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Know The Prospect: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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Skinny and crafty.

Kansas State v Kentucky Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The NBA draft cannot come any sooner. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing more thrilling than the NBA Playoffs. You know, the one with the Toronto Raptors fielding the same team to face LeBron James for the umpteenth time this decade thinking the results would be different, multiple blowouts in the Conference Finals, and watching the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the fourth time in a row. Captivating television (in all seriousness, watching the Raptors crap the bed again, the Celtics lose, and the final few games of each Conference Finals was quite fun).

But let’s get back to the draft! One of the prospects that I find quite intriguing is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Is selecting the freshman from Kentucky a reach at the 9th pick? At the moment, probably, given that the publicly-available mock drafts have Gilgeous-Alexander ranging between 12–16. With that said, there are many things to like about his game, making Gilgeous-Alexander a worthwhile prospect to discuss, especially if the Knicks manage to swindle the Clippers into trading the 12th and 13th picks for the 9th.

So, what are Gilgeous-Alexander’s strengths? What are Gilgeous-Alexander’s weaknesses? I want to take a different approach to this type of article as I am the furthest thing from a college expert. I treat rookies and prospects like John Locke treats human minds at birth: tabula rasa style. Yes, current 18-year-old Philosophy 101 student, technically, the prospect cannot be a blank slate as he already possessed knowledge and tendencies via his high school and college careers. I’m well read on my Enlightenment Thinkers, thank you.

I just have a different evaluation process where I prefer to see what their strengths and weaknesses are in their first year, determine the magnitude of their improvement the next two years, and then come to some sort of conclusion on their ceiling. This isn’t to say that I have no thoughts on these players coming out of college because I do. I just do not pretend to be an expert on projecting college/international prospects as I cannot make definitive claims on how a player will be in the NBA without, you know, some NBA baseline.

Let’s get back on topic. The approach I want to take for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is to aggregate all the key information on him into one place, provide some of thoughts on the matter, and allow you guys to come to your own conclusion. If I could create some sort of projection model where I predict the exact ceiling a player will reach in his prime with 95% certainty, I would for you guys… and also be employed by a team’s analytics department. Nevertheless, let’s evaluate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

The Stats

Gilgeous-Alexander in his freshman season averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 assists, 2.7 turnovers, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 33.7 minutes per game. He has a true shooting percentage of 57.8 on 14.9 totals shots (FGA + FTA) per game. When extrapolated to a per 100 possession basis, those numbers are 24.4 points, 8.7 assists, 4.5 turnovers, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.8 steals. These numbers are quite impressive for a freshman who started the season coming off the bench. The turnovers are somewhat problematic (more on that in a bit), but still overall impressive counting stats.

How do these numbers compare historically? Below is a table that consists of a sample from Sports-Reference of all freshmen and sophomores who averaged at least 14 points, five assists, four rebounds, and one and a half steals per game. Since the 1992–93 season (the first season Sports Reference documents), only 35 players have averaged those figures or greater. Of those 35 players, 12 were freshmen.

There is an eclectic collection of names on this table and the full list. There are some promising names like Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, and fellow Wildcat John Wall. And then there are some “who’s that guy?” names like Myck Kabongo, Laquincy Rideau, and Chaz Williams. What’s interesting is that his numbers aren’t that far off from Lonzo Ball’s, though Ball did average more assists and rebounds as well as having a much better true shooting percentage.

Speaking of assists, Gilgeous-Alexander has the best adjusted pure points rating (hPPR) of the three top point-guard prospects projected to be selected in the top half of the draft — the other two being Trae Young and Collin Sexton. His hPPR was 2.06, which would have been in the 70th percentile and top 100 in the NBA this season. Young posted a somewhat understandable 0.28 hPPR given his teammates and his top-rated usage rate (and we know that high usage rate primary facilitators generally get punished by hPPR). Sexton, unlike either Gilgeous-Alexander or Young, posted an appalling -3.32 hPPR for a lead guard. When compared to last year’s draft, Gilgeous-Alexander had a better hPPR than Markelle Fultz (1.72), De’Aaron Fox (1.90), Dennis Smith Jr. (1.63), and Donovan Mitchell (0.06). For those interested, Lonzo Ball had the best hPPR, posting an impressive 9.55 hPPR.

Based on shot chart data provided by The Stepien, I was able to calculate a composite zone true shooting percentage for Gilgeous-Alexander. The reason I say composite is because there is a slight discrepancy between The Stepien’s shot chart data and Sports-Reference’s data (where I got the points and free throw attempts totals). The shot chart data has the total FGA figure as 374 while the Sports-Reference figure has 377. I could just assign the two missing three-pointers to the above-the-break total and the one two-pointer to the restricted area total, but I instead elected to just not add the attempts while taking the total points. The variation of the zTS% isn’t much, so I did not see a point. In any event, Gilgeous-Alexander’s zTS% for the season was 57.4, which would be slightly above the NBA average.

One last thing to note before concluding the stats section are some of Gilgeous-Alexander’s games. He had some impressive ones:

  • 30 points and three assists on 63.2% shooting against Vanderbilt.
  • 29 points, three assists, and seven rebounds on 62.5% shooting against Tennessee during the SEC Tournament.
  • 27 points, six assists, and six rebounds on 83.3% shooting against Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament. You know, Buffalo, the same team that apparent number one pick Deandre Ayton couldn’t defeat despite being the biggest, strongest, and most skilled player on the floor.

There are other impressive Gilgeous-Alexander games, but there also some duds. He didn’t score at least seven points in 10 games; however, he did close out the season quite well and raised his performance during some of the most important games of the season, which is always a good thing.

