In college basketball recruiting, stars by your name matter. More so than in any other sport, college basketball recruiting rankings are reliable and, for the most part, accurate.
It’s become the habit of Kentucky fans and media to brush off a recruit if he isn’t a five-star top twenty talent. And can anyone really blame us? Under John Calipari, the bar for recruiting has been set at an unprecedented level. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl Anthony Towns have all played here. All of them were blue-chippers.
But every once in a while Cal will grab a guy that flies under the radar. Tyler Ulis comes to mind. Ulis was Cal’s second choice behind Emmanuel Mudiay. Ulis was a four star point guard that suffered the wrath of recruitniks because of his size.
Once Ulis actually played for Kentucky, perception changed. So much so, that his second year he firmly established himself as the best point guard in the country, a first team All American, and an NBA draft pick.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is similar in the fact that he wasn’t Cal’s first choice as a point guard and he was a four star recruit that was an afterthought. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All American. He didn’t play in the Jordan Brand Classic. He did play in the Nike Hoops Summit... for Canada.
SGA played in the little known Derby Classic in Louisville last season. He was the lone Kentucky recruit in an event that caters to Louisville and Indiana commits. The game featured highly touted Louisville recruits Malik Williams, Darius Perry, and Jordan Nwora.
I watched the game and it was the first time that I really got to see what kind of player Shai was and he did not disappoint. In the belly of the beast in front of a pro Louisville crowd, he put up 29 points, dished out 6 assists, grabbed 9 rebounds, blocked a shot, stole the ball twice, won the game, and was the resounding MVP.
Oh and he also won the three point competition.
This was his coming out moment for me, so it was of little surprise that his coming out moment in front of Big Blue Nation was against the Louisville Cardinals. He had already clowned the freshmen on the team, why not do the same to the rest of the squad?
He finished that game with a game high 24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and only one turnover. He was clearly the best player on the floor. He followed that performance with a 21 point, 5 rebound, 4 assist, 3 steal, one turnover game against Georgia.
After an underwhelming first half against LSU on the road, Shai took over the second half, going to the rim at will and dishing dimes to P.J. Washington for dunks. He finished that night with 18 points.
So what is it about this unheralded player from Canada that makes him so good? Being a 6-6 point guard with seven foot wingspan doesn’t hurt. But according to John Calipari, it’s his attitude.
Shai doesn’t get down on himself. He’s always smiling, even in tense moments. He doesn’t complain about coming off of the bench because by the end of the game he’s played as many minutes as anybody.
His confidence is growing by the game. At the beginning of the season, I winced anytime the ball was in his hands at the top of the key. Now there isn’t a player that I want controlling the ball in the closing minutes of a tight game more than him.
There’s a great deal to be confident about with numbers like these:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this year:— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 4, 2018
45% 3pt FG
Those percentages are crazy good. Like, one of the best point guards in the country good. Compare those stats to fellow freshmen, and much more heralded, point guards Trae Young and Trevon Duval:
- Young- FG: 47%, 3pt FG: 40%, FT: 86%
- Duval- FG: 46%, 3pt FG: 15%, FT: 62%
And to think, he isn’t being talked about as far as draft boards are concerned (yet) and there’s a good chance he could be back next season.
But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. He can still get better this season. With his attitude and work ethic, I have no doubt he will be better in March than he is now. He has the personality to drag others along with him. The combo of Shai and Quade Green on the court at the same time is proving to be a good mix for the Kentucky Wildcats.
As his confidence grows and his play improves, his team will also follow in his footsteps.