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Denver Stiffs NBA Draft Prospect: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Nuggets have a long term need for backcourt defense and facilitation. Could this Kentucky guard be the missing piece?

Kansas State v Kentucky Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Zhaire Smith | Robert Williams | Keita Bates-Diop | Miles Bridges | Josh Okogie | Chandler Hutchison | Džanan Musa | Troy Brown

Summary

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a 6’6 point guard from Kentucky about the size of Will Barton. Meaning, he’s very skinny. Playing with Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, and the rest of the Kentucky roster, SGA didn’t start immediately. Early in the season though, it became evident that not only was he starter caliber, he was Kentucky’s best player. He wasn’t the leading scorer, but he was close, and it truly became his team as Kentucky entered the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

In the pros, it’s unclear what SGA’s best role will be. Measuring in at 180 pounds at the combine (3rd lightest) and at just 3% body fat (lowest), it’s very possible the point guard doesn’t have the frame to become a legitimate starter. On the other hand, his 6’6 height in shoes and 7’0 wingspan were the best marks among point guards. Most players with his profile struggle to shoot from the perimeter, but SGA shot 40.4% from 3 (albeit on limited attempts) and 81.7% from the free throw line.

It’s clear that Gilgeous-Alexander is unique. How he fits into the Nuggets rotation is also clear. Does he fit the most important need for Denver at 14th overall though? Let’s find out.

Measurables

Age: 19

Height: 6’6”

Weight: 180 lbs

Wingspan: 7’0”

Standing Reach: 8’8”

Stats

Player Points/gm Rebounds/gm Assists/gm Steals/gm Blocks/gm Field Goal % Three-Point % Free Throw %
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 14.4 4.4 5.1 1.6 0.5 48.5 40.4 81.7

Strengths

Slashing with finesse. As far as slashers in this draft, there aren’t many that are more talented than Gilgeous-Alexander. The thin point guard has some of the best touch approaching the basket in the entire draft, which is the skill that raises his floor as a prospect up to backup point guard levels. In the pick and roll, off the catch, and in isolation, SGA has excellent instincts and quick, fluid movements that allow him to slither past his defender or between two different ones.

In the first clip, he shows some ability as an off ball slasher. He’s not out of control, but rather getting quickly to a spot where he’s comfortable using the glass. In the second clip, it’s easy to see him playing a two-man game with Nikola Jokic, toying with his defender trying to create space before Jokic pitches him the ball.

SGA uses the glass well, always keeping his eyes up and looking for the best way to attack the basket. He can use either hand going to the rim, though he’s more comfortable going to his left and finishing back with his right. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something teams can scout.

Spot Up Shooting Potential. Again, 40.4% from 3 and 81.7% from the line are good indicators for shooting potential. Nobody will confuse SGA with an elite outside shooter, as his attempts from the perimeter are way too low to draw the defense out too far. That being said, there are tools to work with here, and a good shooting coach should be able to turn SGA into a solid three-point shooter on moderate volume, if only to open up the rest of his game. If the Nuggets believe in their shooting coaches, then the SGA of the future may end up being the best point guard in the draft.

Passing Promise. SGA makes some great passes because of his ability to see over the defense. At 6’6 with a 7’0 wingspan, his vision becomes unimpeded when guarded by someone 6’3 or shorter, and when he’s driving to the rim, his long arms reach around defenders to make passes. He hits shooters in this opposite corner, makes simple passes to bigs popping at the three point line, hits the post reasonably well. He needs help in the pick and roll, but Kentucky wasn’t a great pick and roll team anyway. It will take time to develop these skills, but he has a foundation.

Defensive Potential. The best part about SGA’s defense is his length. He can gamble for steals, be a pest against guards, and be a threat on the defensive boards to grab the ball and attack in transition. He’s young and inexperienced, so it will take time for him to learn the ins and outs of team defense. He may not be a great player to guard big players on switches because of his frame, but given some physical development, maybe that changes. If he can defend at the point of attack though, that’s important.

Athleticism and Profile. Not all NBA guards can do this. Gilgeous-Alexander uses his 7’0 wingspan to reach around his defender to score on the move to the rim.It’s a rare play to make at the college level, and SGA does it frequently.

It’s encouraging that SGA is so spatially aware. He doesn’t get blocked often, understanding where his defender, the nearest rim protector, and the rim itself are. He’s coordinated and lengthy enough to get off awkward finishes, and when things break down, it’s nice to have somebody who can get to the rim.

This is a lot like Will Barton on the Nuggets today. He was the designated isolation guy when things went bad, especially in the second unit. Barton’s ability to pull-up and shoot likely separates him from SGA now, but the coordination and passing ability SGA already possesses will help him improve his decisions as he gets experience.

The athleticism and wingspan though? That’s unquestionable.

Weaknesses (Concerns)

Physicality. Again, 3% body fat and 180 pounds. Not a lot of room for growth. This manifests itself in struggling to finish through contact as well as being physical on the defensive end. He rebounds well for his size, but it could be even better. Overall, SGA is a finesse finisher on offense, and that may help him get by as a backup. In order to be a starter though, this is his most important phase of his game to improve.

Shooting Polish. The second most important improvement he can make is shooting off the dribble. His form and fluidity pulling up from the perimeter is poor, which will definitely lower his ceiling if he can’t fix it. I don’t ever expect SGA to be an above average pull-up shooter, but becoming more of a threat when the defense goes under ball screens is essential to providing positive impact. Ricky Rubio learned to shoot when the defense gives him room, but it took time. If SGA can’t make a pull-up jumper, it neutralizes his value.

Decision Making. It’s hard to blame him entirely, but SGA averaged 2.7 turnovers per game, compared to just 5.1 assists. That ratio isn’t great for an NBA level point guard, but it’s understandable given his situation on Kentucky. Still, he made ill-advised passes, jump-passed when a jump-stop would be advisable, and was sometimes just inaccurate. He’s a young point guard, so it’s not surprising that he’s raw, but again, this could prevent him from making an immediate impact for whatever team he plays for.

Fit with the Nuggets

On offense, I see him pairing well with Nikola Jokic. The center would make up for a number of SGA’s deficiencies, playing a two-man game and an off-ball role in combination. He also makes sense next to Jamal Murray and/or Gary Harris, as a player who can guard point guards, facilitate for the other guard, and take some pressure off that guy while handling the basketball.

However, the problem with drafting SGA is expecting him to make a positive impact immediately. The player he will be in the future likely isn’t the one he will be over the first couple of seasons of his career. De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings faced many of the same problems last year with an underdeveloped body and shot. For a Nuggets team looking for stability and a playoff run, relying on a rookie point guard to make a positive and steady impact is dangerous. SGA would be a long term play, that’s for sure.

Still, if the Nuggets aren’t as worried about immediate return, the player SGA can be is exactly what Denver needs long term. A backup guard who can play 25 minutes per game, pushing one of Murray or Harris to an off-ball role whenever he enters, that can facilitate, defend, and get easy buckets off drives to the rim. When Jokic goes to the bench, Denver needs a player they can count on long term to keep the offensive rating high. SGA could definitely be that guy...but he needs time.

There are players I would draft prior to Shai GIlgeous-Alexander in this year’s draft, but if those players are off the board, and the Nuggets want to take a chance on a guy who could be around long term, then nobody can fault them here. I mocked SGA to the Nuggets in my first mock draft this year for that reason. It makes sense, and in three days time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the slight, yet lengthy point guard in a Nuggets uniform after Thursday’s draft.