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How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is driving toward All-Star status

Guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander must feel kind of like showing up at a salsa-dancing class thinking you’d signed up for the free, entry-level, let’s-try-something-different-for-a-change lesson … only to realize you’d accidentally picked the no-refunds, all-sales-are-final advanced course.

You don’t know the steps. You’re unsure where your partner’s eyes, hips and feet are going next, and you’re extremely unsure where yours should be. You’re either too close or nowhere near close enough, and it’s embarrassing, and the worst part is, you’re paying for it.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been mesmerizing opponents with footwork, flash and fantastic finishes since the season’s opening tip, leading a Thunder team that many thought would lead the NBA’s tank wars to a surprising 4-3 mark — the first time Oklahoma City has been over .500 since Day 2 of the 2020-21 season. He has scored 30 or more points in four of his first six games, a monster start that earned him Western Conference Player of the Week honors.

The fifth-year guard enters Thursday’s NBA TV tilt against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring, averaging a crisp 31.5 points per game. Combine that with the 17 points per game he’s creating through his 6.8 assists, and you’ve got a high-octane engine who can make a justifiable claim to being “one of the best offensive players in the league,” as Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault recently described him — the sort of superstar talent capable of not only putting up mammoth numbers, but also maintaining elite efficiency despite balancing the heaviest workload of his career.

SGA has finished one-third of Oklahoma City’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover, and is cooking to the tune of a .610 true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw averages). Heading into this season, only 10 guards in the last 40 years had married such high levels of usage and efficiency over the course of a full campaign, according to Stathead: Michael Jordan, James Harden, Stephen Curry, pre-hip-injury Isaiah Thomas and Trae Young.

That’s awfully rarefied air for the 24-year-old playmaker — and, frankly, probably not the sort of company you might expect Gilgeous-Alexander to be keeping if you haven’t been watching him closely for a minute.

The last time most of the broader basketball-watching populace clocked Oklahoma City games for any purpose beyond tracking fantasy points or pingpong-ball position was probably in the bubble, when a 2019-20 Thunder team that Chris Paul had led to 44 wins gave Harden’s Rockets all they could handle in a seven-game first-round defeat. Gilgeous-Alexander, the crown jewel of the haul that Sam Presti extracted from the Clippers in exchange for Paul George, actually led that team in scoring, but he was the junior partner in the three-guard lineups that fueled OKC’s rise up the standings. And then: an exodus.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) attempts a layup as Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (7) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is all about driving to the hoop. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Paul went to Phoenix. Dennis Schröder joined the Lakers. Danilo Gallinari signed with the Hawks, Steven Adams got dealt to the Pelicans, head coach Billy Donovan started running with the Bulls, and suddenly, Gilgeous-Alexander, at the tender age of 22, was the centerpiece and foundational figure of a franchise entering a lengthy, draft-pick-amassing rebuild. His numbers soared, and he displayed brilliance in spurts, but various injuries (paired with, shall we say, an organizational understanding of the value of keeping him off the court?) limited him to 91 games over the past two seasons — a span during which young Oklahoma City posted a dismal .299 winning percentage, fourth-worst in the NBA.

Amid the rumblings that eventually the losing would start to wear thin, and that a young dude eager to establish his place in the pecking order of rising NBA stars by proving himself in postseason play might start looking for greener pastures, Gilgeous-Alexander inked a five-year maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract. He committed to being the driving force of whatever turnaround is to come in Oklahoma City — a process that, ironically enough, revolves primarily around him driving.

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging a staggering 27.7 drives to the basket per game this season, according to Second Spectrum — nearly six more per game than second-place Luka Doncic, and only six fewer than the Warriors’ entire team.

That SGA’s leading the league in drives isn’t shocking; he’s done it in each of the last two seasons, too. It is incredible, though, that he’s so adept at slaloming his way to the paint despite playing on teams so devoid of shooting. Oklahoma City ranked 29th and 30th in team 3-point accuracy in the last two seasons, and sits 29th again this season, ahead of only the incessantly misfiring Lakers.

