In the closing minutes of a late November game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Josh Giddey stutter-stepped his way into the lane, pivoted 270 degrees and whipped a one-handed, over-the-shoulder pass to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in the corner for an open 3. Even Giannis Antetokounmpo, maybe the best help defender in the league, wasn't able to react quickly enough.
Oklahoma City Thunder big man Mike Muscala, a nine-year veteran, was impressed enough to make a point of commenting on it. "His stutter step there, the spin, the pass to the corner – when he came back out of the game, I was like, Gid, that was a great pass.' He said, 'Yeah, it was.' Like, OK, fair enough."
That's the kind of confidence and creativity flowing through Giddey, the 19-year-old Australian the Thunder selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Seen as something of a reach at the time, Giddey has quickly turned heads -- opponents', fans', even some of his own teammates' -- with his playmaking ability.
He leads the Thunder and his rookie class in assists (6.2 per game), and earlier this month he became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double when he put up 17 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists against the Dallas Mavericks. He had an eight-point, 18-rebound, 10-assist game in December, too, and there is also a 10-point, 10-rebound, zero-point game on his resume.
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Giddey will need to be more of a scoring threat to reach his star potential, and the signs since he's exited the league's health and safety protocols have been encouraging. He's averaging 13.5 points on 44.9/33.3/75.0 shooting splits since then, and shot 3 of 11 from deep on Jan. 13 in Brooklyn. That doesn't sound great, but the fact he attempted 11 3-pointers is encouraging.
"A lot of it is just confidence," Giddey told reporters. "At the start of the year I was kind of worried about what people think and stuff like that. But now it's out of my head. I'm just shooting the ball freely."
Giddey added that he was overthinking in "exactly the same" way at the beginning of last season, which he spent with the Adelaide 36ers of Australia's NBL, before a conversation with Aussie legend Andrew Gaze got him on the right track. Thunder coach Mark Daigenault said that, already, he has a much better understanding of where his shots will come from. Regardless of how long it takes him to truly come into his own as a scorer, though, Giddey is at his core a facilitator.
Even the best 19-year-olds rarely have such command of the ball. But while Giddey is young, he is not inexperienced. He joined the NBA Global Academy at the Australian Institute of Sport at 16, and at 17 he became the youngest player since Ben Simmons to play for the Boomers, Australia's senior national team. He joined the 36ers as part of the "Next Stars" development program, competing against much older, stronger players. The way he performed as a professional convinced the Thunder to take him as high as they did, and when he showed up in training camp as advertised, the coaching staff had no hesitation putting the ball in his hands.
"At this point it's just giving him those opportunities," Thunder assistant coach Dave Bliss said. "And trying to help him experience all the different looks he'll see as an NBA player, all the different athletes and size and different pick-and-roll defenders he's going up against, different coverages."
When you watch Giddey in action, it doesn't take long to come to the same conclusion that the Thunder did: There is something special about him. His vision, his feel, the way he reads and understands not only what's happening at the moment, but what's going to happen.
"Great passers, a lot is timing," Bliss said. "It's not just the physical pass, it's the anticipation skills and seeing the court develop and the movement of the players."
Giddey is the kind of creator who seems to be playing a slightly different game than everyone else on the floor. To hear him tell it, it has always been that way.
"Feel and IQ and stuff isn't something you can really teach," Giddey said. "It's more naturally given and I'm fortunate to have that with me. Playmaking and having a feel for the game is something I've had from a young age. And as I got older and grew, I guess you get more experience, your feel and IQ develops over time."
If you watch the Thunder closely, you've noticed another way that he's gained the coaching staff's trust and put his feel for the game on display: inbounds plays. Daigenault told reporters that Giddey has a "special skill" as an inbounder, and the team is trying to maximize it. If you have an inbounder who can "quarterback these situations," you can let his teammates improvise.
At 6-foot-8, Giddey can see over the top of the defense and throw passes from unique angles. He's also functionally ambidextrous, and says he's often more comfortable passing the ball with his non-dominant left hand, something he credits to his parents' encouragement and his youth team in Melbourne, which always started its offense on the left side of the floor. (Most of his highlight inbounds passes have come on the left side, too.) Defenders cannot force Giddey to a weak hand that doesn't exist, nor can they pick up on patterns or tendencies easily.
Giddey is creating 11.3 potential assists per game per NBA.com, and he's not doing it with swing passes or basic kick-outs; he's creating his own personal highlight reel every game. Nothing exemplifies that more than what has become his signature dish: the one-handed, cross-court laser.
"When I throw those kind of whip passes, the defense doesn't expect them," Giddey said. "Sometimes our guys don't really expect them 'cause it's a risky pass. And sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't. The guys have kind of learned to have their hands ready 'cause I throw some wild passes."
Case in point:
"Sometimes it looks a bit better because it's a one-hand whip," Giddey told reporters after a recent game, with a grin on his face. "I could easily pick it up with two hands and throw that same pass."
One hand, two hands, behind the back, over the shoulder, Giddey is constantly looking to pass his teammates open. "He's such a great passer and he takes chances with the ball in a good way," Thunder guard Ty Jerome said. "Like left-hand crosscourt passes, his creativity is off the charts. Fun to watch and really fun to play with him. When he has the ball I'm always trying to run into open spots." You tend to run harder when you think you'll be rewarded for it.
"I love [playing with Giddey]," Jerome said. "Any time I check into the game and see him next to me I know I'm gonna get a shot up so it makes me happy."