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Prospect Breakdown: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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Taking a closer look at the Kentucky product, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kansas State vs Kentucky Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Another edition of Prospect Breakdown is here, this time fine-combing through Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a lanky, 6-foot-6 combo guard. The one-and-done freshman stepped foot inside Rupp Arena as the 35th-ranked prospect in the ESPN top 100, trailing five of his Wildcat peers, all of whom were stationed in the top 25.

However, once the dust settled and Kentucky bowed out of the NCAA Tournament, falling to Kansas State in the Sweet 16, Gilgeous-Alexander had cemented himself as the team’s best player and potentially its most tantalizing 2018 NBA Draft prospect.

In 33.7 minutes a night last season, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals on .485/.404/.817 shooting splits. So, without further ado, let’s dive into some analysis.

Offense

Gilgeous-Alexander primarily made his mark as a scorer on slithery forays to the rim, deploying ball-screen action and carving up defenses with a flurry of pick and rolls from every angle.

Per Synergy, pick and rolls comprised 38.9 percent of his offensive usage and he produced 0.95 points per possession (86th percentile). The most accurate descriptor for Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive arsenal is crafty and it shines through while plying his trade in the pick and roll.

He can fluidly shift the tempo like a luxury sports car, boasts ambidexterity at the tin and can whip out a cruel, patented behind-the-back dribble to play hide-and-seek with the ball, shaking free of his defender in the process:

In the final two clips, note how Gilgeous-Alexander promptly attacks once the big man is switched onto him. Carving up lead-footed bigs is an important trait for NBA guards to have and one that he regularly displayed during his brief stint in Lexington.

What’s more is the right-handed Gilgeous-Alexander prefers converting with his left hand inside, using a variety of off-handed scoop shots, soft floaters — exuding feathery touch — and wraparound finishes. More often than not, he catches defenders off kilter with a seemingly omnipresent start-stop ability, throwing their timing out the window with unexpected changes of speed.

The Hamilton, Canada, native doesn’t have elite explosiveness at the guard position, but possesses a twitchy, lengthy first step that enables him to zip past his man and break down the defense as either a scorer or playmaker, the latter of which is a criminally underrated facet of his game.

Nothing seems to throw Gilgeous-Alexander out of rhythm as a floor general. He plays to the beat of his own drum, makes advanced reads and can manipulate defenses to create an ideal shot:

Perhaps his best NBA-ready trait as a passer is his propensity for executing timely skip passes, warping the geometry of the floor and crafting open looks:

Kentucky rarely pieced together the proper spacing to maximize Gilgeous-Alexander’s vision, but the clips above are a glimpse of the high-level reads he can process on the fly with requisite floor spacing, a characteristic of most modern-day NBA offenses.

His passing chops weren’t confined to half-court settings, though. Gilgeous-Alexander always had his head up in transition, eyes canvassing the floor, which often led to run-outs and uncontested triples:

It’s not just that Gilgeous-Alexander can see all these passes in varying contexts; it’s that he has the ability to make accurate, well-timed feeds and put his teammates in positions to score without them having to create their own shot.

Elite playmakers are those who throw the first punch, forcing defenses to react rather than vise versa. Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t always the manipulator, but showed flashes that should leave NBA teams encouraged with his ceiling as a facilitator.

When he wasn’t slinging the ball around the court, Gilgeous-Alexander was getting to the lane at will using herky-jerky movements, hesitations and other slippery moves, all of which kept defenders off balance and induced frequent trips to the foul line.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s 46.4 percent free-throw rate mirrors some of the elite foul-drawers in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished second in the league with 641 free-throw attempts last season, sported a rate of 45.7 percent; Anthony Davis, third in that same category, held a 40.9 percent free-throw rate.

Part of what makes Gilgeous-Alexander so difficult to contain is that he’s deceptively strong. Despite a slender 180-pound frame, he showed the ability to bully his way through the chest of defenders on drives:

Although encouraging, the fact remains that Gilgeous-Alexander will need to bulk up in order to find sustained success at the rim, especially given his timidness as an outside shooter.

While he buried 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers last season, holding a magnifying glass to that number reveals it came on just 57 attempts (1.5 per game). Rarely did Gilgeous-Alexander hoist it up from deep when pressed to, in large part due to his troubling mechanics.

It’s a slow, two-step release that resembles a push shot as the windup begins with the ball nearly disconnected from his body:

In the NBA, Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be able to get off very many of those shots against tight coverage and won’t attract much magnetism as a shooter if he’s unwilling to attempt jumpers very often or can’t nail them at a respectable clip.

Furthermore, his off-the-bounce weaponry is severely limited. He’s *somewhat* comfortable in catch-and-shoot situations (wide-open attempts), which allow him the necessary time to gear up for his set shot, but pull-up looks seem to throw his form out of rhythm. He needs adequate timing to gather himself, something most NBA defenders won’t afford him.

