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The Thunder May Already Have Their Next Face of the Franchise

Oklahoma City scored an unprecedented haul of draft picks this summer, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the lone young player it acquired, could easily become the cornerstone for its next title push. Here’s why.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Thunder started over this offseason, trading away Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Jerami Grant for an unprecedented trove of draft picks—eight future firsts, as well as the swap rights to several more. But the young player they received, not all those picks, may end up being the most important piece acquired in the teardown. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, fresh off a great rookie season for the Clippers, is one of the most talented players in the NBA. The Westbrook era is officially over, and SGA has the skills to become the new face of the franchise in Oklahoma City.

There are two reasons Gilgeous-Alexander is such an intriguing prospect:

1. Positional size. At 6-foot-6 and 181 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, SGA is a point guard with the length of a small forward. He towers over most players at his position, which allows him to shoot over them on offense and cover them up on defense. He was the rare rookie who was not a liability on that end of the floor. His defensive versatility also allowed the Clippers to start him on the wing next to two smaller guards in Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet. Gilgeous-Alexander, who turned 21 in July, is still fairly lanky. His size will only become more valuable as he matures physically and adds muscle, which will allow him to bully smaller opponents.

2. Basketball IQ. SGA is wise beyond his years on the court. He rarely gets sped up or rattled by the defense, and he’s an excellent passer who always has a plan for what to do with the ball. He knows how to take advantage of a mismatch: He can get to his preferred spots on the floor and force the defense to send help. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, a former NBA point guard, is known for being tough on young point guards. But Doc didn’t have any issues allowing Gilgeous-Alexander to run the offense as a rookie, moving him into the starting lineup a few weeks into the season and increasing his role during the next six months. The most telling number from his rookie season was his limited number of turnovers (1.7 per game). He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.

SGA, unlike Luka Doncic and Trae Young, wasn’t given an unlimited green light on a bad team. His usage rate (18.2) paled in comparison to that of both Luka (29.6) and Trae (27.7). He excelled in a smaller role on a veteran team that won 48 games and pushed the Warriors to six games in the first round. His relatively pedestrian stats (10.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 3.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game) are more impressive once you put them in that context.

Gilgeous-Alexander was the rare rookie who didn’t tire over the course of the season. He went from averaging 8.4 points on 48.8 percent shooting and 3.6 assists per game in October to 14.2 points on 52.3 percent shooting and 4.5 assists per game in March. SGA was even better in the playoffs, with two brilliant performances against the Warriors: 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting in Game 4 and 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting and six assists in Game 6. He was also the primary defender on Klay Thompson, an assignment few young players would ever get.

Shot creation and getting to the rim are the strengths of his offensive game. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t an elite athlete, but he knows how to change speeds and keep the defense off balance, and his size means he needs only a crack of daylight to get his shot off. Just look at the percentage of his shots around the basket, as well as how effective he was as an isolation scorer, in comparison to Young and Doncic:

SGA vs. Other Rookie PGs

Player % of Shots at Rim FG% at Rim Isolation Scorer Percentile
Player % of Shots at Rim FG% at Rim Isolation Scorer Percentile
SGA 33.5 62.9 87th
Young 26.5 56.2 58th
Doncic 20.9 63.7 60th

Where he comes up short in comparison to his peers is as a shooter. He’s not a bad 3-point shooter (36.7 percent on 1.7 attempts per game), but he’s far more selective (19.4 percent of his total shots) than either Doncic (43.3 percent) or Young (38.5 percent). SGA doesn’t have the same type of game-warping shooting gravity that forces defenders to pick him up as he crosses half court and extend out on the pick-and-roll, creating space for his teammates. He attacks with his dribble more than his jumper, and needs to play with shooters around him so that he can get into the lane.

