Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not the most modern point guard of his draft class. That honor belongs to Stephen Curry descendant Trae Young. Nor is he the most skilled floor maestro. Luka Doncic holds that title, rattling off 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game on 58.1 percent true shooting. But Gilgeous-Alexander is not without his own superlative, earning a distinction as the most unconventional guard of this year’s rookie crop.
In an era where even 6-foot-11 center Ian Mahinmi has opted to dabble in the long-ball revolution and both Doncic and Young sport a 3-point rate north of .400, the Kentucky product has pitched a tent inside the arc (82.9 percent of his shots are 2-pointers).
Unlike chiseled marvels Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons, who also much prefer the paint to the arc, Gilgeous-Alexander is just 6-foot-6 with a wiry, 180-pound frame and does not ascend over or blaze through defenders on his path to the rim.
Rather, he initiates a game of Whac-A-Mole with opponents and leaves them guessing as to when he’ll commit to the drive. He teeters back, they lean in. He beams into hyperdrive, they’re paralyzed, resting on their heels. They zig, he zags:
Among the Los Angeles Clippers’ veteran-laden nine-man rotation — Montrezl Harrell is the only other guy averaging 15-plus minutes with fewer than six years of NBA experience — Gilgeous-Alexander is a chameleon, blending in with composed point guard play and a smooth brand to his game.
Those traits have enabled Gilgeous-Alexander to excel as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (82nd percentile, 1.01 points per possession) and in isolation (99th percentile, 1.36 PPP on just 11 possessions, though). That type of self-creation acumen for a rookie guard without a lightning-quick first step or hyperathletic build is rare but it speaks to the maturity he exudes. He locates his spots on the floor and brandishes the guile necessary to get there.
With teams amassing more film on him, defenders will grow hip to his tricks. But Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have a counter for most strategies thrown his way, even despite the lack of modern-day floor-spacing credentials.
It’s not necessarily that the rookie can’t shoot, having netted a combined 39 percent of his 3s between college and the pros thus far. Instead, sporting a slow(ish) release and just 77 total 3-point attempts through 52 NBA/NCAA games, he prefers limbo — a province stationed between the arc and the hoop. Once he weaves into the lane, the Canadian Gumby slows the pace, burrows his shoulder into a defender and flicks up open shots inside the key:
Eighty-six percent of his field goal attempts are coming at the rim (38 percent) or in the midrange (48 percent) — a frequency which ranks above the 80th percentile in both categories, per Cleaning the Glass — and he’s turned an especially tidy profit from the midrange, burying 46 percent of those looks (71st percentile). Fewer than two 3-point attempts per 36 minutes isn’t likely to cut it in the long run, especially if he continues to post above-average efficiency from deep. But for now, he’s simply excelling in his comfort zone.
Despite an inflated turnover rate of 17.9 percent, he’s exhibited similar moxie as a facilitator. He’s capable of slinging passes on the move, has a keen sense of timing and appears to have already forged an unspoken connection with teammates, setting them up for scores without a hint of eye contact or verbal warning:
Defensively, Gilgeous-Alexander has been a pleasant surprise. Coming out of Kentucky, his physical gifts — a 6-foot-11 wingspan to pair with a 6-foot-6 frame — were the most compelling skills as he was often caught flat-footed on the ball and daydreaming off it. Yet he’s posting a positive Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (DPIPM) of plus-0.23 and the Clippers have only been marginally better defensively with him off the floor.
This isn’t to say he’s already delivering on his All-Defensive Team measurables but at the very least, he’s been competent and active, most notably on the ball, in part because he’s averaging two stocks (steals + blocks) per 36 minutes. Getting rookie guards up to speed on that side of the ball is often akin to chasing a Twinkie on a treadmill — satisfactory performance always just out of reach. However, Gilgeous-Alexander has already shown encouraging flashes:
As the season progresses and the Toronto native becomes more well-versed with the intricacies of NBA defense, he should only continue to improve and avoid morphing into mincemeat for opposing scorers in the playoffs if Los Angeles finds itself there.
Since shifting into the starting quintet six games ago to replace the injured Avery Bradley, Gilgeous-Alexander has helped guide the Clippers to a 5-1 record, including wins over Milwaukee, Golden State (sans Stephen Curry) and San Antonio. Most didn’t peg them as a playoff-caliber squad but through 15 games, they sit just 0.5 games out of first in the West. Gilgeous-Alexander’s sudden emergence has been a key factor in that.
It’s atypical for playoff hopefuls to rely on a rookie guard as the Clippers have — those with prominent roles like Gilgeous-Alexander tend to flourish with a wealth of freedom on lottery-bound clubs. Yet the parallel between that approach and his offbeat game restores some sense of balance.
Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t going to win Rookie of the Year. It’s highly unlikely he’s the best player from this class. As the Clippers tally wins and he perplexes defenders with an unorthodox game, though, he might be the lone first-year carving up fools in the playoffs. And that in itself is a development worth pinning to his resumé — one that’s underlined by his unique but effective style.