A couple of hours before his game at the Marshall County Hoop Fest was scheduled to begin Friday evening, UK basketball signee Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made his way out of his team’s locker room to get a look at the court he would playing on.
Before he got halfway there, he was intercepted by a kid in a UK shirt looking for an autograph.
“Ever since I signed with Kentucky, I’ve had to get used to it,” Alexander said with a smile. “There’s a lot of fans.”
There was a lot of blue in the Marshall County High School bleachers Friday, and Alexander was the main attraction for most in attendance.
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The only UK recruit at this year’s Hoop Fest, Alexander went 8-for-19 from the field and scored 21 points to go with six rebounds and two assists, but his Hamilton Heights (Tenn.) squad fell 72-62 to talented Prolific Prep (Calif.).
Still, Alexander showed why John Calipari wanted him to be a Wildcat.
His composure is unbelievable. He’s a great decision maker. He loves to share the ball. He limits turnovers, and he’s great at making plays and finding other people.
Zach Ferrell, Hamilton Heights (Tenn.) head coach
The 6-foot-5 point guard excels at getting to the basket, and he did plenty of that Friday, playing against a Prolific Prep backcourt that features five-star point guard Paul Scruggs and five-star shooting guard Gary Trent Jr.
The night before, Alexander led Hamilton Heights to a hard-earned victory over nationally ranked Memphis East in a game that was shown on ESPN2.
“I think he’s been great,” said his coach, Zach Ferrell. “As he’s continued to grow over the past year, he’s just gotten more and more confident. He’s been great for us. Very aggressive. Very consistent, and he just keeps getting better every game.”
Alexander — a native of Hamilton, Ontario — came to the United States before last season in search of better competition and an opportunity to develop his growing game. He committed to Florida last November but backed out of that pledge a couple of months ago, and UK was one of the first schools to show interest.
In a matter of weeks, he was one of Calipari’s four early signees for the 2017 class.
“It was Coach Cal’s initial approach when he came to talk to me,” Alexander said. “He told me that Kentucky is not for everybody, and you’re going to have to be able to fight through a lot of adversity and a lot of distractions and compete every day.
“But you will get better and maximize your potential at Kentucky, and I feel like that’s what I want to do.”
There’s an awful lot of potential to work with.
Alexander — the No. 46 senior in the Scout.com rankings — has grown two inches in the past year and has great size for a point guard. He uses his length (a 6-10 ½ wingspan) well and shows a great sense for drawing defenders his way and then getting a pass to open teammates. He can also score from all three levels.
“He has a lot of upside, and he’s just scratching the surface of who he can be as a player,” said Scout.com’s Evan Daniels. “I think he’s going to be a good fit at Kentucky.”
His scoring ability has really picked up in recent months.
Ferrell said that when Alexander first got to Hamilton Heights, he rarely looked to create opportunities for himself.
“He was very much pass-only. Not even pass-first, but pass-only,” he said. “And through us, he’s really been able to gain a confidence in his offensive game and his ability to score. And then add that to his ability to facilitate. I think that’s what’s been really able to raise his confidence.”
There’s been some discussion in recruiting circles as to whether Alexander is better at the point guard or shooting guard position. Ferrell has no doubt about where he fits best.
“My opinion is he’s a point guard. Period,” he said. “He’s great with the ball in his hands. His composure is unbelievable. He’s a great decision-maker. He loves to share the ball. He limits turnovers, and he’s great at making plays and finding other people.”
At UK, he’ll likely be playing quite a bit off of the ball, at least at the beginning of his college career. The Wildcats also signed five-star point guard Quade Green — arguably the best floor leader in high school basketball — in the early period, and Alexander and Green will be sharing a backcourt next season.
Alexander called Green “a great player” and said he looked forward to playing with him. Ferrell said he thinks playing off the ball will allow Alexander to improve on some other aspects of his game.
“My confidence is in Coach Cal,” he said. “Last year, they go with (Jamal) Murray, (Isaiah) Briscoe and (Tyler) Ulis — those are all three ball-dominant point guards coming out of high school. They all played together.”
Ferrell, who’s also well familiar with Green’s game, then grinned at the thought of UK’s future backcourt.
“Cal’s been doing this for a long time. I think he’ll be just fine making it work.”