In a season where individual scoring averages are inflated, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has stood out among the rest. Gilgeous-Alexander is currently averaging 31.2 points per game on a proficient 49.8 percent shooting from the field and an even more proficient 93 percent from the charity stripe. Prior to this season, only 13 players had averaged more than 30 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field for an entire season. Only two guards have ever hit these statistical markers for an entire season: Michael Jordan and Steph Curry.
Gilgeous-Alexander has supercharged his scoring prowess by reducing his game to his strengths. The 3-point shot has never been weaponized at a higher rate for lead ball handlers, but Gilgeous-Alexander has relied less and less on launching from deep. He’s shooting only 33.3 percent on just three attempts from downtown per game, his fewest since joining the Thunder.
Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander has set his navigation dial for the paint. Typically, when a guard makes a 7-point leap in their scoring averages from one year to the next, you either see a jump in volume or efficiency from behind the arc. But the scoring charts below show that Gilgeous-Alexander is absolutely punishing teams inside the arc.
Forgoing the three-point line for the paint has gone quite well for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fifth-year guard. Gilgeous-Alexander is currently fifth in points in the paint per game while every other player in the top 10 is an enormous human, or in Ja Morant’s case, can fly. To become a volume paint scorer, you typically need a special physical advantage or consistent assistance in the form of an entry pass or a lob for dunks.
Gilgeous-Alexander has neither. He generates his volume paint touches by being the NBA’s most prolific driver at 24.4 drives per game with the second closest player sitting at just 21.6 drives per game. His handle and movement on drives is almost translucent. He’s never moving at a high speed, but his change of pace and movement are arrhythmic and unpredictable. Guarding him is like trying to eat soup with a fork.
A half step in the wrong direction is all he needs to slither into the lane and utilize his array of push shots, floaters, and finger rolls around the rim. His length creates an almost Giannis-like illusion at the rim where you’re never quite sure how Gilgeous-Alexander turned a 10-foot floater into a layup. This is where his offbeat game also provides an advantage — shot blockers are never quite sure when Gilgeous-Alexander will go up with a shot around the rim and he excels at using his long arms to get the ball to the backboard before a shot blocker can get there.
If a defender somehow wins the carnival prize that is warding him off from the rim, he will simply shoot a floater from any and every angle off of either leg. Gilgeous-Alexander dabbles in the dark arts of the floater and has learned to use the non-restricted paint area better than anyone not named Luka Doncic. A contested shot in and around the paint does not exist for him. Defenders function as caution signs more than true obstacles when he’s getting a shot off.
Defenders are not equipped to contest a shot in the paint from Gilgeous-Alexander without fouling, which is why he’s fourth in NBA in free throw attempts at a smidge over 10 per game. His increased free throw frequency, in addition to shooting over 90 percent from the line, have essentially subsidized his three-point reduction. The increased two-point shots also allow him to find a rhythm during the game from the spots he loves to shoot from in clutch situations. Gilgeous-Alexander has already hit three go-ahead shots in the last two minutes of a game this season, including a ridiculous buzzer-beater to beat the Blazers. Teams funnel great shot creators into mid-range looks in those crunch-time situations, but for Gilgeous-Alexander, that’s his comfort zone and will allow him to hit even more clutch shots for the Thunder.
Going from a star to a superstar is the hardest leap to make in the NBA, but it appears that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has done just that. He’s shown up uninvited to the All-NBA First-Team table and demanded a seat. His progression requires a new level of urgency on the never-ending Oklahoma City team building project. The Thunder have a real path to contention somewhere down the line, and it’s all thanks to how Gilgeous-Alexander’s excellence inside has propelled him into stardom.