UK Men's Basketball

Memo to new Hornets GM: Draft Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) took a shot past Buffalo’s Ikenna Smart during second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday.
Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) took a shot past Buffalo’s Ikenna Smart during second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday. aslitz@herald-leader.com

There is nothing the Charlotte Hornets need more than a reliable backup/eventual replacement for Kemba Walker at point guard.

That guy is a Canadian, by way of a Chattanooga, Tenn., high school. He has Walker’s ability to get to the rim with ease, and he has something Walker emphatically lacks: Exceptional height and length.

If Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is around for the Hornets’ lottery pick in June, grab him.

Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t even a starter early this season on a Kentucky team annually loaded with phenomenal freshmen. But, in the assessment of Wildcats Coach John Calipari, he’s now one of the best in college basketball.

In Saturday’s second-round NCAA Tournament game, Gilgeous-Alexander spun Buffalo’s guards every which way in scoring 27 points. He made 10 of 12 shots from the field — most of them layups — and finished with six assists and six rebounds.

He’s 6-6 and has a 7-foot wingspan. And the best thing he does is play defense. What’s not to like?

Photos from the 2017-2018 Kentucky basketball season of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Music: www.bensound.com

Calipari has compared Gilgeous-Alexander to one of his all-time favorites, Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, for Gilgeous-Alexander’s work habits. When Kidd-Gilchrist was at Kentucky, he started the “Breakfast Club,” rousting teammates up early to scrimmage and lift weights at sun-up.

Gilgeous-Alexander, who has been mentored by Canadian basketball great Steve Nash, adopted those early hours for extra refinement.

“This kid goes at 7 a.m. (And) he also watches tape. He’ll go up and show me turnovers. What he was missing was any kind of skip (pass, finding a teammate beyond the nearest option). He couldn’t see it,” Calipari recalled.

Gilgeous-Alexander is hard on himself. He says his parents (his mom competed in track at the 1992 Summer Olympics) raised him to be self-critical which, by the way, is how two-time All-Star Walker was also raised. But Gilgeous-Alexander is also positive in a way that is hard to dent. Calipari recalls that when Kentucky was stumbling at 7-7 in the SEC, Gilgeous-Alexander was sometimes the only player pumping up the others.

“The other guys on this team two months ago, everything was a struggle,” Calipari recalled. “This kid was just smiling and laughing. I kept bringing it up: ‘Be like him! Happy-go-lucky!’”

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said the team knew Buffalo players had said they could disrupt Kentucky.

A bit cocky, too. Anyone in the crowd not from Kentucky was rooting intensely for underdog Buffalo. When Gilgeous-Alexander hit a three late in the second half, he theatrically held his finger to his mouth in the “shush” sign.

“I’m a competitor. The crowd was pro-Buffalo,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I just wanted to silence them. I let them know.”

Buffalo is far from a prominent college-basketball program, but this team had terrific defensive guards. They challenged Gilgeous-Alexander with ball pressure, and he unraveled everything they attempted.

“I’ve seen a bunch of defenses in my life. I don’t think their defense affected me much today.

“When teams guard me like that, I’m coming.”

He’s coming to the NBA Draft. If he’s there when the Hornets select, don’t let him slip by.

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