Could Doc Rivers really be losing faith in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

LA Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander appears to have hit the rookie wall, though it may not be entirely his fault.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the 11th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, started his rookie season off better than any of us could have imagined with the LA Clippers.

After starting the year on the bench, Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup just nine games into the season. In a way, he had forced Doc Rivers‘ hand — his numbers were impressive so far, especially for a rookie — but the pairing of Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley ultimately seemed to be what caused it. The two were playing great defense, but couldn’t get anything done on offense.

Right, Gilgeous-Alexander’s intelligence and playmaking ability looked to pay off, as the LA Clippers won 10 of the first 12 games that he started in. That includes the five-game win streak in mid-November, when the Clippers rattled off consecutive wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

During that time, the rook posted averages of 12.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists across 30.3 minutes per game, according to Basketball-Reference. Solid numbers, yes, especially for a 20-year-old that was barely beginning his NBA career. But it wasn’t just his numbers that were impressive — during this same stretch of 12 games, the Clippers posted a point differential of +58 against teams with a combined record of 94-100 (remove the 4-17 Phoenix Suns and 3-14 Atlanta Hawks from that group, and that number looks a whole lot better).

But then, for no clear reason, Gilgeous-Alexander’s minutes took a hit. To put it into perspective, I’ll break things down by groups of 20 games.

In Gilgeous-Alexander’s first 20 games, he logged 30+ minutes four different times. He also logged at least 28 minutes seven other times. Most importantly, though, he played less than 20 minutes just one time — a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Let’s move on to the next 20. In this stretch, which took place from November 29 to January 8, Gilgeous-Alexander again logged four games with 30 or more minutes. But after that, the numbers significantly drop down. This time, there were just two games with at least 28 minutes logged, and four games where he played less than 20. The rest, then, all fall somewhere in the low-20s.

Admittedly, the rookie fell into early foul trouble in a few of those under-20 games, but that wasn’t always the case. More often than not, we’ll see Shai for a majority of the first quarter, and then again later for some of the third and fourth quarters, but rarely more than that.

His shooting numbers support this, too. So far this season, Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted 110 shots in the first quarter, 61 in the second, 93 in the third and 60 in the fourth. Judging by that alone, you’d think he’s almost exclusively playing with the starters.

He’s also attempting an overwhelming majority of those shots early in each quarter. 182 of his shot attempts have come with more than six minutes left in a quarter, while only 64 have come in the final three minutes of a quarter.

By the looks of these numbers alone, it becomes apparent that Gilgeous-Alexander either isn’t getting many late-quarter minutes, or just isn’t taking shots during that time. Both are true, but it’s mostly the former.

So does Rivers trust his rookie in important moments, or not? Because judging by these numbers, it certainly doesn’t look that way.

This is something that we’ve seen Rivers struggle with in the past. Year after year, players like Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox received little-to-no minutes in favor of aging veterans. They both went on to have varying degrees of success, and while neither was/is a star, they had a chance to be consistent role players in LA.

Gilgeous-Alexander looks to be a far more special player than Bullock and Wilcox both were. If he’s already getting his minutes weaned off, there’s no telling what his place in the rotation will be by season’s end.

Then again, there may not even be a reason to panic. We know now that Jerome Robinson was drafted because of his long-term potential, and most of the players that have been favored over Gilgeous-Alexander lately are in the final year of their contracts. Assuming he becomes LA’s full-time point next season, there’s really no harm done here.

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If the trend continues beyond this season, though, then we may have a much bigger issue on our hands.

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