EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Let’s get one thing straight about the 2017-18 Kentucky basketball team: freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not its “sleeper.” By definition, he cannot be.
That has been the most popular word used to describe the 6-foot-6 Canadian combo guard with a 7-foot wingspan since he signed with the Wildcats, but it simply doesn’t fit anymore — if it ever did, considering he was ranked as high as the No. 20 overall recruit in the Class of 2017.
At some point, when you’ve been repeatedly hyped as a player to watch, you are no longer a sleeper.
“I hadn’t really seen him play,” freshman forward PJ Washington told me this summer. “He’s outstanding. I’ve never seen a point guard as big as him who gets everybody involved like him. I feel like a lot of people are sleeping on him, a lot of people don’t know how good he is, and he’s going to surprise a lot of people this year.”
But by now, if you’re shocked when Gilgeous-Alexander becomes a major playmaker and key piece for these Wildcats, that’s on you. That means you haven’t been listening. Over the last several months, everyone from recruiting gurus, to former UK stars like Rex Chapman to current players like Washington to coach John Calipari has done a fine job letting that Cat out of the bag.
McDonald’s All-American freshman Quade Green, the presumed starter at point guard, and Gilgeous-Alexander “are competing,” Calipari said last week, noting that the two are alternating first-team reps in practice. “It’s a great battle … and they can play together, by the way, because Shai is big.”
Maybe the better word for Gilgeous-Alexander is “tweener.” Or, better still, “positionless.” He could play point guard, shooting guard or even small forward, really, with his length and skillset. It’s hard to say exactly where he fits best, and that is the closest thing there is to a knock on the kid.
“He’s got kind of an old man’s game,” Calipari said. “He has step-throughs, he has flip shots, he has an ability to get to the basket.”
The young man does not mind the old man label.
“It’s cool,” he said, “to know I have a different game than a lot of other guys.”
Oh, and the wiry Gilgeous-Alexander, 182 pounds and just 6.2 percent body fat at UK’s recent pro day, is just now starting to pack on some real muscles for the first time in his life. That is adding a new wrinkle to his game.
“He’s so long and lanky, [but] he’s gained 10 pounds, so now he’ll try to bully you a little bit,” Calipari said, “which he never did before.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is an accomplished getter of buckets but also a crafty defender, using those long arms to harass ball handlers and reach into passing lanes for deflections that lead to the kind of highlight-reel dunks these Wildcats are likely to throw down quite often.
Teammates know all of this now, but they were indeed surprised to see his full bag of tricks when practices began.
“I think coming from Canada, not a lot of people got to see what I can do, what I can bring to the table,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Being on this type of stage will show a lot of guys, and that’s what I’ve been able to do with my teammates. Eventually, it’ll show to the rest of the nation.”
The funny thing is, had he gone somewhere else, somewhere that a consensus top-40 recruit would be the jewel of a recruiting class rather than an afterthought on a roster full of 5-stars and burger boys, no one would be using the word “sleeper” to describe Gilgeous-Alexander. He knows that, too.
Had he signed with Florida, where he originally committed, he would’ve been the highest-rated recruit the Gators signed in three years. He would’ve been the focal point. So why come to Kentucky and risk getting lost in the shuffle?
“Because ultimately it’s going to make me better. It’s going to challenge me every day,” he said. “[Calipari] told me Kentucky is different and it’s not for everybody and you’re going to have to work your butt of and it’s going to be a grind — but eventually it’ll be worth it. And that’s what I wanted to do: grind every day and become the best me.”
If you’re sleeping on that, it’s time to wake up.
More 2017-18 Kentucky previews
- PJ Washington has ‘ridiculous’ arms, ‘relentless’ style
- How football got 5-star Kevin Knox to Kentucky
- Freshman PG Quade Green already leading young Cats
- Teammates: Hamidou Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Jarred Vanderbilt is out
- John Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter