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HomeSportsShai Gilgeous-Alexander's leap into stardom makes him Thunder's franchise cornerstone — and...

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s leap into stardom makes him Thunder’s franchise cornerstone — and one of NBA’s dream trade targets

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Science tells us that nothing is ever really touching. Electron clouds leave imperceptible gaps between atoms that our brains cannot process, measuring tenths of nanometers wide.

If you doubt the veracity of this statement, then you haven’t seen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play basketball.

Gilgeous-Alexander has turned in an unbelievable season in the recesses of the NBA where few are watching, precisely by finding subatomic gaps to get to the rim every time he has the ball. He’s leading the NBA in drives per game for the third consecutive year despite playing with some of the worst spacing in the NBA.

He should be a surefire All-Star this season because the 24-year-old guard has taken a massive leap.


Paul George and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has turned into a scoring machine

Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t thought of as an elite driver like Ja Morant or Luka Doncic, but the truth is that he’s even better than those guys.

SGA has deceptive power to drive through bigger bodies and push them backwards. He has the same footwork and pump fake that make DeMar DeRozan impossible to guard. He’s even added a nasty up-and-under post move to his arsenal, as pointed out by ESPN’s Zach Lowe.

The never-ending series of fakes, jukes and herky-jerky drives to the rim have helped boost his scoring average up to 30.8 points per game, the seventh-highest mark in the league as of Nov. 8.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander keeps producing with the worst spacing of any star

That Gilgeous-Alexander is able to get to the rim so frequently on his Thunder teams is a testament to just how good he is at his craft. The Thunder were the worst 3-point shooting team by percentage last year. They followed it up by being the second-worst this season (thanks, Lakers!).

BBall-Index had SGA playing with the third-worst spacing of any player in the league last season. While his peers have teams built for them, surrounded by 3-and-D shooters, SGA has a bunch of if-only-they-could-shoot prospects that are bricking his passes every night.

The lack of talent around SGA has also made teams load up on him. Per NBA Court Optix, he’s the seventh-most doubled player in the league. The Thunder still manage an impressive 1.18 points per possession on those plays. As a frame of reference, the Mavericks have the best offense in the league at 1.175 points per possession.

They’re able to score better than the league’s best offense because of how good SGA is as a scorer and passer — no matter how many guys are thrown at him.

Thunder Mavericks Luka Doncic Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has improved defensively, making him a legitimate two-way player

Gilgeous-Alexander came into the league as a rookie with the Clippers and immediately started playing fairly solid defense. But he started falling into bad habits on bad Thunder teams starting in his second year, zoning out and conserving his energy for offense.

He was a significant negative over his first three years in Oklahoma City based on FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR metric.

Year Defensive RAPTOR
2018-19 (LAC) -0.1 (128th/250 players)
2019-20 (OKC) -0.4 (140th/250 players)
2020-21 (OKC) -1.3 (189th/250 players)
2021-22 (OKC) -0.9 (166th/250 players)
2022-23 (OKC) +0.7 (88th/250 players)

That has changed this season, in large part because Gilgeous-Alexander is back to caring on defense and giving multiple efforts. That renewed dedication to two-way play has also helped lead the Thunder to a respectable 4-6 record through their first 10 games.

Blocks and steals aren’t a great measure of defense, but Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging career highs in both categories. No other player in the entire league is averaging more than his 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Only five players (Draymond Green, Robert Covington, Gerald Wallace, Shawn Marion and Dwyane Wade) have hit those marks in the last 20 years.

SGA has really good hands and is able to swat at the ball like a cat without sacrificing positioning. His 6-11 wingspan surprises other guards, and he’s able to consistently stick with them and stuff them at the rim.

Should the Thunder trade Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

Let’s be perfectly clear — Gilgeous-Alexander has consistently voiced his fondness for playing for the Thunder.

Trade rumors have swirled around his name for a while now, and they’ve been far overstated. The Thunder have put a ton of work into getting him to this point, so they would have to be blown away with an incredible offer to move him.

That being said, general manager Sam Presti has a reputation for trading stars. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t a natural fit with Josh Giddey, who struggles to shoot and needs the ball in his hands to be effective. And there’s a generational talent in this draft if the Thunder want to bottom out again.

A trade probably isn’t happening, but there are plenty of teams that are dreaming about acquiring Gilgeous-Alexander anyway.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Gary Trent Jr.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be a great fit for the Raptors

The Raptors are an obvious candidate for a consolidation trade. They have a lot of very good players but no real co-star to pair with Pascal Siakam. Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has made this type of move before, trading a big package to land Kawhi Leonard (and a title) back in 2018.

And they are one of the very few teams with control of all of their first-round draft picks going forward, allowing them to move up to four in a potential trade. That’s why they were considered a dark-horse candidate to land Kevin Durant in a trade before the start of the season.

Gilgeous-Alexander would be a perfect fit for the Raptors. The Toronto native would fit in nicely with the Raptors’ long, switch-heavy team defensively. And offensively, he is exactly the punch that they’re missing. Outside of Siakam, they don’t have a ton of advantage creators on their team. SGA is one of the best in the league at that particular skill.

Gilgeous-Alexander could level up even further in Toronto, too. The Raptors aren’t exactly bombing it from deep, but they are around average in percentage, attempts and makes. That would be a huge upgrade from the lineups that Gilgeous-Alexander has played with in recent years.

It might be a bit odd to think of Gilgeous-Alexander as the last missing piece for a contender, but he really has been that good. With a better roster around him, whether that’s with due time in Oklahoma City or in another venue, he could enter the discussion of All-NBA talents.


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