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Clippers Retrospective: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Will be Missed For a Long Time

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander set the hearts of Clippers’ fans ablaze in a mere single season with the team.

Golden State Warriors v LA Clippers - Game Six Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Key Stats

  • Selected 11th in the draft by the Clippers, who traded two 2nd round picks to move up from 12th to get him from Charlotte
  • Played all 82 regular season games, starting 73 of them, and started all six playoff games against the Warriors
  • In 26.5 minutes per game, averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.2 steals, shooting 47.6% from the field, 36.7% from three (1.7 attempts), and 80% from the free throw line (2.4 attempts)
  • In the playoffs, averaged 13.7 points (on 46.7/50/85 splits), 2.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.0 steals per game in 28.8 minutes
  • Was named to 2nd Team All-Rookie, just a handful of votes behind Marvin Bagley for 1st Team
  • Traded by the Clippers (along with Danilo Gallinari and a large quantity of draft picks) for Paul George in early July

Expectations

While Shai was the Clippers’ highest draft pick (by far) since Al-Farouq Aminu back in 2010, he wasn’t expected to have a significant role on a veteran Clippers team that had a handful of other guards who seemed to need minutes. With Lou Williams, Pat Beverley, Avery Bradley, and Milos Teodosic eating playing time, there didn’t appear to be more than spot minutes for Shai to start the season. Now, Clippers’ fans hoped that he would get at least some minutes from the beginning of the year, but most thought he wouldn’t get a true opportunity until at least one of the veterans ahead of him was traded.

If Shai were to play, of course, expectations were fairly high. As the 11th pick in an extremely strong draft, there was pressure on Shai to, if not play great, at least look the part of an NBA player and show some real flashes his rookie season. After studying college highlights and Summer League, Clippers fans expected that Shai would be able to score inside, run a bit of offense if given the chance, and compete on defense. Anything outside of that probably would have been considered gravy, at least in Shai’s rookie season.

Reality

Shai blew those expectations off the map even within the opening weeks of the season. His smart, two-way play earned him a true rotation spot right away, and he was elevated to a starting role eight games into the season when Avery Bradley went down with an injury. He never left the first unit again, opening games for the Clippers the rest of the year. Along the way, he gave Clippers fans a glimpse of the future – a bright one indeed.

That’s not to say there weren’t ups and downs. Shai began to slump along with the rest of the Clippers in late December, and remained in a funk until the trade deadline. He wasn’t aggressive with the ball in his hands, was getting into foul trouble, and didn’t seem to be making much an impact. Then, somewhat suddenly, freed from the shackles of Avery Bradley, and with another promising young talent flanking him in the backcourt in Landry Shamet, Shai soared, with his ascent continuing into the playoffs. Shai may have hit the rookie wall, but he powered right through it, and his development throughout the season was wonderful to watch.

The most impressive thing about Shai was that even on (most) of his off-nights, he still wasn’t *bad*. Considering most rookies, no matter how talented, are huge negatives on the court, Shai’s ability to give the Clippers at least something on any given night was valuable. His defense, in particular, was astonishingly good for a rookie guard, with his length, quickness, and instincts serving him well in keeping opposing players in front of him, and catching up to plays when he appeared out of them. And on nights when his shot was falling, and Shai was aggressive, the his ceiling appeared to be limitless. The last time Clippers fans saw Shai in a Clippers uniform, he dropped 22 points (on 8-14 shooting), 5 rebounds, and 6 assists (no turnovers) on the Golden State Warriors (with Kevin Durant) in a playoff game. Despite the loss, it was a triumphant note to close what was a dazzling rookie season for Shai, who went through it all with a smile on his face and a mien of extreme calm. What a year for Shai, and for Clippers fans alike.

Legacy

Shai was the Clippers’ best, most promising rookie since Blake Griffin nearly a decade before. His steady, mature play quickly won him the hearts of Clippers’ fans everywhere, and his highs made him appear to be not just a future cornerstone of the Clippers, but a potential franchise player. He was considered untouchable, the one piece that was most likely to be on the Clippers five years ahead. His trade, therefore, was correspondingly shocking.

Shai’s development will be of great interest for Clippers fans for the next handful of years. Many Clippers fans will undoubtedly root for Shai due to their attachment to the young guard, and will hope for the breakout campaign that they’d predicted would occur in a Clippers’ jersey. It’s highly unlikely that any Clippers fans, in fact, will not support Shai. However, if he becomes a star, or even superstar, and Paul George does not help the Clippers win a championship in that period of time, it’s possible that bitterness at the lost prospect of Shai will start to creep in.

One way or another, SGA will be remembered by Clippers fans for a long time. Whether it’s as the one who got away, as the young stud who made the Paul George trade possible, or even just as a fun rookie in an extremely memorable and entertaining season, Shai’s 2019 season will linger. He is a special young player, and the Clippers’ (hopeful) future success will just be the slightest bit less sweet without Shai along for the ride.