Why Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s free throws are down and what that means for the Thunder

Why Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s free throws are down and what that means for the Thunder

Whether it’s a defensive adjustment, a change in how drives are officiated or some combination of factors, it’s a notable difference for the OKC offense.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 3, 2023, 12:00pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 3, 2023, 12:00pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — With 4.6 seconds to play in a game at Cleveland last week, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped to the free-throw line and knocked down a pair of shots. 

They were notable free throws and not only because the Thunder star staked his team to a three-point lead that would prove the final margin. 

The foul shots were Gilgeous-Alexander’s first of the night, statistically significant for a player who last season got to the foul line an average of 10.9 times per game, the third-highest in the NBA. 

The two free throws Gilgeous-Alexander shot against the Cavaliers are a season low, but they’re indicative of a trend. Through five games, Gilgeous-Alexander — who will miss Friday’s game against Golden State with a sprained left knee — is getting to the foul line an average of five times a game. 

“It feels like defenders are allowed to be a little bit more physical this year,” Gilgeous-Alexander said Wednesday after a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in which he shot 4 for 5 from the free-throw line. “That’s just what it feels like. I don’t know, really. But yeah, I guess they’re doing a better job of not fouling this year.”

Whether it’s a defensive adjustment, a change in how drives are officiated or some combination of factors, it’s a notable difference for the OKC offense. 

In 68 games last season, Gilgeous-Alexander made 669 free throws, most in the NBA. That’s an average of 9.8 points per game at the line. This season, he’s made 23 free throws in five games, which averages out to 4.6 points. 

In a league where games often are decided by razor-thin margins, that’s a significant dip. 

It speaks to how important Gilgeous-Alexander’s free-throw shooting is to the Thunder offense. And that probably explains a change in the way defenses have approached him. 

“Let’s look in the mirror first,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I think opponents have done a good job of staying down on his shot fakes this year, as opposed to previous seasons. They seem to have adjusted on that. That seems to be an emphasis, because when he picks his dribble up, they’re doing a better job of just staying down and making him do something other than shoot a free throw.”

And these aren’t just pump fakes. 

Gilgeous-Alexander is “really crafty,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said and “being really disciplined” is a defensive key against him. 

The 6-foot-6 guard is adept at getting a defender off his feet with a shot fake or by planting his pivot foot and feinting a shot in one direction only to spin the other. 

The sixth-year guard “has a knack for getting to the foul line,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said, and that makes it critical for a team to “show your hands, be physical, but don’t put him at the foul line.” 

An example of that emphasis: Watch Cleveland’s Dean Wade on this possession. Gilgeous-Alexander turns inside into what could be a jump shot, then back out for what could be a fadeaway that’s become a pet move. 

Wade keeps his feet planted the entire time, avoiding a foul.

That kind of scouting-report discipline could account for some of the dip in Gilgeous-Alexander’s free-throw shooting. 

Daigneault thinks there’s more to it than just that. 

Gilgeous-Alexander leads the NBA in drives this season with 117, which entering Thursday night’s games was 24 more than his nearest competitor, the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson. 

And “most fouls come on direct drives,” Daigneault said. 

But entering Thursday, Gilgeous-Alexander had shot 12 free throws as a result of drives. Sixteen players in the NBA had taken that many or more. 

Prior to the Thunder’s game Monday against Detroit, Daigneault said Gilgeous-Alexander was being fouled on 2.4% of his drives this season as compared to 13.9% last season. 

“So his foul rate on drives was seven times higher last year, so I would expect that to course correct,” Daigneault said. “That’s a very, very stark difference. He’s also not finishing as well. He didn’t forget how to finish over the summer. So we’ll see.” 

Daigneault’s concerns aren’t limited to Gilgeous-Alexander. Through Wednesday’s games, the Thunder led the NBA in drives at 61.8 per game but ranked 14th in the league in free-throw attempts off drives at 6.2 per game. 

But Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers are most glaring, given his success at getting to the line last season. His current average of five free-throw attempts per game would be his lowest since 2018-19, when he was a rookie with the Clippers. 

After the Thunder’s loss last Sunday to the Denver Nuggets — a game in which he shot 2 for 16 from the floor and 3 for 4 at the free-throw line — Gilgeous-Alexander said he had “no clue” why he’s drawing fewer fouls. 

“I guess it’s just the way the game goes,” he said. “Sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don’t. It is what it is. I won’t change the way I play. I’ll try to do the same thing tomorrow and if I get ’em, I get ’em, and if not, I don’t.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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