Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s road to being an NBA lottery pick was not in traditional Calipari-era style. He wasn’t a heralded five-star recruit. He wasn’t supposed to be the leader of last season’s Kentucky team. He wasn’t expected to leave Kentucky after one year, at least not to this degree of success. Hell, he wasn’t even supposed to start. Now, as the NBA’s regular season is officially over, there is an NBA team out there that hopes he can change their franchise.
As I recently did with Kevin Knox, let’s take a dive into how I think SGA projects at the NBA level.
(Spoiler alert, he’s going to be pretty damn good)
Like Knox, SGA is projected to go somewhere in the 10-14 range, I’ve even seen him as high as eighth overall. In his one season at Kentucky, SGA averaged 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. Once conference play began, his averages jumped to 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game on shooting splits of 47.6/40/81.4 (FG/3PT/FT). His stat line alone was one of the most impressive in college basketball.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays a slower-paced offensive style, somewhat similar to how James Harden toys with defenses. SGA is a brilliant basketball mind. He’s excellent at breaking down defenders and reading what they’re giving him. Before even being drafted, he already has that advantage over his peers. He can naturally outsmart defenses, and that’s something which is nearly impossible to teach. It’s something he was born with and it’s going to be one of the main reasons he’ll be drafted in the lottery.
Athletically, he’s nothing to marvel at. He’s 6-foot-6 and weighs 180 pounds (with an unnatural seven-foot wingspan), but not the quickest player on the court and definitely not the bounciest. And still, there wasn’t a player who defended him at the college level who could consistently stay in front of him. One second, the defender is right with him, body-to-body, then he stops on a dime and unleashes a filthy behind the back move and he’s already laying the ball in while the defender’s head is spinning like an owl.
SGA is the best finisher at the rim Kentucky has seen since probably Isaiah Briscoe. He has an elite euro step that has multiple speeds to it. If he knows he has a defender trailing him, he’ll hit the brakes right as he gets to the basket, two-stepping his way for an easy reverse layup. In traffic, he can speed up the same move and finish with his left hand just as accurately as his right. Whether he’s jumping off his left foot and finishing with his right hand or vice versa, he always finds a way to get a good look. He has more moves in his offensive arsenal than a skilled chess player. His series of between the legs crossovers will lull defenses to sleep, just in time for him to strike. His behind the back move is only used when he knows it’s going to work, and it almost always does.
His strength is vastly underestimated, but he definitely needs to get stronger. Combine that with convincing head fakes and a poisonous first step and you’ve got an elite guard running the show. These three attributes contribute to his deadly offensive approach, but it doesn’t stop just there. When his speed (or lack of) does cause him to lose some of the advantage, he can whip one-handed passes between two defenders for layups that the naked eye can’t even process at first. It’s a big reason why he ranked third in the SEC in total assists last season (189). There wasn’t an offensive situation SGA couldn’t assess and dissect.
His floater is unguardable, thanks to his previously mentioned seven-foot wingspan. Actually, all of his shots are unguardable for that very reason. Even when he’s in a tight spot, he can fire off shots that have no business of going in. His calm confidence aids in that, too. He hardly rushes, whether it be a pass or shot. He knows when to attack and when to back things out. He’s always going to make the right play because he always knows where the right play is, even if it hasn’t developed yet. Like all freshman, he wasn’t perfect, and his 2.7 turnovers per game proved that, but his mind is always in the right place. Once his basketball ability catches up with his instincts, the mistakes will come less and less often.
Because of this, he’s going to be an incredibly dangerous pick-and-roll ball handler at the next level. Double teams don’t intimidate him like they should a normal 19-year old. He can penetrate, kick it out, throw the lob, hit a runner, knock down 15-footers, and even step out to drain a three if need be. He abuses mismatches. He has all the tools to be a high-level floor general in the NBA, and that’s where he’s going to thrive.
He shot an impressive 40.4 percent from three over the course of last season – although on a low-volume (23-57, or 1.5 attempts per game) – but made them when his team desperately needed it the most. Odds are he’ll probably take even fewer shots from the perimeter in his rookie season as he adapts to the NBA game, but it’s a shot he can take and make, which is all that matters in the long run. When that shot becomes a regular part of his offense, he’ll be a difficult cover for even the craftiest of defenders.
Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is his free-throw shooting. He shot 82.2 percent on the season, was Kentucky’s most consistent shooter from the charity stripe, and was as clutch as they come at the line during close games.
Thanks to size and length, SGA has the potential to be a two-way threat – a prized possession in the NBA. His 61 steals were the third most in SEC play, as he played passing lanes with laser-quick attention. His head is always up and his pterodactyl arms are always shifting side-to-side. He’ll struggle to guard quicker, smaller guards in the NBA due to his own athletic deficiencies, but his instincts and length should at least allow him to recover. His feet are active enough to keep him in front of NBA guards, it’s just going to be a matter of if he can keep up with them.
He’s a stingy, in-your-face defender, who won’t let ball-handlers take any seconds off. He’s willing to defend the opposing team’s best defender while also shouldering most of the offensive burden. He attacks on both sides of the court and can do so all game long (he led the SEC in minutes played last season).
When comparing him to a current Cal-product in the NBA, Andrew Harrison comes to mind. They both run a slow pace style of offense and attack when the time is right. SGA is what Kentucky fans wanted Andrew Harrison to be when he was at Kentucky, it just never worked out that way. As for an overall comparison, Kyle Anderson and Michael Carter-Williams come to mind. Once again, they’re all big and long guards who can slow down the tempo of the game and beat you through accurate passing and well-timed attacks.
Now, there are definitely some areas SGA needs to improve in. For example, his release is slow and he could use some work on his shooting mechanics. I’m not too confident he’ll be able to consistently create his own shot at the NBA level, at least in his early years, as players that he could once simply shoot over will now be better and longer. He also finished the season tied for the lead in the SEC in turnovers with 99. But at this point, it all feels like nit-picking. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has all the tools to turn a lottery team into one with a clear direction at point guard. It’s going to be a loaded draft this year – and SGA will be one of the least-hyped – but he has a bright future in the NBA and could make an immediate impact.