LEXINGTON, Ky. — Enjoy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for however long this NCAA Tournament run lasts, Kentucky fans, because when it’s over his college career almost certainly is, too.
That wasn’t really the plan, to join John Calipari’s long list of one-and-dones, but the 19-year-old Canadian and his “old-man game” have simply been too good.
“Everyone is looking for that first-round guarantee, and he has at least that now,” said Mike Schmitz, NBA draft analyst for ESPN, after watching Gilgeous-Alexander in person for three days at the SEC Tournament. “It would surprise me if he’s at Kentucky next year.
“It wouldn’t completely shock me if he ends up being the best point guard to come out of this draft.”
As you consider that statement, also consider this: Gilgeous-Alexander once was considered the seventh-best recruit Kentucky signed in the 2017 class. He was ranked the No. 31 overall prospect nationally in the 247Sports composite. He started two of the Wildcats’ first 15 games this season.
“Shai is a guy who came in there without the same fanfare or hype the other guys had, but his mentality was, ‘I’m just as good as anybody in the country.’ And he’s proven that,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said. “He’s one of the two or three best guards in the country. If there’s guys out there better than him, I’d like to see them.”
Gilgeous-Alexander was the Wildcats’ best player during the second half of the regular season, but he took his game to another level last week at the SEC Tournament. His assists were up and turnovers down (20 of the former, 5 of the latter in three games), and he seemed to make every right decision — give it up or keep it, drive it or shoot it — in leading Kentucky to a fourth consecutive conference title.
He earned MVP honors after averaging 21 points, 6.7 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.7 steals, including a superstar performance in the championship game against Tennessee: 29 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. He hit 10 of 16 shots, 2 of 3 3s, 7 of 7 free throws.
“I was just really impressed with his ability to manage the game,” Schmitz said.
Gilgeous-Alexander came to the Cats considered a combo guard. He expected to play off the ball, but he surpassed McDonald’s All-America point guard Quade Green to become “legitimately a point guard, which makes him a lot more interesting at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan. I was impressed with his poise — doesn’t seem like he ever gets rattled — and the way he gets other guys involved,” Schmitz added.
“Also his level of craft. He’s not a great shooter [although 40 percent from 3-point range this season won’t raise red flags] and he’s not the most explosive physical guy, but he always gets to his spots and has a great package of finishing skills: right hand, left hand, floaters, all those deceptive, goofy-footed finishes that are so important at the NBA level.”
Not even on draft boards in October, Gilgeous-Alexander is in the mix to be a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. ESPN has him going 13th overall in its latest mock, higher than teammate Kevin Knox (15th), who had been penciled into the lottery since before he arrived at Kentucky.
Gilgeous-Alexander was a projected multi-year player for the Wildcats, maybe a quality backup this season who could grow into something more over time. Instead, he started showing up for 7 a.m. workouts and film sessions in December — it took months for any of his teammates to catch on and join him — and used hard work to bridge any gap between his talent and the others.
“He’s blossomed because of it,” Calipari said. “What a great lesson for the rest of my players. Do you wonder what he’s doing? He didn’t come in as our best player. This is his approach. How about you? So these guys respect what he’s doing.”
There have been missteps, sure. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged almost twice as many turnovers in Kentucky’s losses as in its wins. He is so confident in his ability to get to the rim and finish that at times he will drive into traffic, pick up his dribble and cough up the ball.
He turned it over five times in the regular-season finale at Florida — but then had 17 assists and 2 turnovers in the Cats’ first two games at the SEC Tournament.
“He’s not been in this position much, where we’re putting the ball in his hands,” Calipari said. “He will miss guys sometimes, but he’s gotten so much better. It’s taken film and practice and talks and 1-on-1s. The kid is a great kid in trying to do the right thing. He will come up and watch film with the coaches, wants to know where his turnovers are, what he’s got to do better.”
There is no better coaching staff for a young point guard with NBA dreams to lean on. Going back to his Memphis days, nine Calipari guards have been picked in the lottery during the last decade: No. 1 Derrick Rose (2008), No. 1 John Wall (2010), No. 4 Tyreke Evans (2009), No. 5 De’Aaron Fox, No. 6 Jamal Murray (2016), No. 6 Dajuan Wagner (2002), No. 8 Brandon Knight (2011), No. 11 Malik Monk and No. 13 Devin Booker (2015).
Six months ago, Gilgeous-Alexander did not seem like a guy who belonged on that list. Now he does.
“NBA guys I talked to who were [at the SEC Tournament] were really impressed,” Schmitz said. “He’s the safest pick among the guards at the top of this draft. He’ll have to improve his shooting and he’ll have to get stronger before he can guard NBA 2s and 3s, but you can throw him in an NBA game right now and he’s going to make the right reads. He’s going to use that craftiness to survive.”
Kentucky fans hope that Gilgeous-Alexander will use those skills to help the fifth-seeded Wildcats (24-10) survive and advance for three more weeks, starting Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against 12th-seeded Davidson. Whenever that ride ends, don’t expect Calipari to beg him to stay.
The plan never was for Gilgeous-Alexander to be one-and-done, rather at some point down the line to “succeed and proceed,” as Calipari likes to say. But the kid grew up quick.
“I’m happy for him,” the coach said. “I’m happy for he and his family. Mom’s a great lady, raised her son right.”
Down comes that net. pic.twitter.com/mXi4HQJHx9
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) March 11, 2018