Can Shai Gilgeous-Alexander join the NBA’s epic scoring charge?

Can Shai Gilgeous-Alexander join the NBA’s epic scoring charge?

Only 45 times in more than 130,000 NBA games had a player scored at least 62 points. Then it happened twice in the same day; four days after that, it happened twice again.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 31, 2024, 8:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 31, 2024, 8:00am CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — One minute into the Thunder-TrailBlazer game on Jan. 23, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored off a finger-roll layup. 

Twenty seconds later, Gilgeous-Alexander missed a driving layup. Eleven seconds after that, SGA scored on a driving layup.

With 10:03 left in the first quarter, Gilgeous-Alexander missed a 12-foot jumper. At 8:17, SGA hit a 10-foot turnaround jumper. Less than a minute later, Gilgeous-Alexander missed a pull-up 3-point shot. And finally at 7:02, SGA scored on a driving layup.

Less than five minutes into the game, Gilgeous-Alexander had taken seven shots.

SGA is the NBA’s third-leading scorer, 31.3 points a game, but a flurry of shots to start the game is not his norm.

The next night in San Antonio, Gilgeous-Alexander took two shots in the first five minutes. Friday night in New Orleans, it was two shots the first six minutes. Sunday in Detroit, four shots in the first 10 minutes. Monday night against Minnesota, three in virtually the first nine minutes.

So what was different about the Portland game? Why seven shots in less than five minutes?

Maybe it had to do with the day before, when Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid scored 70 points against San Antonio, and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns scored 62 points against Charlotte.

“It’s like the flu, man, one guy does it, then it’s contagious,” Minnesota center Rudy Gobert said. “Obviously, the level of talent in this league, it’s incredible.”

Historic offense

On the morning of January 22, the NBA had staged about 131,000 games in its 77-year history. Only 45 times had a player scored at least 62 points in a game.

Then it happened twice on the same day. Four days later, it happened twice again — Dallas’ Luka Doncic scored 73 points against Atlanta, and Phoenix’s Devin Booker scored 62 against Indiana.

What in the name of Wilt Chamberlain is going on? Chamberlain scored at least 62 points 23 times from March 1961 through February 1969. But other than Wilt, only Elgin Baylor thrice and Joe Fulks once reached 62 points before 1974.

Then last week, four players did it in 100 hours.

“I think as a fan, I would be really excited to be watching basketball on a daily basis,” said Towns, Minnesota’s 7-foot scoring whiz. “Feel like we’re giving the league that kind of excitement that has been lacking for awhile.”

Towns scored 60 points on March 14, 2022, against San Antonio. The next night, Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving scored 60 points against Orlando.

“Fifteen hours later, that got demolished,” Towns said with a laugh Monday night in a Paycom Center locker room. “The NBA script is not fair to me at all. That is crazy. I didn’t get no time to enjoy that.”

There seems little doubt that NBA superstars play a game of one-upmanship. These guys didn’t get to basketball’s highest level without a healthy dose of competitiveness.

Even a chill king like Gilgeous-Alexander can get sucked in. The Thunder side says SGA was not hunting a huge scoring night last week against Portland, but it was hard not to let your imagination take you down that path.

“He’s certainly not hunting it,” Mark Daigneault said of huge scoring games. “We’re not hunting it. I think those are things that just happen. You can’t predict it the day before it happens, and then it does. He’s focused on the team, he’s focused on the next game, he’s focused on trying to help the team win.”

But that Thunder-Blazer game seemed prime for an SGA explosion. OKC had routed Portland 139-77 a couple of weeks earlier. Gilgeous-Alexander is a remarkably efficient scorer, so an uptick in his shots will mean an uptick in his points. And the league was primed by Embiid and Towns.

But though SGA made four of those seven early shots, he missed his final three of the first quarter and settled back into being an efficient scorer. He finished with 33 points.

Daigneault agreed that SGA that night was much more aggressive early but not for 60-point purposes.

“I do agree with you, I think he early in games is trying to activate his teammates,” Daigneault said. “He still ends up with 10 points at the end of every first quarter, somehow. You look up, he’s got 10 points. But at the end of the day, he sees the big picture of the length of the game, he sees the big picture of the confidence of his teammates. I do think he starts games like that.

“I did notice that he was aggressive in that game. I didn’t ask him about it, but I didn’t interpret it as chasing points. We’re playing a team we had just beaten pretty badly, and that game had potential for a letdown. I interpreted his aggression as he was setting the tone for the team.”

SGA’s career high in points is 44. But that seems almost surely to be busted soon. Fifty surely is coming. Sixty is not out of the question.

“I wouldn’t count him out on anything, to be honest with you,” Daigneault said. “The one thing I’ve learned with him is don’t underestimate him on any one thing. He’s going to make the right plays. The team’s going to make the right plays. If that yields a big scoring night, it yields a big scoring night.”

Scoring explosion

So why the sudden explosion of 62-point scoring? Well, the easy answer is, points no longer are at a premium.

NBA teams this season are averaging 115.6 points per game. A mere 12 years ago, that average was 96.3.

That doesn’t fully explain the rash of 60-point individual games. Eight of the top 49 scoring games in NBA history have occurred in the 2020s.

Daigneault has a theory.

“I do think some of the numbers this month are related to the schedule,” the Thunder coach said. “I think the in-season tournament made this a very condensed January for almost everybody.

“I think some of the scoring you’re seeing, it’s been a gory month on the scoreboard some nights, and I think some of that, it’s fatiguing for every single team. Not everybody has it (energy) every night.”

Heck, sometimes the team with the huge scorer doesn’t have the energy. Towns’ 62? Minnesota still lost at home to lowly Charlotte. Booker’s 62? The Suns lost to the Pacers.

Towns credits talent for the rising scoring rate.

“The game and the league is more talented than it’s ever been, in my opinion,” said Towns, who is incredibly skilled at scoring in most every way possible. “Just the evolution, one of humans and two the evolution of the game, has led to more talent.

“Players especially gifted. The world’s more connected with phones and social media, so we’re able to find talent all around the world. Those 60balls, people overseas, by Giannis (Antetokounmpo, of Greece) and Luka (of Serbia), then 70 by the Cameroonian (Embiid), the league’s in a really good spot.”

But it’s more than that. Style of play has changed, and Timberwolves coach Chris Finch says it’s simple math.

Finch acknowledges the talent glut, particularly from those who can create their own shot, be they dead-eye shooters like Booker, marvel-like big men in Towns and Embiid, or massive point guards who dominate a game like Doncic.

But Finch also says there “always been great players in this league. Pace is up. Probably 25 possessions more a game per team per night, than in the ‘80s, ‘90s, even.”

Add in the 3-point shooting, which is volatile in accuracy but breeds massive amounts of points when the shooting is on target.

“Sometimes, you’re going to have nights where everything goes in, and it’s really hard to guard right now, individually, with the skill,” Finch said.

And remember, physical defense is not allowed nearly as much as a generation ago, particularly against ballhandlers.

So expect the scoring barrages to continue, from those who have reached such heights as 62 and those who haven’t. Maybe even expect them to come in waves.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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