Ask an NBA fan to name the best young players in the league and you'll probably hear, in some order: Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Ja Morant ... maybe even Lonzo Ball, depending on who you ask. A name you probably won't hear, but one that is worthy of inclusion, is second-year Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The centerpiece of the trade that sent Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, Gilgeous-Alexander was having a breakout second NBA season, leading the surprisingly impressive Thunder with 19.3 points per game at the time of the coronavirus hiatus. There are a couple of reasons Gilgeous-Alexander hasn't garnered the attention of his peers -- playing in Oklahoma City is surely one of them -- but perhaps the main reason is that his game doesn't lend itself to highlight reels. He doesn't possess the raw athleticism of Williamson or Morant, nor the flair of Doncic or Young. Instead he slowly, surgically dissects defenses -- death by a thousand cuts rather than a few fell swoops.
It's rare for a young guard to have the control that Gilgeous-Alexander possesses, and that's never more evident than when he's running the pick-and-roll. At just 21 years old, he's in the 77th percentile at 1.02 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, including passes, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That's right on par with Young (1.025) and well ahead of Morant (0.99). Gilgeous-Alexander's main weapons as a pick-and-roll scorer are his deadly midrange pull-up (1.11 points per possession) and his advanced runner/floater game (1.059).
Gilgeous-Alexander has managed to be efficient in his pick-and-roll opportunities despite moving more off the ball this season, because he now shares the backcourt with a pretty decent point guard named Chris Paul. In addition to the natural growth from a rookie to a second-year player, Gilgeous-Alexander has benefited from Paul's presence both on and off the court. Gilgeous-Alexander's pick-and-roll efficiency has improved significantly from last season, and Paul gets some of the credit for being a sage mentor.
"So much. Things on the court, off the court," Gilgeous-Alexander said in November of what he's learned from Paul. "He helps me through every day, whether it be manipulating a play or a pick-and-roll in the game or showing me things outside of the game that help you in life. He's been great so far."
Playing alongside Paul also meant that Gilgeous-Alexander would have to improve his spot-up shooting, and he's made a tremendous leap this season. Last year he was in the 51st percentile in spot-up situations at 0.99 points per possession, according to Synergy. He's improved to 1.098 points per possession this season, up to the 74th percentile. Of course, some of the improvement is due to getting wide-open looks from Paul. Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 2.3 wide-open 3-pointers per game this season (closest defender 6 or more feet away), compared to 1.2 per game last season with the Clippers, according to NBA.com. That's helped him increase his overall 3-point attempts from 1.7 per game last season to 3.5 this season.
If there's one area where Gilgeous-Alexander can improve, however, it's his finishing at the rim. As we mentioned before, he has an elite floater and pull-up game, but he's had trouble thus far in his young career when he gets closer to the basket. His 1.02 points per possession around the rim are in just the 24th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy.
If he's going to make the leap to elite status, which he's more than capable of, he'll need to figure out how to finish more efficiently around the basket off of penetration. As he adds more weight to his 6-5 frame, Gilgeous-Alexander will be able to better absorb contact and score in the lane, while experience and maturity will help him better calculate his bank angles over big men. He can also take more lessons from Paul, who was never the most athletic player in the league, but has consistently rated well in finishing ability.
"I know they have a great relationship and I know Shai really, really trusts him and picks his brain on different things," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the relationship between Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul. "Obviously Chris has got a wealth of wisdom and knowledge being in the league and as good as he's been for a long time, so I'm sure that there's things that he's talked to Shai about because those two guys have got a great relationship."
Despite his relative anonymity, Gilgeous-Alexander should be right alongside his more recognizable peers when considering the next wave of NBA stars. He's already a borderline All-Star, and with a few tweaks and continued progress, he could eventually approach the superstar level.