Even in a league where spacing is maximized, providing Gilgeous-Alexander increased driving lanes, his pick-and-roll effectiveness will be sapped if teams are simply able to slide under screens, hang back, cutting off his path to the rim, and dare him to shoot.

Gilgeous-Alexander has the playmaking, finishing and guile to be a potent offensive player, but reaching his ceiling offensively is contingent on fielding a respectable jumpshot — both on the catch and off the dribble.

Defense

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander’s measurables are ideal for modern-day defensive schemes that rely heavily on switching and long, versatile wings to execute that plan of attack.

However, there is a divide between the idea of what Gilgeous-Alexander can offer defensively and what he actually brings to the table. His length, coupled with 1.6 steals a night last season, scream pestering defender, but in reality, his defense trails behind his offense as an NBA prospect.

Off the ball, Gilgeous-Alexander lacks shrewd instincts as a help defender, unsure when to sag off and when to stay at home. Furthermore, he’s prone to falling asleep and losing his man, leading to good looks for the opposition:

His on-ball defense is disappointing, particularly for a player of his ilk. He has the physical characteristics to be menacing at the point of attack, but he’s often caught flat-footed, allowing opponents to zoom by him with ease, and lacks the necessary lateral quickness to compensate:

Note how in the final two plays, Gilgeous-Alexander is out of his defensive stance and anchored on his heels, which leads to the breakdown.

It’s not all bad for the lottery-bound guard, however. Many of his flaws as a defender are ones that can be corrected with technique and understanding, and finding a team with a defensive-minded coaching staff, one that can iron out those kinks, would do wonders for his defensive potential.

Led by defensive ace Brett Brown, the Sixers are exactly the type of team that could amend those issues while simultaneously compensating for them during his growing pains, given their status as an elite defensive unit.

When engaged, Gilgeous-Alexander is a vicious on-ball defender, engulfing ball-handlers with his length and activity, siphoning off passing lanes on even the simplest of transactions:

In the majority of those encouraging clips, Gilgeous-Alexander is on his toes, locked in as a defender. Much of his potential is contingent on making the subtle, yet paramount, transition from defending on his heels to consistently defending on his toes — a development Brett Brown and Co. should be able to unlock.

With the league continuing its march toward switch-everything approaches, evidenced by the schematic tendencies of the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs and Celtics — this year’s NBA Final Four — Gilgeous-Alexander should fit in nicely, having proven adept at seamlessly executing switches off the ball.

His ability to navigate picks ran hot and cold, sometimes flowing through a series of them with ease, other times stonewalled by a simple ball screen. Overall, though, it’s a plus for his game.

Positional Fit

Without a consistent outside shot, Gilgeous-Alexander will be constrained to the 1-spot when he enters the NBA. Playing him off the ball won’t be an option unless he’s surrounded by a herd of floor-spacers.

The Sixers already roster three players with the point guard designation in Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell, though Simmons and Fultz have the size and versatility to play multiple positions if needed.

Gilgeous-Alexander shouldn’t be Philadelphia’s primary target — that honor belongs to the wing duo of Mikal and Miles Bridges — but in the event those two, along with Wendell Carter Jr. are off the board, the gangly Canadian would be an ideal consolation prize.

He’d provide some welcomed perimeter shot creation and a playmaking dynamic that Philadelphia’s bench lacked at times last season — though a healthy Fultz could comfortably fill this role. His defensive shortcomings could be masked by the high-level athletes around him, allowing him to laser in as an on-ball defender while continuing to improve his overall technique as it catches up to salivating physical profile.

Landing on a team who won’t place a sizable offensive burden onto his shoulders from outset — Denver (14th pick), Philly (10th) and the Clippers (12th, 13th) all come to mind — will be important for his development. Clubs like the ones listed will afford him an opportunity to maximize his strengths (playmaking, attacking the rim and, periodically, on-ball defense) while he refines his weaknesses (shooting, defensive positioning, technique and off-ball tendencies) rather than pigeonholing him into a high-usage role with heavy responsibilities as a scorer and passer.

Draft Projection

Most mock drafts have Gilgeous-Alexander falling in the 11-16 range, a few spots past the Sixers’ slot at 10th overall. There’s always movers and shakers on draft day, but as of now, most reports have held steady with his stock. He hasn’t oscillated much in the rankings unlike fellow Wildcat Kevin Knox, whose range seems to be about as wide as any potential top-10 pick.

It’s almost assured that Gilgeous-Alexander will be available when Philly is on the clock, but unless both Bridges and Carter Jr. have already found NBA homes, it’s unlikely he’s donning Sixers red, white and blue next season.