Thunder: Disputing the 'free-throw merchant' narrative for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Why the rapidly spreading 'free throw merchant' narrative for Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander makes no sense when examining the numbers.
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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sits soundly in the MVP conversation given his stellar individual numbers and the sparkling 47-20 record the OKC Thunder boast. It’s not all peaches and cream for the star guard, however, as the narrative that he’s a "free-throw merchant" is taking root across fan bases throughout the NBA.

What does this narrative entail? Is there any truth to the allegations? 

Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seen as 'free-throw merchant'

When breaking down the label, it leads to two essential questions about the player. First, is he racking up free throw attempts at an abnormal rate? Second, does he rely on trips to the line to be effective as a scorer?

If the answer is a firm no to these pillar questions, then it’s both ludicrous and slanderous to attach the label to the Thunder guard.

SGA ranks third across the NBA in free throw attempts per game and seventh in percentage of total points via free throws. He gets to the line and he gets there often.

However, his shot profile lends itself to drawing fouls. 

Not only does Gilgeous-Alexander take the seventh most paint field goal attempts per game, but he easily leads the league in drives per game. In fact, the MVP candidate averages a whopping five more drives per game than second place, Jalen Brunson.

Plus, his interior shots are the result of quick downhill attacks that force defenders to have perfect timing while running full speed. Factor in his frequent pump fakes and counters and it’s incredibly difficult for defenders to contest without fouling. 

Essentially, his raw free throw numbers do not accurately tell the whole story because his immense volume must be considered.

As for rate stats, of the 62 players with at least 500 drives this season, SGA is 14th in free throw attempts per drive and 13th in free throw attempts per drive field goal attempt. Meanwhile, of the 69 players with at least 400 paint field goal attempts, he ranks 12th in free throw attempts per paint field goal attempt. 

In summation, his playing style and volume explain the large number of free throws -- the rate stats refute the notion that he receives unique treatment from the officials.

At just over 23 points per game, Gilgeous-Alexander averages the fourth most points per game excluding free throws. He hardly needs them to make an impact given his elite shot creation and exceptional efficiency.

17 players currently average at least 25 points per game across the NBA, and SGA ranks fifth among the group in effective field goal percentage behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.

In other words, he’s the most efficient high-volume guard. 

To dive in further, few players are superior all-around scorers to the Thunder superstar. The only other talents to clear the 60 field goal percentage in the paint, a 45 midrange field goal percentage, a 45 corner three-point percentage, and a 35 above the break three-point percentage are Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Durant, who is universally hailed as one of if the not the purest scorer in league history. 

Overall, it’s both lazy and incorrect to label Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a free throw merchant given the rate stats and scoring efficiency. With the playoffs around the corner, he has a prime chance to prove it on the biggest stage too.  

*All stats via