As if made in a lab for the modern NBA, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stands 6’6” with a 7’0” wingspan and already has most of the skills for which teams are looking in their lead guards. Unlike in previous generations, the league holds versatile and jack-of-all-trades players in much higher stead. Being able to do everything at a slightly above average level is much valued head of being great on one end but a massive negative on the other, though there are still obvious exceptions to that rule. Gilgeous-Alexander is absolutely the former, as he looks to be able to fit seamlessly into most teams in the league and will mold his game to his teammates and the system in which he plays.
Offensively, Gilgeous-Alexander has a little bit of everything, but his best skill is his ability to make his teammates better in pick-and-roll situations. A great passer with the height to see over the defense, he possesses the instincts of an NBA-level point guard to pair with the physical tools to make almost any pass on the court. Gilgeous-Alexander has great footwork in pick-and-roll and a tight enough handle to make it work as he meanders his way to the rim, putting defenders off balance with a variety of advanced dribble moves. He’s a good finisher once he gets into the paint, using his length and body control to put the ball over and around rim protectors looking to block his shot. He’s already armed with floaters and extended layups off either foot in addition to high-level footwork on euro-steps and off foot finishes at full speed to surprise bigger defenders.
However, there are legitimate concerns over Gilgeous-Alexander’s outside shooting and athleticism as he transitions to the NBA. If he’s unable to force defenders to go over ball screens in pick-and-roll, he won’t be nearly as effective as a driver and playmaker in those situations. His pull-up jumper is awkward at best and will not garner respect from teams until he proves that he’s able to hit that shot consistently, whether from mid-range or beyond the three-point line. He doesn’t have a quick first step or a large enough frame to punish defenders who duck under screens by blowing past them or bowling through them on his way to the rim, so a lot of his offensive value as a primary ball handler will rely on his ability to make those pull-up jumpers.
On the other end of the floor, Gilgeous-Alexander has the build to be a solid defender at both guard spots, but he’ll need to put on a lot of muscle to add to his 180-pound frame in order to truly contend with two guards in the NBA. He’s tall and long for a point guard, which gives him inherent advantages defensively both on- and off-ball. He slides well with quick feet and can quickly catch up to players if they beat him on the drive to poke the ball out from behind or block their shot at the rim. He plays with activity when his man is away from the primary action, always looking to jump a passing lane for a steal or deflection using his plus-6 wingspan. Every so often, Gilgeous-Alexander will switch off defensively and get beat, especially when he reads what the offense is trying to do but his man breaks off the pattern. He thinks the game at a high level on both ends of the floor, but that sometimes comes back to bite him when his opponents do something he doesn’t expect.
Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t play with a ton of physicality on either end of the floor, but putting on more weight should help that cause. Finishing in traffic and bumping with bigger guards will be an issue for him at the beginning of his career, but he has the skills and work ethic to make himself better every year. The pull-up jumper will be an issue until he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can make it, which will limit his offensive ceiling in his first few years in the league. Consistently hitting that shot will unlock the rest of his offensive game, but if he’s not able to make it a part of his repertoire, then he’ll have to be relegated to a secondary ball handler role and become more of a spot-up threat and slasher off closeouts, which doesn’t quite fit his skill set as a pick-and-roll playmaker but may be the only path for him to be a positive contributor offensively.
For the Cavaliers, Gilgeous-Alexander would be a bit of a reach with the No. 8 pick, in my opinion. Both Trae Young and Collin Sexton are at a higher-level and have more long-term upside than Gilgeous-Alexander, no matter what LeBron James decides to do in free agency this offseason. There are a lot of question marks about how Gilgeous-Alexander’s game will translate to the NBA level on both ends of the floor, making him an obvious bust candidate out of the top point guards in this draft. If Cleveland wants to go with a guard with their first-round pick, there will be better options available in Young and Sexton and they could even look to a guy like Lonnie Walker ahead of Gilgeous-Alexander, though Walker wouldn’t be a point guard of the future in a scenario that sees James choose another team in free agency. Gilgeous-Alexander has the dangerous combination of an unplayable floor and star upside and missing on a top-ten pick in a draft as deep as this one would be very harmful for the Cavaliers long-term.