Math is not just for nerds anymore. Like it or not, the game of basketball is being influenced by analytics more and more each year. The most well known example is the rise of the three point shot (the amount of threes taken across the league has increased every year this decade), but there is so much more to learn and understand about the game if you dive deeper into the numbers.
In each weekly edition of “Thunder by the Numbers,” we’ll take a closer look at the stats (all via NBA.com and Synergy Sports) behind an important trend that impacted the Thunder’s play for the week. For the inaugural edition, it seems only right that we break down the first three games in a Thunder uniform for the smoothest man in Oklahoma City. No, not Brady Trantham.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Scoring Diversity
If you don’t know, now you know: Shai is a walking bucket. After averaging 10 points per game as a rookie for the LA Clippers, he opened up this season scoring a career high 26 points, then broke that personal record two days later with 28. He was even on pace to do it again, but sat the entire fourth quarter in OKC’s Sunday blowout win over the Warriors, still finishing with a quality 19.
These big-time scoring outputs didn’t come by accident. The Thunder know they have something special in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Luckily for fans, they aren’t waiting for him to be an all-star to empower him to play like one. So far, Shai is leading the team with a usage rate of 29.2%. That means he’s using (shooting, getting to the free-throw line, or turning the ball over) as many of the Thunder’s possessions as their much more mature former stars, Russell Westbrook (30.5% usage) and Paul George (28.5% usage), did last year.
He’s been using those opportunities to put his mark on the offense from every level of the floor. Though we only have a small three game sample size to look at, what Shai has been doing with the ball in his hands is even more impressive than his pure scoring numbers.
Beyond the Arc
He’s been knocking down three pointers at a quality rate of 37.5%, nearly identical to his percentage last year (36.7%) which means we can reasonably expect Shai’s long-range shooting to at least stay consistent over the course of the season. While he’s gone only 1/5 when shooting off-the-dribble from distance, when taking catch-and-shoot threes he’s hit 5/11 shots. Focusing more on those in-rhythm threes could lead to a boost in his already solid shooting percentage. More importantly for the team, it could help improve the Thunder’s poor efficiency in the spot-up play type, at which they rank 27th in the league.
There’s a strong argument in the world of analytics that discourages mid-range shots unless you are one of the best in the league at them. Simply put, this is due to their lack of value (2 points) compared to their relative difficulty (much harder than layups, not much easier than three pointers).
So far Shai has been one of the best. He’s made 7 of his first 8 off-the-dribble mid-range jumpers. Of those shots, 6 of them have come off of one of Shai’s favorite moves. He drives quickly at his defender’s hip, stops on a dime, gives one more hard dribble to freeze his defender in place, then takes a long step backwards, giving him plenty of space to get his jumper off. He has made all 6 of those shots so far. Walking. Bucket.
Although those numbers aren’t sustainable (there is the smallest possibility that Shai simply never misses a step-back again, which I wouldn’t be mad about) his early success is encouraging. To be a truly elite NBA player, like Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, you must be able to put pressure on the defense from every spot you operate on the floor. Having a reliable in-between game is essential for Shai if he ever hopes to reach that level.
At the Rim
As impressive as his jump shooting has been, Shai’s bread and butter has always been his ability to score at the basket. Last season in half-court play, he shot 58% off of drives to the rim, putting him in the top 10 out of all NBA point guards (as a rookie!!). He hasn’t been quite as effective (51% at the rim) through three games this year, but when he does finish, the crowd almost always reacts in awe.
When his jumper is keeping the defense honest, all he needs is to get one step past his man. After that his length and finesse, combined with his fundamental ball-fakes and signature scoop shot, are more than enough to get him a good look at the basket.
This ability to keep the defense guessing has been a huge reason for his hot start. In isolation situations, he’s driven left and right an equal amount of times and has been just as effective finishing at the rim with either hand. This, combined with his prowess scoring in the midrange and from three, makes him a truly lethal three-level scorer. And at 21-years-old, he’s only just getting started.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he now studies Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, consulting for Rocnation Sports, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA