Can we talk about the month that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having for a moment? Since shooting 1-for-17 during a three-game stretch from February 22-25, SGA has come on like gangbusters. He’s only missed four threes since, while shooting 62.7 percent from beyond the arc. He is also shooting 64.3 percent from the field while averaging his second lowest turnover percentage of any month so far. Where before, Gilgeous-Alexander was a “no, no, yes” shooter, now fans are mad when he passes up a shot (which he still tends to do too much), and has become a stabilizing force for a new group of young starters that have a 13.2 net rating. This is a kid who is not legally allowed to drink alcohol in the United States, yet is the main ball handler for a bonafide playoff team in the Western Conference, going up against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard in three straight games and more than holding his own.
When the Clippers front office swapped draft picks with the Charlotte Hornets to obtain SGA, they knew exactly what they were doing and knew exactly who they wanted: a confident, long, multi-tool young point guard to be apart of the long-term future. That’s exactly what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become — and more.
In a lot of ways, SGA has been thrown to the wolves in his rookie season. He has been tasked with running an offense under the watchful eyes of a former All-Star point guard himself in Doc Rivers (someone who notoriously doesn’t have a lot of patience for rookies) and become a composed, confident leader before the age of 21. After coming off the bench for the first nine games of the season, SGA was handed the keys to the team, and told to be the primary ball handler among a starting five comprised of veterans Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Marcin Gortat. SGA was the outlier, yet held his own in more ways than one. He’s averaged double-digit points most of the season, is fourth among all rookies in assists and second in steals, all while shooting 46 percent from the field. He has been the calming, mostly-efficient presence that Doc and company wanted and truly needed from a point guard this season.
While Shai has taken his lumps, going through two prominent “rookie wall” phases, he has bounced back after struggling every time. He is rounding into an assured player who has no qualms with taking a mid-range jumper in the face of a defender, or driving into the trees in the paint. His defense has always been strong, and will continue to get stronger as he adds weight and gets more experience. When you look at SGA’s player trajectory, his strong season should come as no surprise. All you have to do is look back at SGA’s single season at Kentucky to get a feel for the player he is and can become.
During his single college season in Lexington, SGA only started 24 of 37 games. Coming into his freshman season out of high school, ESPN ranked Shai second-to-last among Kentucky’s incoming recruits. He wasn’t a five-star prospect, he wasn’t a McDonald's All-American, and he wasn’t projected to be a one-and-done guy. Surprisingly, Shai started game one, and scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a win against Utah Valley. However, his starting spot was snatched by another freshman in Quade Green the next contest. It wasn’t until game 10 where SGA started again, then not again until the 16th game of the season. SGA had to prove himself consistently to head coach John Calipari over and over to obtain a lead role.
When it was all said and done, Shai averaged 14.4 points a game in his freshman season with splits of .485/.404/.817, and also averaged 5.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds. He had to prove himself on the biggest stage in college basketball night-in, night-out to build his confidence, and is showing it on a nightly basis in the second-biggest market in the league with a surging playoff team.
Just like Landry Shamet will be instrumental in nabbing big-name free-agents this offseason, SGA’s presence will help as well. Let’s not forget that Clippers free-agency target Kevin Durant said earlier this season that Shai was his favorite rookie so far. Another free-agent in Kyrie Irving also singled out SGA after Monday’s rout of the Celtics saying (Via Tomer Azarly of ClutchPoints):
”Who would’ve known Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would be where he is now, being on a playoff team that’s competing for a spot? Those type of opportunities don’t come along often in this league…”
Every team needs a steady presence at point guard. Having a PG that can dish, play great defense, shoot the ball at an efficient clip, and finish at the rim effectively? That’s what can potentially separate a squad from the pack, just as the Clippers have done this season after being a projected lottery team. It also could be a factor in building upon this already solid team for the future, and taking the next step. What Shai has been able to do this season has been more than what the Clippers had to expect from the 20-year-old. The way he has been able to elevate his game as of late and be a high-level contributor nightly on both end of the floor is icing on the rookie cake that usually doesn’t come this late in the season.
Shai doesn’t get the love that other flashier rookies like Luka Doncic or Trae Young get, but it doesn’t look like he needs that adoration. Just like his team, SGA plays with a quiet chip on his shoulder, keeps his head down, and works. He says all the right things, and has a veteran presence about him already given his young age. With veteran NBA guards, and now coaches, in Rivers and assistant Sam Cassell, SGA has a support system that knows how to navigate the NBA landscape and give him tips and tricks to succeed. This ongoing coaching has been seen as the season has gone along, and is now peaking with SGA’s fantastic play over the last seven games.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will continue to be a huge factor for this franchise as long as he stays healthy. He is the de-facto point guard of the future, and stepped into a daunting role with poise and confidence. In an overachieving season for the Clippers, SGA has been one in a number of positive surprises, and will be called upon to keep elevating his game heading into the playoffs. Personally, I was always on the side of making the playoffs instead of keeping the 2019 first-round pick, to get guys like SGA, Shamet, and Ivica Zubac experience moving forward. It looks as though this will come true, and it will be awesome to watch these young guys (hopefully) produce on a bigger stage. Once again, shout-out to the Clippers front-office for making all the right moves, and giving Shai the confidence to be a lead guard in the NBA at such a young age.