His ceiling on offense depends on his jumper. His high release point means that most perimeter defenders can’t do much to bother his shot. His path to stardom is pretty simple: knock down the open shots that he can get at any time. The good news for the Thunder is that there are positive indicators in his shooting profile beyond his relatively limited number of 3s:

SGA’s Shooting

FT% FTA Catch-and-Shoot Percentile Off-the-Dribble Percentile
FT% FTA Catch-and-Shoot Percentile Off-the-Dribble Percentile
80 2.4 70th 58th

Gilgeous-Alexander will have a bigger role in Oklahoma City, but won’t be the primary option unless the team trades Chris Paul before the start of the season. Otherwise, he will share a backcourt with Paul, who could have a bounceback campaign in an offense that doesn’t ask him to score off isolations like in Houston and plays to his strengths (passing out of the pick-and-roll) at this stage of his career.

The Thunder could be surprisingly competitive next season. They have a starting five that fits well together: Paul and SGA in the backcourt, a stretch big man who can create shots for himself and his teammates (Danilo Gallinari), a rim-running center (Steven Adams), and—if healthy—an elite defender on the wing (Andre Roberson). Gallinari is the only bad defender in the group. They also have a good sixth man (Dennis Schröder) and a second unit full of young athletes (Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, and Nerlens Noel) who can run with Gilgeous-Alexander.

Oklahoma City is trying to trade Paul, who it acquired in the Westbrook trade and is owed $124 million over the next three seasons, but it could benefit from allowing Gilgeous-Alexander to pick his brain. Paul is a basketball genius who maximized his relatively limited physical abilities to become a Hall of Famer. Playing with a notorious perfectionist like Paul is a great finishing school for young point guards: Both Darren Collison and Eric Bledsoe benefited from their time as his apprentice.

Paul won’t hold back SGA, either. He’s a great 3-point shooter (38.3 percent on 5.1 attempts per game over the last five seasons) who can open up the floor when he doesn’t have the ball, as he did the last two seasons next to James Harden in Houston. Paul has never shot as much as Westbrook or Harden, and he’s not going to start doing so as a 34-year-old in his 15th NBA season. He will create a lot of open shots and cracks in the defense for Gilgeous-Alexander, who didn’t play with a playmaker nearly as good as him in Los Angeles. If Paul stays in Oklahoma City, he can gradually take a step back as SGA develops over the next few seasons. He can’t be a primary option for much longer. He clearly lost a step last season, and there’s only so much an undersized guard with a lot of miles on his body can do to hold off the aging process.

There is nothing stopping SGA from taking control of the Thunder franchise. None of their other starters are part of their long-term core, so they can use some of the future assets they added this summer to build around him. He is the perfect building block because he can fit with so many other types of players. Oklahoma City can have one of the longest teams in the NBA if it plays him at point guard and surrounds him with wings, or play him in a two- or even three-point-guard offense without sacrificing any size on defense.

It’s hard to find many comparisons for Gilgeous-Alexander because there are so few point guards his size. The one that came up most when I asked NBA scouts and executives is a young Shaun Livingston before the horrific knee injury that changed the course of his career. Like SGA, Livingston was a supersized ball handler with a great feel for the game and the ability to get wherever he wanted on the court. Forget the deliberate bench scorer who played out of the post with the Warriors. Livingston used to get to the rim at will:

Now imagine how good that version of Livingston could have been if he had even a decent 3-point shot, which Gilgeous-Alexander already had as a rookie. There is no ceiling to how good SGA can be. The national perception hasn’t quite caught up with his talent.

His career could end up looking a lot like Jrue Holiday’s. No one knew how good Holiday was in his first few seasons in the NBA because he apprenticed under veteran guards on a playoff contender in Philadelphia. He was a smart player with elite size for his position (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), so he could make a team better even without a huge role in the offense. His combination of size, athleticism, and basketball IQ allowed him to keep getting better with age and shine when finally given the chance to run an offense. Holiday embarrassed Damian Lillard in the playoffs two seasons ago, and just had a career-best regular season at 28.

Gilgeous-Alexander could be even better. He is good enough to prevent the Thunder from bottoming out, and they have so many future draft picks coming from other teams that they shouldn’t have to. Their future is bright. They have a franchise player before they even start rebuilding.