Tramel: How Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander channels former OKC teammate Chris Paul
Chris Paul took 21 shots Wednesday night and needed to take 41. CP3 made 12 of those shots in his Phoenix Suns’ 102-97 loss to the Thunder. Twelve of 21 is an excellent NBA percentage. The rest of the Suns combined to make 24 of 74 shots.
Same thing I saw a little bit with Paul a year ago on the Thunder, and same thing I saw a lot bit with Paul 14 and 15 years ago with the Hometown Hornets.
I understand the drill. Paul is the NBA’s best quarterback of the 21st century. He knows his job includes getting everyone involved. Knows his job is not just to produce, but to develop. He’s a coach on the floor, a leader of men, all those intangible things we all get tired of hearing about when we just want CP to shoot a 15-foot jumpshot so that the good guys can win.
Paul’s way develops a roster. Including fellow point guards. CP and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spent all of last season as teammates, and now SGA captains his own ship, the Thunder, and learned quite well.
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Through many a Thunder game this season, I’ve caught myself thinking, "Why doesn't Gilgeous-Alexander shoot more and pass less?"
“It’s a good question,” said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault. “It’s a delicate balance, because those guys have the ball so much. When they’re on the ball like that, they’re game managers and they’re responsible in a lot of ways for involving the rest of the team. When the ball moves and if guys are involved, it builds confidence, it builds chemistry.
“Obviously, Chris has it down to an art. He’s an unbelievable game manager and has an unbelievable feel for how to do that. I think that’s a developing skill for Shai.”
It’s a skill we saw develop in-game Wednesday night. With five minutes left, the Thunder trailed 91-89. At that point, SGA had taken 12 shots and one foul shot.
That’s when Gilgeous-Alexander decided to take over. That’s a trait we often see from Paul. It’s a trait we saw Wednesday night from Paul, who scored 27 second-half points, including 15 in the fourth quarter.
SGA dominated six straight Thunder possessions. It didn’t go all that well. He’s a great player but a work in progress. Gilgeous-Alexander missed a wing 3-pointer, then was fouled on two straight drives, making one foul shot on each trip to the line. SGA then missed another drive and his own follow shot. He missed on another drive. Finally, he scored on another drive, and the Thunder trailed 95-93 with 2:48 left.
As the clock neared 2:00 and the floor spread, SGA dribbled at the top of the circle, drifted to his left and noticed the Phoenix defense shifting. He turned and passed to Luguentz Dort, open on the right wing. Dort swished a 3-pointer, and the Thunder never trailed again.
Despite an off night of shooting (six of 18), SGA finished with his routine statistical line: 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, two blocked shots. And another night of learning that balance between taking over and building trust with his teammates.
“He’s a pretty confident guy,” said Dort, who in an understated way is the same. “He’s our leader, and he’s our best threat. At that time of the game, the ball has to be in his hands. He found me. It’s just him trusting me, getting me the ball.”
A year ago, SGA played an estimated 4% of his minutes as a point guard. This season, it’s virtually all he’s played. He’s still only 22 years old.
“The point guard position is probably the toughest one,” said center Al Horford. “He has a lot of responsibility. Lot of expectations on him. He continues to figure it out, to get better, to understand when to be aggressive and when to score, and when to pass the ball. Coach continues to harp to make the easy play, the right play, the simple play. As the season has gone on so far, Shai continues to make the right play.”
Gilgeous-Alexander could be an elite scorer. His true shooting percentage (which factors in 3-point shots and foul shooting) is .610. Steph Curry’s is .616.
But SGA has assumed the mantle of leader. He hasn’t succumbed to the siren song of shooting more, except when things get tight.
“It’s something every point guard has to go through,” SGA said. “Obviously, playing the point-guard position, you have more on your hands than just yourself. You gotta facilitate the offense. The great point guards can also get themselves going. That’s something I’ve worked on. Obviously, Chris has kind of mastered through his years in the NBA. Something I’m going to continue to try to get better at, picking my spots. Be as good as I can be for this team.”
There’s nothing easy about this delicate balance. The point god himself struggled down the stretch. Paul hit a 10-foot jumper Wednesday night to give Phoenix a 91-86 lead with 5:23 left. The Suns scored just six points the rest of the game. Paul had no assists and missed all three of his shots during that span.
It’s a tough job.
Gilgeous-Alexander is learning on the job.
“He’s had a really good balance on this (five-game road) trip,” Daigneault said. “He understands how to choose his spots. But he also understands how to trust guys. He really trusted his teammates down the stretch tonight. Passed the ball really well, got other guys involved.”
Of SGA and Paul, Daigneault said, “Ultimately, they could shoot more, and they would score more if they did. But those are two players that care deeply about making the team better, and that’s what makes them great lead guards.
“Shai’s obviously developing that. I think that’s the balance they’re trying to strike, and I think that’s why there’s probably some plays they don’t hit the gas on. They’re investing in the bigger picture. Something Chris does great and Shai is developing and has really developed pretty well over the last 5-10 games or so.”