Moments after Kentucky won the Southeastern Conference tournament title in March, league commissioner Greg Sankey asked coach John Calipari who were his captains so he could present them the trophy.
Trouble was, during a season of constant evolution for the youngest team he’d ever coached, Calipari hadn’t gotten around to picking captains. For the longest time, he wasn’t quite sure who to trust with that responsibility. But one of the players he sent to collect the hardware was freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who by that time had become de facto captain.
“He [became] that guy because of how he works, how he performs, how he finishes games,” Calipari said the next week during the NCAA Tournament. “Players are now looking to him. The best way to have captains is kind of [let them] evolve versus ‘I'm naming you a captain.’ I'd rather it be that way.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot-6 point guard from Canada, was the least heralded recruit in Kentucky’s 2017 class. Of the seven players signed by Calipari and his staff, five were rated five-star prospects and Gilgeous-Alexander, a consensus four-start recruit, was ranked seventh among them. That he wound up having the biggest impact on the team was no surprise to people who know him best.
Raised by demanding parents — his mother, Charmaine Gilgeous, was on Canada’s Olympic track team and sends her son text message critiques of his play after every game — Gilgeous-Alexander developed mental toughness and the willingness to be coached. Calipari doesn’t go easy on his players, but nothing he threw at the young guard did anything but strengthen his resolve to improve and take his place as the Wildcats’ leader.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s journey to stardom at Kentucky began in his native Canada, but continued in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Zach Ferrell has built a prep powerhouse at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. Wanting to test his ability against better players, Gilgeous-Alexander came to the U.S. in the summer of 2015. Unheralded at the time, it took just a couple of months for him to begin attracting interest from power conference schools. Florida’s Mike White was the first to offer a scholarship.
Asked what attracted him to Gilgeous-Alexander, White quickly offered a brief, but on point answer.
“His length, hands, touch, steadiness, and communication skills,” White said.
Gilgeous-Alexander committed to the Gators, but White and his staff knew it would be another year before they could lock him up with signed scholarship papers. A lot could happen in that time, and it did.
In July 2016, Gilgeous-Alexander earned a spot on Canada’s U18 team that competed in the FIBA Americas Championship and won the silver medal. He averaged 7.8 points, but more important, a tournament-high 5.4 assists and 3.0 steals. By October, he decided to reopen his commitment. He’d been a fan of Calipari’s Kentucky teams, and reached out to Calipari before the latter could contact him. By Halloween, he received an offer from Kentucky. Two weeks later, he was a Wildcat.
NBA scouts quickly realized that among the talent Calipari had collected, Gilgeous-Alexander was different. Calipari told the press he had an “old man’s,” game, meaning old school, in a good way. Oscar Robertson used to say that if his opponent gave him a 15-foot shot, he’d look for a 10-footer, and if he had a 10-footer, he’d seek a five-footer, and if he had that, well, why not go get a layup? That was Gilgeous-Alexander.
There were other plusses, too. With his height and wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander could guard multiple positions, and he was a willing defender. And when he started showing everyone he could score at a high level, he shot up draft boards.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s 24 points against Louisville — “Shai was ridiculous,” Cal said — were an eye opener. And as the season progressed, more often than not, it was Gilgeous-Alexander — who averaged 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, a team-high 5.10 assists, a team-high 1.6 steals and shot 40.4 from 3 — who carried the Wildcats. They endured a four-game losing streak during the first two weeks of February, but after Calipari made a couple of adjustments, allowing his players to focus more on attacking the basket and scoring than micro-managing them on defense, Kentucky took off.
The Wildcats rebounded with four straight wins, lost at Florida in their season finale, then won three games in three days to capture their fourth straight SEC Tournament title. Gilgeous-Alexander had his fingerprints all over the trophy well before Sankey handed it to him — in the title game against Tennessee he collected 29 points, seven boards, three assists and two steals. He was an easy pick for tournament MVP.
Kentucky continued that momentum into the NCAA Tournament, though its run was cut short in the Sweet 16. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 20.3 points.
Asked during the NCAAs to explain how he took over such a talented team, SGA attributed it to accepting Calipari’s coaching.
“About midpoint during the season, I watched a lot of film,” he said. “I was really taking what coach was asking of me, what this team needed me to do. I just tackled it. Once I cleared that role out, I worked on my game and got better every day.”
Though Kentucky fell short of its goal to win the national championship, Gilgeous-Alexander more than demonstrated he was worthy of a lottery pick. And a coach who worked with him longer than Calipari, Hamilton Heights’ Ferrell, thinks he knows how Gilgeous-Alexander will be utilized at the next level.
“I think he’s a point guard,” Farrell said. “Through and through. I’ve never known him to be anything but a point guard. He came to Kentucky and people were saying he’s a combo. They must have watched some film or seen something that I didn’t see the last couple of years.”
Farrell has his reasons for projecting Gilgeous-Alexander as a point.
“He’s got incredible feel off the ball screen, which is so much what the NBA is; he can really get to the basket,” Farrell said. “If you saw Kentucky this year — if their kids were making outside shots, you weren’t beating them. If they were making outside shots and you had to stay with them, that means Shai was getting to the basket every time.
“[In the NCAA Tournament] Buffalo stayed with Kentucky’s shooters more and Shai lit them up [27 points on 10-of-12 shooting]. But Kansas State [which beat the Wildcats in the Sweet 16] said ‘you’re not getting to the basket, guys are going to have to make shots.’ In the NBA, it’s not going to be that. Shea’s position at the point will give him some phenomenal opportunities to create for others or get to the rim.”
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