Christmas is a special season. The lights, presents, snow, family time, vacation days and the very important weeks off of school, all considered at the highest order. Needless to say, it’s the most wonderful time of the year – but especially so in Kentucky.
Down there, December means one other thing: The countdown to the annual Kentucky-Louisville basketball game. The contest, usually taking place in the days after Christmas, is the ultimate bragging right. Both teams are typically good, typically ranked and, accordingly, the game is usually competitive. It’s also the only time the two blue-bloods face off during the season, save an NCAA tournament run-in — the 2014 Aaron Harrison jumper still reverberates throughout Louisville — so the matchup is fun.
Except when it isn’t. And for Louisville fans, the 2017 iteration of the rivalry wasn’t fun. At all.
Kentucky won 90-61. It was probably even worse than the score indicates as they dominated and one player, in particular, led the way: A 6-foot-6, bare-bones freshman named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Hardly recognizable after cutting his long, floppy hair, Gilgeous-Alexander came off the bench to score 24 points, grab five rebounds, dish four assists and nab three steals in 33 minutes.
Fast-forward nearly two years later and the up-and-coming starlet is the face of an NBA franchise.
Gilgeous-Alexander was drafted at No. 11 overall in 2018 and then traded to the Clippers before quickly becoming a wait-this-guy-is-really-good type of player. Prophesizing about SGA around the water cooler meant you knew your stuff — even though backing a lottery pick from Kentucky wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.
It’s true – Gilgeous-Alexander is good. Coming into the draft, he was viewed as a Dejounte Murray-sort, a rangy defender that gets to the rim at an above-average rate and owns an advanced floater. Both of those things were accurate.
But following an All-Rookie Second Team selection, people are now expecting much more.
Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of 55.4 percent. The percentage was third among rookie guards and trailed only Landry Shamet and Allonzo Trier, the former being assisted on the majority of his attempts and the latter playing fewer games and less meaningful ones on a bad Knicks team.
The knocks on SGA include his low-volume, sometimes inconsistent three-point shooting and his precarious on/off numbers with the Clippers last year. On the three point-shooting: While his trigger is a little slow, he was at or above 80 percent from the line both in college and as a rookie — the hypothetical predictor of three-point success — and he also shot 40 percent from deep at Kentucky. Additionally, he vaulted his three-point percentage from 32 in February to 36.7 by the end of the season. Even more encouraging, he shot 50 percent on an uptick in attempts during the first round of the playoffs against Golden State.
Regarding the on/off numbers, Gilgeous-Alexander slotted into three separate lineups that produced a negative points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass:
- SGA, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrel.
- SGA, Patrick Beverly, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris and Marcin Gortat.
- SGA, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Marcin Gortat.
The first lineup was used for less than 200 possessions during the season. It featured two below-average defenders in Harris and Gallinari.
The second lineup featured an utter lack of shot creation outside of SGA; it also had Marcin Gortat.
The third lineup suffered from the same issues as number two and, again, included Gortat.
All lineups involved Avery Bradley, too, who wasn’t good with the Clippers last year. The other six lineups, where Gilgeous-Alexander logged a meaningful amount of possessions, resulted in a positive points per 100. In our advanced stats bubble, this is an instance where the sacred eye test often utilized by Twitter analysts is applicable.
This is why Gilgeous-Alexander was valuable to Los Angeles: He was not only a productive player but also an attractive trade piece. The Clippers were destination number one for Kawhi all year — even with the secrecy of Leonard and his camp throughout his mercenary run in Toronto. In the end, he still ended up in California.
And that is where Gilgeous-Alexander comes in. With all of the return that Oklahoma City received for Paul George, the most exciting thing was this second-year prospect. Yes, they got Gallinari’s expiring deal, five first-rounders and two pick swaps; but make no mistake, Gilgeous-Alexander was the centerpiece. The picks have a higher likelihood of becoming James Young than they do Gary Harris – but SGA has already shown legitimate potential.
His acquisition was all-the-more vital with the swift departure of locker room-stalwart Russell Westbrook. With Westbrook gone, a new dawn has risen in Oklahoma City. They now possess a fairly talented roster, all things considered: Gallinari, Steven Adams, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroeder. But the first three are huge trade assets and the fourth is not going to inspire hope in Thunder fans.
The great thing about Gallinari is that he’s a stretch four who fits snugly with Steven Adams. The really great thing is that his $22.6 million deal is up at the end of this season. Adams’ contract is tougher to unload, but he’s a useful player. The pair are ideal trade candidates because of their immediate impact and because they don’t harbor much risk beyond 2019-20.
So, without any attempts at mental gymnastics, the Thunder’s biggest tangible future piece is none other than Gilgeous-Alexander. He represents a new era at point guard — and a new era for the city – as the cornerstone of the organization. Only two other former rookies, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, can really make that claim.
He’ll continue to have growing pains, but he’ll also have an opportunity. There’s no specified greater goal for the Thunder, no superstar to woo and put SGA on the backburner for. He’s the prize now.
From college bench player to lottery pick; from NBA starter to trade bait and now the pride of Oklahoma City, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has come a long way in under two years.
It will be fascinating to see where the next two take him.
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