Never mind the roundabouts on Alumni Drive. When it comes to circuitous paths, how Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got to Kentucky requires GPS, Google Maps and, just for old time’s sake, a sextant.
Born and raised in Canada. Exported to Tennessee to hone his basketball skills. Committed to Florida. Then a final 180-degree turn to Kentucky.
While here, there and everywhere, Gilgeous-Alexander kept an eye on UK.
“I’ve seen just about every game,” he said of Kentucky’s recent basketball history. “I watch a lot of college basketball. Every time Kentucky was on, I watched. It’s such a great program. I’ve always loved the way they play, so I’ve always watched them.”
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Gilgeous-Alexander did a lot of this watching from his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. It surely didn’t lessen his fascination with Kentucky that a fellow Canadian, Jamal Murray, played for UK in 2015-16. He has competed against Murray twice.
“He’s good,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He’s really good. There’s just some things in his game that are really special. And he really fit well here, and he got to where he wanted to go, and it was special to watch.”
Gilgeous-Alexander played for the 2016 Canadian Men’s U18 National Team that won the silver medal in the FIBA Americas event. He averaged 7.8 points, a tournament-best 5.4 assists and 3.0 steals.
To improve his chances of getting where he wanted to go, Gilgeous-Alexander moved to Chattanooga for his junior and senior years of high school. At 17, he left everything he knew in hopes of making a basketball dream come true.
“I just thought I needed to play better competition …,” he said.
Of leaving home, family and friends, he said, “It was a little bit challenging at first, but my host family made it really welcoming. Before I knew it, it felt like home and it was an easy process.”
As a junior, Gilgeous-Alexander committed to Florida.
“I figured it was a good situation for me at the time,” he said. “And I loved the coaching staff, and stuff like that. And I just felt comfortable coming into that.”
A breakout senior season made Gilgeous-Alexander reconsider. He averaged 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
“I developed as a player a lot faster than I thought,” he said. “What I want to do with the game, I re-evaluated, and my goals changed, and I had to make a decision.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s final five schools were Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Texas and UNLV. The impression UK Coach John Calipari made became the determining factor.
“As soon as he came into the gym and talked to me, he was different from all the other coaches,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He was very straightforward with me, and he didn’t really tell me what I wanted to hear. He told me the truth. How brutal this process is going to be. At the same time, how much better I’d get.”
Gilgeous-Alexander (the hyphenated name is in tribute to his mother and father, who are divorced) might play point guard at times.
“Shai is not like a pure (point guard),” Calipari said. “Shai can run the point. He’s good, but he’s more of a ‘I’m going to try to get some baskets. I’m going to break this off’ … He’s not to the level of Quade (Green). But here’s this kid: 6-5. He’s long. He can go get baskets. He’s got kind of an old man’s game.”
Gilgeous-Alexander likes to draw, a hobby he traces back to being sent to his room as a child and having to find something to do.
“I just got better and better at it, and then it became a little fun to me,” he said. “So I started doing it in all my spare time.”
Yes, he said, he could draw a likeness of Calipari.
“If I see a picture, yeah, probably,” he said. “It won’t be the greatest, best detail, but I could draw a little something up.”