Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made leaps in both of his offseasons since entering the NBA.
Coming off his rookie year with the Los Angeles Clippers, he turned from a nice complementary option into the leading scorer of a playoff team. The next season, he went from one of the options of a very good offensive team to the only option of a very bad offensive team, and he was so good at it, the Oklahoma City Thunder were competitive and nearly .500 with him on the court.
Can he make the next leap of a cornerstone player? Can he turn into a superstar?
Here are three goals Gilgeous-Alexander should set for himself entering his fourth season in the NBA.
As good as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is — you want him to be on-ball more than not — this team is not built for other players to be shooting. It’s built for SGA.
With the priorities of Sam Presti and the other architects of the team, the Thunder will need to be confident in others playing on-ball. That’s why they took Josh Giddey, perhaps the best passer in the draft, with the No. 6 pick. It’s why they traded up to take Aleksej Pokusevski the year before. It’s why Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby get so many minutes.
For this team to be at its best, Gilgeous-Alexander needs to be as effective off the ball as he is on.
There are a few avenues he can focus on to do so. First off, his midrange game can improve. Gilgeous-Alexander shot 39.2% from 10-14 feet and 34.8% from 15-19 feet. Even in today’s 3-point-heavy game, that’s the area that separates the great scorers from the elite. The Phoenix Suns don’t get to the NBA Finals if Chris Paul (52.2% form 10-14, 52.4% from 15-19) and Devin Booker (52.4%, 50.3%) aren’t money from there throughout the season.
Gilgeous-Alexander can also go back to cutting. He only attempted two shots off cuts last season, a career-low. If there’s indication that he’s going to be off-ball often, he should watch film of Steph Curry being an absolute nuisance by constantly moving without the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander only had 37 catch-and-shoots last season; with Giddey and Pokusevski handling the ball as much as they will, that number should increase. After making 43.2% of them, he’ll have to convert more this year.
There are two major reasons for the goal to increase stamina.
First and foremost, it’s logical to conclude that Gilgeous-Alexander’s plantar fasciitis that ended his 2021 campaign was, at least in part, due to the heavy workload thrust upon him on offense. He was statistically the best guard at driving to the lane and scoring. His usage rate jumped from 23.5% to 28.3%. Talent-wise, he was more than ready. Body-wise, he still needs some development.
Stamina isn’t just about how much you can run. It’s about how much wear and tear muscles can take before giving out. Gilgeous-Alexander has shown no signs of being injury-prone, and this offseason is the time to make sure his body is prepared for the demands of the future.
Second, the more stamina a player has, the more effort one can put on the defensive side of the ball while shouldering the load on offense. Gilgeous-Alexander, constantly making plays on offense, took a step back defensively.
It’s understandable and it’s an excuse that many NBA players make — heck, you’ve seen LeBron James take entire quarters off defensively only to look All-NBA Defensive caliber when he needs to be — but it’s not one that’s always acceptable. Part of what makes the Thunder’s roster-building plan so intriguing is that Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, does not need to hide defensively. This could be a rare backcourt that has two high-level defensive players who can guard multiple positions.
That’s why the Thunder are drafting so many tall, versatile players. They already have one in their cornerstone. But he needs to have the energy to do offense and defense at the same time, because once he’s in the playoffs, Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be able to take plays off on either side of the ball.
Make an all-star team
This one may be more of a pipe dream than a goal. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will have to be otherworldly to make the all-star team this season. Trae Young, who was the best player on a playoff team and averaging more than 26 points and nine assists at the 2021 all-star break, didn’t make it last year. Zach LaVine did, but he was on the fringe of ballots from voters like ESPN’s Zach Lowe even while averaging nearly 29 points on 52.5% shooting from the field and 43.5% from 3 at the break.
And those two examples were in the Eastern Conference.
In the West, Russell Westbrook presents competition that wasn’t there last year. Ja Morant is likely to make a leap. Booker, fresh off the Finals, will garner more respect (he was a replacement all-star last season).
Here are the 2021 Western Conference All-Stars, for reference:
And the two injury replacements:
There may be some openings. Leonard’s injury timeline is unclear and it seems unlikely he’ll be an All-Star this season. Perhaps Conley and Paul, getting older, take a step back. But the rest are probably back in, and there’s plenty of young, emerging competition in the West.
So make this pipe dream a goal, SGA: Be so good that the voters cannot leave you off their ballot.
Source: Yahoo Sports