The Whiteboard: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on a record-setting pace

Oklahoma City Thunder, The Whiteboard

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has exploded as a scorer thanks to his relentless drives, which no one has figured out how to stop yet.

This was supposed to be another rebuilding year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, particularly after No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren was lost for the season to a foot injury. The Thunder had plenty of young talent but coming off a 24-58 season there still appeared to be a lot of necessary player development and roster upgrading before the playoffs were realistically in play.

But after three straight losses to open the season, the Thunder have won four in a row and are over 0.500 for the first time since Jan. 10, 2021. For that, they can thank Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who has taken another leap and is averaging 31.5 points, 6.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, on a 61.0 true shooting percentage.

He’s been absolutely everywhere for Oklahoma City, on both ends of the floor, but their offense, in particular, would be sputtering if not for his self-creation ability. Gilgeous-Alexander has led the league in drives per game each of the two previous seasons as well but he’s in new territory this year — at 27.7 per game he’s nearly six drives ahead of any other player and at a pace we’ve never seen since the drives became trackable in 2013-14.

No one has driven as often as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is this season

Gilgeous-Alexander is basically on an island by himself in term of drive volume. Since the 2020-21 season, when he first really took the leap as a primary creator, he has consistently driven more than any other player in the NBA.

The only player really close to him is Luka Doncic and, as you can see, Doncic has a considerable edge in the effectiveness of his drives. The metric I’m using here, Drive Score%, is a bit muddy but it’s basically the percentage of a player’s drives on which they scored a basket, logged an assist to a teammate, or earned a trip to the free throw line on which they made at least one free throw. That structure means we’re capturing a few other related variables — free-throw shooting, finishing on drives and the ability of a player’s teammates to turn potential assists into made baskets.

Over the past three seasons, Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates have recorded an effective field goal percentage of 47.0 on shots that came after his passes. For Doncic, that number is 54.9 percent over the same three seasons. And it’s not just a matter of Doncic creating higher quality looks — his teammates have made 36.5 percent of their open and wide-open 3-pointers over the past three seasons, compared to just 33.2 percent for Gilgeous-Alexander’s.

With more effective shooters around him, the output of Gilgeous-Alexander’s drives could be much closer to Doncic’s numbers.

The mechanism of Gilgeous-Alexander’s relentless drives isn’t completely obvious — he’s not a quick-twitch explosion like Ja Morant, or a ball-handling wizard, like Kyrie Irving. But he’s quick, long and does have a tight, advanced handle. His combination of all three attributes has allowed him to use the right tool for the right job, extending…

… exploding …

… or beating the defense with handle and craft …

… as the situation demands.

Other parts of his offensive game are still a work in progress. His pull-up jumper has been exceptional inside the arc this year but his 3-point percentage is down to 31.8 after hitting just 30.0 percent last year, down from his peak 41.8 percent in 2020-21. If he can ever get back to that level as a 3-point shooter, with some balance between catch-and-shoot and pull-up attempts he could be in the conversation as one of the toughest covers in the NBA.


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