Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the Rise

by Travis Reder

Since he was drafted last June, countless people around the NBA have taken note of what the Clippers saw in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: The 20-year-old point guard is special. His inclusion in the MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars Game is the latest indication that he is meeting – and perhaps even exceeding – those expectations.

Through 59 games, the Toronto native has put himself in impressive company; only Larry Bird and Kyrie Irving have matched Gilgeous-Alexander’s production as a rookie in terms of points (10.1), rebounds (2.7), assists (3.0) and shooting splits (46.8% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 80.6% FT).

The Unheralded Young Star

As part of a talented 2018 draft class, Gilgeous-Alexander has found a way to stand out among top picks like DeAndre Ayton, Luka Dončić, and Trae Young—some of whom have gaudier raw “counting stats.” He leads all rookies in minutes played on a winning team, and he is one of only two rookies scoring in double-figures for a playoff contender. The other, number two overall pick Marvin Bagley III, has started only one game this season.

His rookie season grows more impressive when you consider that only one rookie, Mike Miller, has ever played 1,500 total minutes and averaged at least 24 minutes per game under coach Doc Rivers. Gilgeous-Alexander has already surpassed the former number (he’s played 1,524 total minutes) and is on pace to clear the latter (25.8 minutes per game) with just 23 games left in the season.

It’s not as if Rivers hasn’t coached any young stars before this season, either. During his time in Boston and L.A., he has coached rookie players including Tony Allen, Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, E’Twaun Moore, and Reggie Bullock. Several of those young players went on to have successful, even championship-level careers.

The trust the coaching staff has showed in Gilgeous-Alexander speaks to his maturity, and also for the potential they see in his career.

“Rookie Wall” and Bouncing Back

Like most first-year players thrust into meaningful NBA minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander is adjusting to a much more grueling schedule than he faced in college. His shooting percentage declined to 41.3% in January, a significant drop off from the 48.8% he shot in all other months.

His low point came during a scoreless, 13-minute outing against New Orleans on January 14th. But Gilgeous-Alexander put that rough stretch behind him four days later with a remarkable performance against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. With Lou Williams sitting out and Danilo Gallinari exiting the game within the first few minutes, Rivers put more offensive burden on his young point guard, and Gilgeous-Alexander responded with one of his top performances of the season, scoring a career-high-tying 24 points. He was aggressive from the start, something that Rivers and assistant coach Sam Cassell have been pushing from his debut. Gilgeous-Alexander converted all 10 of his attempts from the foul line, a career-best for both makes and attempts.

Gilgeous-Alexander has continued that offensive output since, scoring 14 or more points four different times, and reaching double-figures an additional five times. As defenders have gained respect for his scoring ability, he has had more chances to showcase his impressive playmaking. He is dishing out nearly four assists per game in February, almost a full assist better than his season average.

Garnering Attention from his Peers

Gilgeous-Alexander’s outstanding rookie season has caught the eyes of several NBA stars.

“We played against him early in the year, and man, he got the midrange down,” Kevin Durant said on the Bill Simmons Podcast. “His midrange is so good. And he shoots it with the high release, so it’s tough to guard at 6-foot-6 when point guards are guarding him, so you have to put the 2-guard on him. And he’s still shooting over 2-guards.”

Having faced off against Gilgeous-Alexander three times this season, Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum also see a young star in the making. “I like him a lot,” Lillard said. “His height and his length, he’s aggressive, he just plays the game and I really like his demeanor and his mentality, just not backing down. He was steady, he was smart, and you can tell they got a lot of faith in him. And he’s young. I think he has a really bright future.”

“He can hoop,” McCollum echoed on his own podcast. “He’s got good pace, he can finish around the basket, got a midrange. Sam Cassell is really working with him, you can tell he listens. He’s going to be good.”

These stars echo what coach Rivers has said all season: Gilgeous-Alexander has it. “He’s a worker. The guy that’s high character, the guy that works, and the guy that loves the game, most cases they turn out to be pretty good. And I think that’s Shai.”

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