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  • The Slumbering Lottery Shadow: Could Teams Regret Passing on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

The Slumbering Lottery Shadow: Could Teams Regret Passing on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration

All’s quiet on the SGA front. He could end up being a solid player should he be put into the right situation, but New York doesn’t look like that place. Let’s get into his draft profile.

At 6-foot-6 with a nearly seven-foot wingspan and crafty pick-and-roll skills, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems tailor-made for the modern NBA. But with less than a week before this year’s NBA draft, he is arguably the least-talked about potential lottery prospect. In fact, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that he doesn’t think the young combo guard has a single workout scheduled so far with any teams. What’s going on here? Are teams missing the steal of the draft? Or are Gilgeous-Alexander’s weaknesses, which are certainly troubling, standing out more than that rangy wingspan of his?

Let’s break down his game.


Strengths

At just 19 years of age, Gilgeous-Alexander is already a smooth operator out of the pick-and-roll.

In today’s NBA, the most important offensive skill is creating advantages out of some kind of screening action—and Gilgeous-Alexander is good at that. He’s very comfortable splitting pick-and-rolls with crisp dribble moves and, once inside the paint, he can finish with either hand off either foot. He’s also got an innate sense of how to get a shot up against bigger, more athletic defenders, although Shai has to get stronger, quicker, and better at converting layups through contact.

In that sense, I think it’s unfair to physically judge Gilgeous-Alexander at this stage of his life. At just 180 pounds with a wide, lanky frame—he’s going to be a completely different athlete in a few years. With modern sports science on his side, it’s very likely that Gilgeous-Alexander will become stronger, be able to jump higher, and run faster as long as he’s willing to work on his body. Imagine that he spends a few summers at a sports clinic like P3 Peak Performance—which trains guys like Bradley Beal who, like Gilgeous-Alexander, was a fluid college athlete without elite explosiveness. If Gilgeous-Alexander can add mere fractions—we’re talking tenths of a second to his first step or a few inches to his vertical—then his career projects much differently.

And even if we ignore any potential physical leaps, it’s easy to see how much of an advantage SGA’s size is. To put that into perspective, he is the spitting image of Shaun Livingston from a pure measurements standpoint. He uses that size to finish in the paint and, more impressively, to see over the defense and sling NBA-level cross-court passes, which is his most NBA-ready ability.

Weaknesses

Gilgeous-Alexander is a string bean with below-average explosiveness. His defense comes and goes, and he seems to shy away from physical contact on both ends of the floor, choosing instead to slide in and out of gaps like water obliging its surroundings.

While many laud his defensive potential, which is fair considering his physical attributes, I think he will be a disaster on defense, at least during his first few years in the league. He’s too slow footed, concedes blow-by’s with zero resistance, and isn’t even close to strong enough to credibly defend at the next level.

Offensively, Gilgeous-Alexander has one glaring hole in his game that NBA defenses will exploit; he has a horrendous pull-up game. His shot is completely flat-footed, which negates his size advantage against smaller guards. That same deficiency allows defenders to either sag off of him on switches or comfortably go under him on screens. By packing the paint against SGA, defenses can neuter his remarkable passing ability.

SGA doesn’t have the quickness or power to blow by guys when they give him that type of space à la Ben Simmons. Without the option of bulldozing his way to the rim that Simmons enjoys, Gilgeous-Alexander will simply have to improve his first step or develop some counter dribble moves when defenses play to his pull-up shooting. There is no way Shai can be the pick-and-roll player he’s projected to become if he can only attack it one way (by splitting traps).

Pro Comparisons
  • Ceiling: Dejounte Murray

Murray emerged as San Antonio’s point guard of the future last season, and for good reason. He’s a much more polished two-way player with similar physical attributes as someone like Gilgeous-Alexander (both long, fluid combo guards). I think Murray can, and will, get a lot better over the next few years. If everything breaks right for SGA, he could be as good as Murray is right now. He would need to work on everything, though, and I mean everything. Murray is better in every facet of the game—catching and shooting, cutting off the ball, team defense and on-ball defense, finishing through contact, shooting off the dribble, and more. If Gilgeous-Alexander can improve his body, athleticism and skills on both ends of the floor, he can have a similar impact as Murray.

  • Floor: A way more skilled Michael Carter-Williams

Let’s just get this out of the way. The Carter-Williams comparisons, which I’ve heard recently, are dumb. Gilgeous-Alexander is miles ahead of Carter-Williams in terms of feel for the game. He’s got a far deeper pick-and-roll game and is already a better shooter than Carter-Williams likely ever will be. The polish SGA has been compared to Carter-Williams when he was the former’s age is night and day.

But Gilgeous-Alexander has holes in his game that, if unattended to, will make him as unproductive as Carter-Williams has been for every team he’s played for after his somewhat impressive Rookie of the Year season.

Gilgeous-Alexander will get played off the floor on defense if he can’t improve his lateral quickness and on-ball positioning. He will play himself off the floor on offense if he can’t find an answer for teams forcing him to take pull-up jumpers.

Fit in New York?
  • With Porzingis: Defensively, this should work. Gilgeous-Alexander’s go-to instinct is to let his defender blow by him and try to either poke the ball away for a steal or use his length to block the shot from behind. He can use that tendency to funnel ballhandlers into Kristaps Porzingis, one of the best shot blockers in the league, provided he comes back healthy, while pressuring the ball from behind.
  • With Fizdale: Character-wise, I’m not sure. Gilgeous-Alexaner is so young that it’s hard to imagine what impact, if any, he’d have on a locker room. He’s generally soft-spoken, so I doubt he’d be a negative presence there. He’ll work hard, as he’s shown in his rise to the draft lottery after being considered something of an afterthought with last season’s Kentucky freshman crop. Stylistically, he can space the floor off the ball and take ball handling duties off of Frank Ntilikina, which would be of interest for Fizdale and his coaching staff.
The Verdict

Gilgeous-Alexander is a gamble. When he’s playing well, he is the striking image of the prototypical modern NBA guard—a pick-and-roll chef with plenty of defensive switchability. When he’s not on his game, he looks virtually unplayable as he hoists up pull-up bricks and gets burned off the dribble.

I’d venture to say he isn’t as volatile as he seems. SGA has clear cut strengths and weaknesses, and it’s going to depend on the context he lands in to properly determine whether he is a starting-caliber guard or not. Picking him at number nine in the first round is a huge stretch. Both the expectations for a player drafted at that position and the pressure of performing as a part of the Knicks future are unreasonable for him at this point. But letting him drop further than, say, 16th where the Suns could certainly use someone to take ball handling pressure off of Devin Booker, seems like a mistake, too. Where he gets drafted won’t determine how good of a player he is. It will, however, decide how productive or unproductive he will be.

Gilgeous-Alexander needs the right team to draft him but also for the wrong team to not draft him. Bottom line: the Knicks are the wrong team for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but he’ll be a good pro under the right circumstances.

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