Updated: Jan 3
When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was traded to the Thunder before the 2019-20 season, there was no telling what the team would achieve. With both Paul George and Russell Westbrook leaving to pair up with superstars in Los Angeles and Houston, Shai would be working with Chris Paul. Most fans, reporters, and NBA executives saw Oklahoma City as a team ready to rebuild and expected Paul to be traded away before the deadline in February.
It's safe to say that the Thunder shocked the whole league with what they accomplished. Led by the three-guard tandem of Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul, and Dennis Schröder, the team earned the fifth seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder stretched their first-round series with the Rockets to a hard-fought Game 7 where they lost 102-104.
While the Thunder's season was impressive, general manager Sam Presti knew that he had to look toward the future. So, on November 16, Paul was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Schröder was traded two days later to the Lakers, and just like that, Shai was left as the starring building block in Oklahoma City's rebuild.
So, the question remains: will Shai earn his first All-Star selection in this compact season?
Shai will assume the duty of point guard this season, fully playing on the ball. In 34.7 minutes per game last year, he averaged 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on 47.1% shooting overall and 34.7% from 3-point range. It was an excellent sophomore season for Shai, especially since he spent most of his minutes as the second option to Chris Paul.
At 6'5" and a 6'11" wingspan, Shai's above-average height and length allows him to score through traffic. He's a crafty finisher around the rim and is adept at maneuvering around larger defenders. Shai is a change-of-pace guard, throwing defenders off with pump fakes and different dribble moves. His midrange shot is smooth, especially when fading away or spinning from the basket.
His length also helps on the defensive end, where he constantly pokes balls out and starts fastbreak opportunities for his teammates. Shai is also a skilled defensive rebounder for a point guard, in no small part because of his long arms. Though quick, he'll need to add a few more pounds to his wiry frame to stick with his assignments and avoid falling behind screens.
Most of Shai's highlights are created inside the 3-point line. He has no shortage of confidence around the rim and in the midrange, but he needs to improve his efficiency from deep. In today's NBA, a team's primary ball-handler has to be an outside threat to maximize his team's spacing on the floor. 76ers fans have been subject to this weakness with Ben Simmons – he's 2-for-24 from deep in his three years in the league.
With his new job as facilitator for the Thunder, Shai should also see his assists per game rise from 3.3 in his first two years in the league. He could definitely form an effective pick-and-roll game with veteran Al Horford, who can both shoot from outside and finish strongly in the paint.
I believe that this is the year the Shai takes the All-Star leap. He'll likely be in a similar situation as Brandon Ingram or Domantas Sabonis last season, in which they just squeaked into reserve spots. If Shai can improve from deep and continue to improve his playmaking, I can see him averaging about 23 points and 7 assists per game.