Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has cooled as of late after an impressive start to his promising NBA career. His numbers have slipped and – despite still being the starting point guard – his minutes have taken a hit over the last few weeks.
He’s running into what is known as the “rookie wall”, where first-year players with star potential run into a rough patch during the middle of the season. Similar to the “sophomore slump”, which plagues second-year players after promising rookie seasons.
In an article posted by the L.A. Times, Gilgeous-Alexander talks about life as a rookie and his recent struggles.
“I’ve obviously had a little bit of success, but I’ve also had moments like this in my career,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I know how to get through them and I know I will.”
SGA is averaging 10.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.9 assists through his first 38 NBA games, starting the previous 29. He averaged 27 minutes per game through his first 17 games a starter but has seen that number cut down to 24.3 over the previous 12, including seven games where he didn’t even top 22 minutes.
Over his last four games, SGA has failed to eclipse double-digits in points – although he did post a nine assist game against the Suns on Friday. His body language is evident that his confidence has slipped. Being named a starter 10 games into your NBA career on a team with serious playoff potential can be daunting, but it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before.
We’ve seen Gilgeous-Alexander struggle at Kentucky. He had to learn his way into the starting position over Quade Green but did so at an impressive rate. He’s already played more games as a Clipper than he did in his entire Kentucky career and 2019 isn’t even a week old. He’s not used to this level of grind just yet. But if his one season at Kentucky taught us anything, it’s that he’ll adapt. He has an innate ability to absorb basketball information combined with the body and talent to put it all into action.
Gilgeous-Alexander is actually shooting the ball with a higher efficiency over the last 10 or so games than he had to start the season, but at a lower volume. When I watch him play, he does a great job of creating looks for himself in the short mid-range area but will hesitate on threes or open lanes to the basket. This hesitation happens to most rookies, and not even a player with insanely high basketball IQ such as Gilgeous-Alexander is immune.
The author of the L.A. Times article notes how Gilgeous-Alexander has posted a minus-6.8 net rating over his previous 12 games (and these are in minutes where he plays mostly with the starting unit or Lou Williams) and has seen his rebounding numbers cut almost in half. Fatigue is definitely an issue as he moves into one of the duller months of NBA basketball – just watch him play defense and it’s almost immediately noticeable. This is typically the time where veteran players will be more likely to go through the motions and fan interest wanes a bit until All-Star weekend kicks off in mid-February. For Gilgeous-Alexander, he can’t let the repetitiveness of an 82-game, grind it out season affect his composure.
He’s dealt with the pressure of being a prominent player on a good team before, I’m not worried about him overcoming that adversity. Honestly, we shouldn’t have any reason at all to be worried about SGA. The term “rookie wall” is so commonly used because it happens so often to even the best rookies, ones that go on to have All-Star career paths. Good players always find a way to break out of a slump. Klay Thompson is doing it right now for Golden State after his early-season shooting struggles. Russell Westbrook is having one of the worst shooting seasons of his infamous career but is still averaging a triple-double for the third straight year. Those are more extreme examples, but Gilgeous-Alexander is way too smart and way too good to let a two or three-week rough stretch ruin the following 10.
The Clippers are still 22-16 and fourth in the hilariously competitive Western Conference despite going 5-7 over their last 12. Their next two games are against the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets – two teams with subpar defensive backcourts.
Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t going to see a drastic reduction in his role. Doc Rivers, the Clippers head coach, is a bigger SGA stan than I am. The Clippers are more than comfortable letting him work through his mid-season struggle. They also don’t really have someone who can reliably come in and run the game. Milos Teodosic doesn’t even want to play in the NBA anymore and Patrick Beverley isn’t the kind of game manager that Gilgeous-Alexander is. Beverley is perfectly suited as the off-the-bench intimidating defender. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t going anywhere.
*All stats are accurate as of Jan. 5*
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