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'It's like skipping a step': Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's increased rebounding has a ripple effect

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The reporter delivered the question with a chuckle at the end, but Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t ready to laugh at the truth behind it.

“Aren’t you the one team that’s better in half-court than transition?” David Locke, the radio voice of the Utah Jazz, asked from the pregame media scrum.

“We are that way, yes,” Donovan said with a nervous smile. “Which, we need to pick up the other end, no question.”

It was early December in Salt Lake City, and the Thunder was at the beginning of what would become a 22-9 post-Thanksgiving record, the third-best in the NBA. But before the holiday, OKC had stumbled to 6-11. The Thunder was moving the ball like it hadn’t in years, but it had forfeited its transition offense. OKC was in the bottom five in the league in transition points, scoring just 16 per game before Thanksgiving, according to NBA.com. Donovan was looking for more efficiency.

In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is well aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. But by increasing his rebounding numbers, Gilgeous-Alexander has pushed the Thunder’s pace on offense without that straight-line speed.

“It’s just easier once a guard rebounds,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We can get out (in transition) instead of having to pass it to an outlet and then run the floor. It’s like skipping a step.”

It started with a conversation between Gilgeous-Alexander and Thunder assistant Brian Keefe before OKC's 117-104 win at Minnesota on Jan. 13.

“Coach just challenged me before the game to fill up the stat sheet,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on the Fox Sports Oklahoma telecast, after logging 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists.

His rebounding numbers have remained high. Gilgeous-Alexander entered the Thunder’s game at Sacramento late Wednesday night averaging 9.3 rebounds in the last nine games, beginning with that career-high performance at Minnesota. In five of those games, he has recorded double-digit rebounds.

Compare that to the first 39 games of the season, when Gilgeous-Alexander was averaging 5.3 rebounds per game and logged double-digit rebounds just once.

“Because the NBA has changed so much,” Donovan said earlier this month, “and there’s more 3s going up, the idea of traditional rebounding with your power forward and your center has kind of gone out the window. … Guards are having to go in and rebound a lot more, so the more rebounds Chris Paul gets, Dennis (Schroder) gets, Shai gets, it definitely ignites us in the break, it allows us to play with more pace, and it gets us in transition. So, there’s definitely a correlation.”

The Thunder’s pace has increased from 99.21 possessions per 48 minutes before Gilgeous-Alexander’s 20-rebound game, to 100.39 in the next nine games.

“We are a team that started off the season playing real slow,” Thunder center Nerlens Noel said. “So, we wanted to get the pace up a little bit, get more shots up. So, when Shai gets that rebound and he’s out, it starts our whole offense.”

The Thunder’s offense still relies on ball movement, but it is no longer a bottom dweller in transition points. A subtle shift from 16 points per game to 16.8 sent OKC up the tightly packed rankings to No. 20.

Related Photos
<strong>Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, right, talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a recent game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: Gilgeous-Alexander, who is aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, right, talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a recent game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: Gilgeous-Alexander, who is aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-daac5423d2458730f1596f7906d385f4.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, right, talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a recent game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: Gilgeous-Alexander, who is aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, right, talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a recent game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: Gilgeous-Alexander, who is aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, right, talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a recent game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. In recent games, an uptick in pace has come from an unlikely source: Gilgeous-Alexander, who is aware of his limitations in end-to-end speed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4cc26f486f5db1d19134bc78fa39e931.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives past Tim Hardaway Jr. during Monday's game against Dallas at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives past Tim Hardaway Jr. during Monday's game against Dallas at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives past Tim Hardaway Jr. during Monday's game against Dallas at Chesapeake Energy Arena. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-889d121db8f3224a91f72316601ed595.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a35e4534ab23929f39227e16ec70687b.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) grabs a rebound against Sacramento Kings center Dewayne Dedmon (13) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) grabs a rebound against Sacramento Kings center Dewayne Dedmon (13) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) grabs a rebound against Sacramento Kings center Dewayne Dedmon (13) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-57e93664942808966998ee8768a1584a.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) dunks the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) dunks the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) dunks the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-90c9d3092242591a46457187a9e6069f.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-f3d98434277537fe5c28cc440d8e6c3b.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Harry Giles III (20) reacts during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Harry Giles III (20) reacts during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Harry Giles III (20) reacts during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-2e0d6804971e367f6e96c86ea6967107.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley (7) shoots the ball over Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica (88) during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley (7) shoots the ball over Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica (88) during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley (7) shoots the ball over Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica (88) during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-5cb141c4b9af58f74e5a22b41dd4346b.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore (26) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore (26) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore (26) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a480d345843cfb6378fb1dbc3029b0ec.jpg" alt="Photo - Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; The Sacramento Kings play a special tribute video honoring the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports" title="Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; The Sacramento Kings play a special tribute video honoring the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Jan 29, 2020; Sacramento, California, USA; The Sacramento Kings play a special tribute video honoring the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure>
Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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