Years of NBA Experience: Rookie
Position: Point Guard
Weight: 180 pounds
Key Stats: 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.6 steals in 33.7 minutes per game over 37 games (24 started) at Kentucky as a freshman. Shot 48.5/40.4/81.7, with 1.5 three-point attempts and 4.7 free throw attempts per game.
Contract Status: Signed a standard rookie contract for four seasons: will earn $3,375,360 in 2018-2019, with increases over the next three seasons, and team options on the last two seasons.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the prospect:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is probably the most hyped Clippers rookie since Blake Griffin made his debut almost a decade ago. The 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Shai was widely considered a steal for the Clippers, with many draft pundits considering him the best guard in the draft not named Luka Doncic.
Shai is so highly regarded because his skillset perfectly matches the trends of the modern NBA. His height and incredible length (6’11” wingspan) mean he should be able to guard several positions once he bulks up a bit. Defensive versatility has become increasingly important as spread offenses and off-the-dribble shooters have proliferated, and Shai should check that box off, possessing both physical tools and defensive instincts. On offense, Shai is an intelligent and decisive player, capable of making quick reads and smart decisions. He can pass, play off the ball, run a pick and roll, and shoot. Or at least, he has the skills and tools to be able to do so. Whether he can at the NBA level is, of course, still a mystery.
That’s not to say Shai is a perfect prospect. He lacks explosiveness as a leaper, which means he relies more on guile than pure strength and athleticism to finish (this could actually help him as he ages). While Shai shot well from three in college, it was on limited attempts, and he doesn’t shoot all that quickly. I think he can become a good shooter, but he might not be one right away, especially from three. Additionally, while Shai’s handle is tight enough to get the job done, he doesn’t have the fancy dribbling of a Jamal Crawford or Kyrie Irving, so it can be difficult for him to clear space in that method. Still, outside of the athleticism, these are weaknesses that can be worked on. And if he can improve his handle, and work on his outside shot until he can hit off the dribble, he will be a dangerous, dangerous NBA player.
Despite the hype, and Shai’s seeming NBA readiness (displayed in Summer League to great effect), it’s unclear what role Shai will play in the upcoming season. The Clippers have four veteran guards who probably rank ahead of Shai in the rotation: Pat Beverley, Avery Bradley, Lou Williams, and Milos Teodosic. There will also be competition from Tyrone Wallace and fellow rookie Jerome Robinson. It makes sense for Shai (and Jerome) to get minutes at some point in their rookie seasons: the Clippers invested too much in them to have them sit on the bench or play in the G-League all year.
Still, it remains to be seen how Doc will integrate Shai into the rotation, or if he does at all. There are several possibilities. Perhaps the most likely is that Doc will play lots of varying lineups with Shai and the four veterans, shifting them in and out quickly depending on situations, and trying to find the best combinations. This could mean lots of three-minute stints for Shai, and perhaps some games where he gets even less time. Another possibility is that Doc goes with a three-guard lineup off the bench, with Milos, Lou, and Shai all getting consistent time together. The most optimistic option (for Shai) would be his simply being a main piece of the guard rotation from the start, presumably over Milos. He’s a good fit with Lou Williams, who could cover up his shot-creating and scoring weaknesses, and would be able to initiate offense for Montrezl Harrell and Mike Scott. Finally, there is a chance that Shai doesn’t play much to start the year outside of garbage minutes, and needs player injuries or disappointments to get his time in the sun.
When Shai does play, what are fair expectations for a rookie on a team looking to compete for the playoffs? I think he should be able to positively contribute in his rookie season. Now, that certainly doesn’t sound like much. But rookies are almost always negative factors for their team, mostly due to defense, poor efficiency, and just not always knowing where to be on the court. I think Shai’s intelligence and athletic tools will prevent some of these issues from happening, at least as frequently as they do to most rookies. If he can at least be a threat shooting from deep, I could see him being a positive presence on both the offensive and defensive ends. He’s one of the better passers on the team, and should also be one of the best at getting to the rim right off the bat.
There’s a lot of conjecture involved with projecting any rookie’s production. We literally have no idea how they will fare against NBA competition, or how they’ll fit on teams with an entirely new set of teammates and play schemes. Shai is certainly no different. But his basketball IQ, physical tools, and basic skillset makes him a player who should be able to give the Clippers quality minutes almost as soon as he steps on the court. Let’s just hope he gets that opportunity sooner rather than later.