The Scouting Reports

I reviewed multiple scouting reports and assessments from The Ringer, NBADraft.net, The Stepien, Jonathan Givony, and Jonathan Wasserman, and want to provide a comprehensive summary of the evaluations on Gilgeous-Alexander:

  • He’s long, measuring 6’6” in shoes with a 6’11.5” wingspan.
  • Defense is his main selling point. His length, lateral quickness, and IQ allow him to be a great defensive prospect both on and off the ball.
  • Crafty with the ball in his hands, which allows him to navigate pick and rolls well and get into the lane.
  • Great footwork and body control to get around defenders to take shots at the rim.
  • Thin frame, weighing in at 180, and doesn’t have a build to suggest that he could add more weight.
  • An average athlete at best with concerns of how his crafty-style to get to the rim will translate in the NBA
  • Some conflicting assessments on his passing/playmaking, ranging between “solid playmaker” (The Ringer) to “excellent court vision when probing the defense” (The Stepien).
  • Turns the ball over too much.
  • Some conflicting assessments on his shooting, mainly concerning his mechanics. Per the Ringer: “Awkward push shot with a low release when shooting off the catch, so he may need to tweak his mechanics” and “His pull-up jumper works, but it’s as aesthetically pleasing as Markelle Fultz’s post-shoulder-injury.” Per the Stepien: “Despite low volume from three, has solid form mechanically.”

From the film that I have watched on Gilgeous-Alexander (more on that in a second), the scouting report assessments do appear, for the most part, to be spot on. He does appear “slow” and “unathletic,” but I do wonder if that’s his choice as he is quite methodical when getting into the lane. This “style” or just lack of quick-twitch athleticism did work for him against college defenders. Gilgeous-Alexander has to prove that his “change-of-pace” approach will work against NBA defenses.

His shot mechanics are rather funky, so I do tend to agree with the Ringer’s assessment. However, Gilgeous-Alexander did shoot 81.% from the line on 175 attempts. He didn’t take many threes (57), but when he did, they went in at a 40.4% clip. Could this be an “if it works, it works” type of situation with his shot? Again, to be determined.

Similar to the shooting, I do tend to agree more with The Ringer’s assessment of his playmaking than with The Stepien’s. When I think of “excellent court vision when probing the defense,” I just go back to last year’s draft and look at Lonzo Ball. Gilgeous-Alexander is not a Ball-level playmaker; the hPPR simply does not support the assessment (though the Stepien’s report does mention Gilgeous-Alexander being turnover prone, which obviously lowers one’s hPPR). With that said, I do think he is better than just a “solid playmaker.” Gilgeous-Alexander does good job probing the defense, finding open players on the perimeter out of drives, hits them consistently in their shooting pocket, and does pass the ball up the court in transition, like Lonzo to an extent, actually. I guess I just have an issue with the adjectives used insight of the assessments in the reports?

The Film

If you want to go the highlight route with prospects, then here you go:

The only issue I have with highlights is that, well, they are highlights. They are biased in nature to favor the individual. The videos will show you all the best spin moves (Gilgeous-Alexander does actually have an impressive spin move), the best cross-court assists, the best off-the-ball steals that lead to dunks (Gilgeous-Alexander is also good at off-the-ball steals as well as on-the-ball), and so forth. What they don’t show are the little intricacies of the entire game. They don’t have to be “lowlights,” per se, but you want to see how the player performs in the flow of a game.

Enter the good side of YouTube. The good people of the Internet have uploaded more 2017–18 Kentucky basketball games than Bryan Colangelo has burner Twitter accounts — shocking, I know. When you have time, and as Knicks fans I know you have time between now and the draft, you can check out these games and come to your own conclusions on Gilgeous-Alexander. Here are the links to the games:

You’re a trooper if you can make it through all those college basketball games and not fall asleep multiple times as you watch.

Final Thoughts

Even though I wanted this to primarily be a one-stop-shop article for everyone to access all they need to know on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, I do want to mention something I found interesting during the research as well as one parting take. When you take a step back and look at the scouting reports and tape, doesn’t “long, lanky, defensive guard with average athleticism” sound familiar to you? Weren’t these words used to describe another prospect from a previous draft? You see where I’m going with this, right?

Yes folks, the characteristics of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sound an quite similar to that of Frank Ntilikina, aka French Sinatra, himself. Even though there are a lot of similarities, I do not think that Gilgeous-Alexander has the same level of upside as Ntilikina. Gilgeous-Alexander does project to be a very good, versatile defender, but I just do not see elite, All-NBA level type of potential as I did with Ntilikina. Furthermore, I also do not see the same level of passing upside with Gilgeous-Alexander as I did with Ntilikina. (Also, Frank is built like LeBron compared to Shai’s skinny ass —Ed.)

And this is why I wanted to give you all the numbers, scouting reports, and games I can find on Gilgeous-Alexander because, like I mentioned at the top of the article, college basketball is the furthest thing from my forte. Trying to get a well-educated idea of what a prospect will turn out to be in the NBA during his prime without a rookie and sophomore baseline is as close to a guessing game as possible. I’m a data guy, after all.

The one take away I think that should come of this is that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an intriguing prospect, especially for those who like Frank Ntilikina pre-draft last year. As delightful as the idea of having two smart, long, defensive guards with point guard skills playing together sounds, selecting Gilgeous-Alexander with the 9th pick appears to be a reach. If the Knicks do wind up trading back into a range where picking him makes more sense, does having the potentially lesser version of Ntilikina sound like a great idea to pair with Ntilikina? I’m not entirely sure.