The Thunder have some willing shooters — Luguentz Dort, Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokusevski and others are all more than happy to let one fly — but with the exception of backup stretch 5 Mike Muscala (shooting just 31.3 percent from deep this season) and starting stretch 5-in-training Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (up to 42.7 percent in a strong start), they don’t have many good ones. Given the opportunity to pick their poison, opposing defenses are going to pack the paint every time, daring Oklahoma City’s shooters to prove they can knock down enough long balls to beat soft coverage.

They know Gilgeous-Alexander’s planning to come downhill at them; they know that OKC’s best chance to score rests with him getting into the teeth of the defense and finding either a launch angle to release a short jumper, a pathway all the way to the rim, or a teammate left open by an overeager help defender. But knowing that something’s coming doesn’t mean knowing how it’s going to come — or, for that matter, what the hell to do once it gets there.

Gilgeous-Alexander drives like a pitcher who’s got total command of all of his pitches, and total comfort with throwing all of them in any count. You’re never quite sure if he’s going to blow past you with the first step, slink and slither his way into a quick-gather underhand scoop, or put his shoulder into you to create space for a push-shot floater that his 6-foot-6 frame and long arms allow him to uncork at all manner of Dutch angles. And then, he hits you with the change-up — a full-speed attack that ends instantaneously when he hits maybe the NBA’s best set of brakes.

Maybe, after stopping on a dime, SGA raises up for that slightly fading midrange J that he’s canning at a strong 46 percent clip. But maybe, after teleporting through traffic, he pivots to survey the chessboard and makes the defense drink the poison it picked time and again, generating a look clean enough that even a below-average shooter can cash out — one reason why he’s ranked 17th in the league in 3-pointers created, according to PBP Stats, right there with Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant and Trae Young in the ranks of the league’s most dangerous young playmakers:

Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to distort defenses with his dribble penetration is the beating heart of Oklahoma City’s attack. The Thunder, who rank 25th in offensive efficiency overall, have scored 12 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court; he is, very literally, the thing standing in the way of OKC being the worst offense in the NBA.

Even more encouraging: A player whom multiple metrics have graded out as a net-negative defender in recent years appears to be taking the challenge of leveling up on that end, too. Gilgeous-Alexander sits tied for third in the NBA in steals per game and fifth in deflections per game, and is one of only four players who have logged 75 minutes this season to have blocked a shot and snagged a steal on more than 3 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions. The other three: defense-first stoppers Alex Caruso, Javonte Green and Delon Wright.

Nobody expects SGA to cosplay as Tony Allen while also carrying Oklahoma City’s entire offense on his shoulders, but Daigneault credits him for working to “set a tone defensively” for a hungry young Thunder team that’s light on offensive talent and will have to get stops to compete. So far, so good: After showing signs of becoming an above-average defense through the first few months of last season, OKC has used its collective length and versatility, combined with consistent execution and, yes, a little bit of luck on opponent 3-point shooting, to field a top-five unit through seven games.

Dort’s the premiere stopper, and Darius Bazley’s flying all over the place on the perimeter blocking 3-point shots. But Gilgeous-Alexander’s serving as the tip of the spear, fighting through screens and staying attentive off the ball because, as he recently told reporters, “Guys that have done great things for the game do it on both ends.”

Whether the Thunder will go on to do great things depends upon a whole lot of factors outside of Gilgeous-Alexander’s control: how well the other members of the NBA’s youngest roster develop, what No. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren can provide once he returns from his season-ending injury, how Presti deploys the 15 first-round picks he’s got some semblance of control over through 2029, etc. In the meantime, though, SGA is both excelling in the areas he does control, and expanding just how wide an area of the game that influence covers. There’s a word for guys like that: All-Star.

Maybe that’s too lofty a distinction for Gilgeous-Alexander to grasp in a brutally crowded Western Conference backcourt race. If he and the Thunder keep playing like this, though, maybe it isn’t.