The Thunder blew the doors off the Jazz in their first real game in the Orlando Bubble. Chris Paul was masterful in controlling the pace and had the midrange working the entire game. Steven Adams showed great touch around the rim, and the new tan he has from spending all that time quarantined with his cows. But I came away from watching this game most impressed with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Namely, how decisive he was at getting right to the rim instead of settling for the floaters and fading shots he usually loves in the paint.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s rim attacks were especially impressive when you consider the opponent employs a dominant rim protector in Rudy Gobert. Oklahoma City has played two other games against Utah this season, pre-bubble edition, and in those games you could see how impactful the presence of Gobert was around the rim, especially when SGA had the ball.
In both the season opener and the second game in December, Shai was often content to stop right before he got into the paint and take a contested jumper or a floater.
Even when he did go all the way into the paint in those games, which wasn’t often, instead of going up and into Gobert or using the rim for protection, he would throw up scoop shots with a high degree of difficulty.
Now that’s not to say that SGA isn’t skilled enough to make these types of shots, as he does so often and did so in these games as well.
Now look at the contrast in aggression from Shai in Saturday’s restart opener. This might be my favorite play by him all season:
He has very good touch, which allows him to make some of the earlier variety shots even as he is making them more difficult for himself. But having a steady diet of those attempts–floaters, scoops, fades, and other releases just shy of the paint or the hoop–will make any player’s shot profile inefficient (unless they are named Tony Parker).
The easiest path to becoming more efficient for someone like Shai, who has the touch around the rim to become as good of a finisher as any guard there is, is to cut these types of shots out altogether. Per NBA.com, Shai is shooting 43% on these “floating jump shots” on the season, which is 8 percentage points lower than he shoots on layups (51%). This boost in efficiency isn’t just captured by the percentages, as he will also be likely to draw more fouls if he is going right to the paint instead of fading away from the players that are contesting his shots. Drawing fouls is one of the most important skills in the NBA for any player that wants to become central to an efficient offense, and having more attempts directly at the rim will help that.
The encouraging part? SGA already increased his FTr from last year, going from .272 to .341. But a much higher proportion of his shots came as floaters this year, as he was given much more offensive freedom than he had as a rookie. If you put on your rose colored glasses, this can be seen as a positive, as he has more room to increase his efficiency as he cuts these shots out.
Saturday’s game was promising on the Shai shot front. He was much more decisive at getting right at the rim, and went right at Gobert instead of falling away from him. Here’s that first finish around Gobert from Saturday’s game again:
He exhibits patience in the pick and roll, snakes across the lane, and turns around Gobert in the air as he uses the rim to negate the two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s shot blocking ability.
That wasn’t the only time he was able to use his craft to finish right at Gobert, as he later comes off a pick from Adams and again makes sure the Stifle Tower can’t alter the shot by using a wrong-footed layup:
Later in the game Shai was able to go right past a good defender in Joe Ingles and stretch a layup past Gobert using every inch of his 6’11 wingspan, before the latter even has a chance to get up to contest it:
He kept attacking Gobert all game, and even when he was not able to finish, he reaped the other benefits of getting to the rim, namely foul-drawing:
Shai wasn’t completely perfect in this sense, as he did take (and miss) another one of those floaters early in the game. However, by my count he only took one of those shots the entire game, and when juxtaposed with the fact that was taking upwards of 3+ per game when matched up with Gobert and the Jazz earlier in the year, this is a step in the right direction.
If he is able to do this against perhaps the best rim protector in the league, he should be doing it against everyone. His shot distribution yesterday was almost perfect in regards to the most efficient areas on the floor. He took 12 shots total: five coming at the rim, five coming from three-point range, and two from the midrange. He also got to the line six times. If this can become the new norm for Gilgeous-Alexander, it not only bodes well for the Thunder’s chances in the bubble, but maybe more importantly for his future as the Thunder’s cornerstone moving forward.