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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is ascending into NBA MVP conversation


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the NBA’s dullest superstar, which has allowed him to sneak up behind the league while they sleep on his ascendance. On Tuesday night, SGA propelled the Oklahoma City Thunder to their latest signature win. After a two-week stretch in which they’ve made mincemeat of the NBA’s best defense, and the defending champs, and he tallied 36 points on 63 percent shooting and seven helpers in a win over the Boston Celtics. Whether he was being guarded by 6-foot-4 perennial All-Defense guards Derrick White or Jrue Holiday, SGA was undeterred.

On forays into the paint, for nifty pull-ups, his patented one-handed left-handed finish at the basket, or positions himself to post-up smaller guards that end with fadeaway jumpers or pivots into up and under lay-ins, or he never seemed to be in a hurry. SGA’s ascension into the thick of the MVP conversation is the quickest thing he’s ever done.

Two years ago, SGA was an uber-efficient playmaker, but there was some hesitancy over him being a transcendent heliocentric offensive engine who was the best player on a championship team. Throughout this season though, Oklahoma City has hinted to the league that they’re coming sooner than anyone thought. Their length, Chet Holmgren’s defensive versatility, their adaptability, deep bench, the league’s most renowned shooting coach of the past 20 years, Chip Engelland, and a treasure trove of draft picks have molded them into the most likely team to claim dominion over the league during the second half of this decade. All those factors are secondary to SGA though.

After an obnoxious year of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid stans ruining the MVP race with agendas, SGA is breaking up the monopoly they’ve had on the MVP conversation. It’s probably not his turn yet. Joel Embiid’s lapping the field in most of the appropriate metrics and keeping SGA at bay. However, if Embiid misses about a dozen more games, he’d become ineligible for the award or All-NBA under the NBA’s new eligibility requirements, SGA is on pace to be the successor for that throne too.

We saw Steph Curry and his paradigm-shifting style of play coming. However, the counter to the small ball spacing era has been to find length, which SGA (and Oklahoma City) have in bulk. Jokic and Embiid are the end result for bigs, but SGA is joining Luka Doncic as the preeminent jumbo guards of this era.

SGA will always be overlooked in a soap opera league based around large market franchises. He’s the Tim Duncan of jumbo guards in an era of slick, sharpshooting perimeter lords. Watching The Big Fundamental throughout his prime and into his twilight was a didactic experience. Every Duncan script was the same. He crouched into a three-point stance, faced up, or used his turnaround to bank in a mid-range jumper. That routine describes the SGA experience.

I have seen countless SGA performances and he’s never made me leap out of my seat, made my jaw drop, or raised my blood pressure with a mind-numbingly stupid mistake. His old-man game makes feats of athletic marvel appear quotidian. He’s essentially The Big Fundamental in a 2-guard’s body.

His postgame quotes won’t have the same incendiary quality to them as Embiid’s verbal firebombs. His highlight clips won’t consist of juicy crossover combos, stepback triples from impossibly deep like Steph, or confrontations at the rim of the Ja Morant variety. SGA delivers buckets the same way every time. SGA’s preferred method of attack is to break defenders down by decelerating and then shifting gears once he has them off balance. He also posts up at a far more successful rate than any modern guard. He’s one of the most efficient scorers on post-ups in the league at any position. in the league. The only reason the Thunder’s inverted offense doesn’t lean even more into that element more is because he’s so skilled in every other situation with the ball in his sands.

If the season ended today, his .549 field goal percentage would be the second-highest for any guard averaging at least 20 points a night in the 3-point era. In the 3-point era, only four guards have ever averaged at least 25 points a game and shot 50 percent or better from the field more than once. Michael Jordan, Dale Ellis, George Gervin and SGA.

Every move SGA makes is done deliberately with no wasted movements. He barely leaps when he shoots, and rarely takes unnecessary risk. What makes SGA’s efficiency so impressive is that he’s been such a poor shooter from the sweet spot behind the arc in modern NBA offenses. Oklahoma City’s lineup boasts 10 shooters averaging better than 40 percent from deep. SGA is not one of them. At a position occupied by the likes of Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, and Tyrese Haliburton’s intoxicating machinations from beyond 25 feet, SGA’s hovered around and below league average shooting from distance throughout his career on a healthy diet of attempts. He’s creeping back towards the NBA’s 35 percent Mendoza Line throughout a four-game stretch of wins over the Knicks, Nuggets, Nets, and Celtics, that’s inflated his 3-point shooting percentage by four points.

The next great interior playmaker being a 6-foot-6 guard is a development we never saw coming. The evolution of the game isn’t a straight line. Sometimes it takes a step back and takes a bear right around orthodox thought. SGA’s case for MVP is picking up steam. Even if it’s not his time yet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s name will be engraved on a (Finals) MVP award eventually.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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