vision or decision-making to drive efficient team offense. And while it’s still too early in the season to draw conclusions, a regression in 3-point shooting and overall scoring efficiency might suggest that his 2021 production may not be entirely sustainable.

Carrying such a heavy scoring burden has also sapped some of his value on defense, where Gilgeous-Alexander is somewhat inactive. That could be a product of playing for one of the worst teams in the NBA, and he certainly has the physical tools and improvement track record to improve as a defender and playmaker. The Thunder are in no rush to win now, giving Gilgeous-Alexander the time he needs to work at his own speed.

The Atlanta Hawks offense is spinning its wheels

Watch any of the Hawks’ first 12 games this season and you’re likely to see an offense out of step with its personnel. A team built around Trae Young — already one of the best creators of 3-pointers and layups in NBA history — and a stable of shooters and secondary playmakers should not make scoring look arduous, yet this one seems almost incapable of generating easy shots. There’s a feeling of complacency to the way Atlanta runs its offense; where the league’s best scoring teams work for better shots, the Hawks tend to settle for mediocre ones.

Atlanta’s 15th-ranked offense hasn’t been as bad as its 27th-ranked defense, but it has looked equally disconnected, largely due to the team’s shot selection. Despite being one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooting teams, the Hawks currently own the 10th-worst effective field goal percentage in the league and the third-worst expected percentage based on their shot distribution. Their attempt rates from 3 and at the rim have declined significantly from last season, while their share of long mid-range attempts (between 14 feet and the 3-point line) has risen to the third-highest mark in the league. The Hawks are hitting less than 41 percent of those looks, most of which have come off the dribble.

That shot profile is consistent with previous Nate McMillan-led teams, but it doesn’t match the personnel on this roster. The Hawks have a handful of capable mid-range shooters, but none so prolific that they should actively hunt 20-foot jumpers early in the shot clock. The team’s perimeter players can all create with the ball in their hands to varying degrees, but that doesn’t mean every basket must be earned off the dribble. Bogdan Bogdanović, for instance, is a fine pull-up shooter, but shots like these actively leave points on the table:

​​https://youtu.be/lgXaV778SLo

Shot selection is often a product of ball movement, and the Hawks have yet to find a consistent passing groove that would set up easier looks. Rather than moving the ball along when possessions bog down, the default response to stalled plays is often just hoisting up a shot at the first available opportunity. Only the Mavericks make fewer passes per game than the Hawks, who also rank 22nd in points created via assist and fourth in shots taken after at least seven dribbles. That stagnation creates a vicious cycle in which players force shots because they can’t find them within the flow of the offense, which only makes it harder to create good looks within the flow of the offense.

Part of that falls upon McMillan, whose playbook often lacks diversity and creativity. Some of it is on Young, who has been cold from virtually everywhere on the floor and heavily affected by the league’s crackdown on foul-drawing. Clint Capela is shooting a career-low 59 percent at the rim and is clearly hampered by the Achilles’ soreness that kept him out of the preseason. Bogdanović is taking nearly four fewer 3-pointers per 100 possessions than he did a year ago, while Young and Kevin Huerter are both attempting 3s at the lowest rate of their careers.

And yet, for all of their individual and collective struggles, the Hawks have still scored efficiently with Young on the floor and will likely get even better once he and his teammates start hitting shots at their usual rates. It’s still early in the season, and Atlanta still has the firepower to run a dynamic spread pick-and-roll offense with multiple scoring and playmaking threats. Fitting the pieces together just might take more work than anticipated.

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