OKLAHOMA CITY — Billy Donovan sat and smiled at the podium following last Friday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans. He knew he had to choose his words carefully.
His stud, young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had yet another average output from the floor. Sure, the Oklahoma City Thunder won — but so does everyone else when they play the Pelicans. But why didn’t Gilgeous-Alexander resemble the player we saw the first two weeks of the year?
“I don’t mean this the way it’s going to come across,” Donovan said. “I’m happy he struggled.”
With no context added, you could write a tabloid with a headline to grab anyone’s attention with that quote. But Donovan had a point.
“I think adversity is good. He’s had a lot of success this early part of the season.”
He’s right. The first 10 games of the year saw the second-year guard look the part of a future face of the franchise. He averaged 48 percent shooting on just under 17 attempts a game — efficient. Gilgeous-Alexander found the ability to play off ball alongside Chris Paul, who would reward him with catch-and-shoot opportunities, notably hitting 41 percent of his threes. All of this culminated in 21 points per game.
Since then? Gilgeous-Alexander’s aggression, production and visibility on the floor have taken a dip. He’s taking nearly three less attempts from the floor while his percentage dropped to 39 percent. His meager 15 points per game have done little to greatly influence a rare Thunder win in this stretch.
“I think that players can have what I call surface confidence and deep confidence,” Donovan said. “When you go through struggles, you find out what kind of confidence you have in yourself.”
“I don’t want to see him struggle, I want to see him playing well every night, but I do think for his evolution as a player, I think it’s really healthy for him.”
This is to be expected for a young player. Especially a young player playing, by all means, an extended rookie season.
Gigleous-Alexander’s role along with his minutes have increased dramatically since his first year until now. He’s playing nearly eight more minutes a game.
“Just trying to manage those minutes,” Gilgeous-Alexander said at practice last week. “Really it’s just been more fun playing more basketball and I try not to look at it as more minutes because I’m playing basketball, I’m doing what I love.”
Learning new players, responsibilities and working on your craft all while being tired.
“I’m definitely exhausted by the end of the game.” Gilgeous-Alexander added. “Every time I step out there I just try to give it my all.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is now the first or second scoring option amongst starters — and defenses know this. He leads the team in field goal attempts over Danilo Gallinari — who probably should be leading the team — Chris Paul — who picks his spots offensively and Dennis Schroder — who is known chucker of the basketball.
To simply put it, you’re going to have to expect dips and rises in production as you would with any rookie/young player. Gilgeous-Alexander is in a fortunate spot with OKC. He will be in multiple positions to win games — work on his winning time game. He also has a teacher in Paul who can teach him a thing or two about avoiding exhaustion.
“Even just being around Paul, a two-way player in a lot of ways,” Donovan said at practice last week. “Those guys understand how to conserve energy on offense. They understand that on defense, they’re going to have to be fully engaged because you never know what’s going to happen.”
“You could be involved in a lot of different things on a possession. Offensively you want to be able to move and play efficiently. I think those are things that Shai is going to have to learn.”
How good will Gilgeous-Alexander be? Time will tell. The tools are all there for him to be an efficient point guard superstar with the God-given measurables of an elite wing defender in the NBA.
With each lull, lessons are learned. Conditioning is increased. Experiences are earned. Gilgeous-Alexander has shown an ability to play high IQ basketball. Those types of players, along with players who possess his skill set, rarely stay down for long.
Enjoy the lulls while they happen. They will be a quaint, “Remember when SGA couldn’t score?” memory for your water cooler chats.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. For Sooner fans, you can also listen to the “Inside OU” podcast with John Hoover, Rufus Alexander and Brady. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports