Kentucky basketball will have to move forward without this past season’s Mr. Indispensable.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who emerged as UK’s point guard and floor leader, announced Monday that he will enter his name in the June 21 NBA Draft.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who said he will end his college career by hiring an agent, is widely projected as a lottery pick in mock drafts: the 14th pick according to SI.com and the 12th pick by NBAdraft.net and ESPN.com.
Of course, Kentucky has plenty of experience replacing seemingly irreplaceable players. The school’s 24 first-round picks since 2010 include freshman point guards John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague and De’Aaron Fox.
UK Coach John Calipari spoke Monday of not only replacing Gilgeous-Alexander but trying to duplicate him.
“Shai’s development is a story I’ll tell our players for the rest of my career,” Calipari said in a news release. “When we talk about building your own confidence and conquering yourself, Shai is the perfect example. You’re talking about a kid who had the physical tools and had the potential to be in this position. But he elevated his game because he woke up at 7 a.m. every day to work out, was the best in the weight room, watched film and never missed class. …
“He’s done this because he’s put in the work. And it’s that attitude and mindset that will ensure his success at the next level.”
Gilgeous-Alexander became the third Kentucky player to announce he will enter this year’s draft. Earlier Kevin Knox said he would close the door on playing for UK next season by hiring an agent. PJ Washington kept alive the option of a sophomore season by saying he would not hire an agent.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called Gilgeous-Alexander “the most talented of the group” of UK players in the draft.
“And his game fits the NBA game very well because of his length (7-foot wingspan) and athleticism and ability to play the point guard position,” Bilas said. “He needs to improve his shooting. But he’s a very good defender and very good with the ball.”
Another ESPN analyst, Fran Fraschilla, complimented Gilgeous-Alexander by describing him as “more a basketball player and less an athlete.”
Former UK All-American Kenny Walker saw Gilgeous-Alexander joining Knox as likely lottery picks.
“A lot of good qualities there,” Walker said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “Tall point guard, which is a very big benefit. Very smart player. … Needs to gain a little weight.
“He had a good season. I don’t think anybody really anticipated how good this kid was. I like how he handled success. Very smart, cerebral player.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged 14.4 points, established himself as Kentucky’s point guard in early January. It quickly became apparent that UK’s fortunes would rise and fall depending on how he played.
In a 76-68 loss at South Carolina, Gilgeous-Alexander had no assists and six turnovers. He had 38 assists and 32 turnovers in seven losses as UK’s starting point guard.
“I think I got better each and every chance I got,” he said. “Every game I got better. Every practice I got better.”
So it did not seem coincidental that Kentucky won the Southeastern Conference Tournament with Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way. He averaged 21 points, five rebounds and 6.7 assists in being named SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player.
Gilgeous-Alexander led Kentucky to two NCAA Tournament victories in Boise, Idaho. He averaged 23 points and had almost a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio (13 assists, five turnovers).
Then Gilgeous-Alexander as the leading indicator of Kentucky’s fate repeated itself one final time. In UK’s loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16, he made only two of 10 shots while having as many turnovers (five) as assists (five).
Of his time at Kentucky, he said in the news release, “I’ve made memories here that I’ll take with me the rest of my life.”