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UK Basketball Preview: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t just bench depth

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be just a role player this year.

Jeremy Chisenhall

When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander committed to Kentucky as a four-star recruit, experts everywhere said he’d be a great threat off the bench to come in behind expected starting point guard Quade Green.

It’s rare for a 4-star recruit that was named Third-Team All-USA by USA Today being a projected bench player when going to a school that lost every starting guard it had. But he’s not a five-star All-American that table-sets the way Green does, so it wasn’t a surprise.

But something tells me Alexander has other plans. The kid had offers from Florida and Butler, two schools with multiple Final Four appearances in the last decade, as well as Texas. He could’ve been an impact player from day one on any of those rosters and helped propel them just about as far as Kentucky may go this year.

If Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t think he could be a starting guard here, there’s a good chance he would have gone elsewhere.

He’s not here to just add bench depth. And that’s evidenced by the current battle going on between him and Green for that starting point guard spot.

“He could start,” head coach John Calipari said of Shai. “Quade is doing fine, too, but they’re competing for that. And I would say they’re both going to play.”

And it’s not just his coach that has been impressed, but teammates too.

“He surprised me over the summer and he’s just kept it rolling ever since,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “He’s really into this. His focus is right. He’s got the length, all you need. Cal tells him every practice, ‘You have a 7-foot wingspan.’ He’s a talented player and he can shoot the ball. He’s still learning the game, just like the rest of us.”

Speaking of that 7-foot wingspan, it’s apart of Alexander’s athletic build that’s just as unique as his hair.

Shai takes long and slender to the extreme, standing 6-6, 180 lbs, with that 7-foot wingspan. That height gives him the ability to play both guard spots, which will allow him to play regardless of whether or not Green starts at the point.

There’s little that he can’t do on the floor. He’s quick with the ball in transition, he can drive and kick well (a major aspect of Calipari’s dribble-drive offense) and his shot has range (he won the 3-point competition at the Derby Festival Classic).

The only thing holding him back is his strength. Alexander, like the guards before him at Kentucky last season, isn’t exactly a bulky guy. But we saw last year what Kentucky’s strength and conditioning program can do to players’ muscle mass, and if he puts in the work in the weight room, Shai will come out of Kentucky with the perfect physical archetype as a combo guard.

Shai thrived in high school, averaging 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4 assists per game. He’s played at the international level, too. He averaged a tournament-best 5.4 assists at the 2016 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, playing for Team Canada.

At the end of the day, Calipari is going to have a situation both similar and different to last season when it comes to his guards, including Alexander. He ran three guards last year: De’Aaron Fox at the 1, Malik Monk at the 2 and Isaiah Briscoe at the 3. All three of them could have played the point.

This year, I find it highly likely that Green, Alexander and Hamidou Diallo all start together. The difference is that Green is the only true point guard. The other two will look to score for themselves. When Green is on the floor they’ll benefit greatly from his ability to set the table. When he’s not running the point they’ll be able to showcase their athleticism (and Alexander’s shooting range) with the ball in their hands.

Shai is ready to not only play for Kentucky, but be a significant contributor that works his way into this lineup. He might start over Green, he might be a two guard, he might be a sixth man, he might even be a hybrid small-ball small forward, but regardless of how it happens Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be a critical difference maker on this team.

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