For the last eight seasons, John Calipari has overseen college basketball’s most productive pro pipeline. He annually lures a group of the nation’s most coveted high schoolers to Lexington, molds them into cohesive units capable of making deep NCAA tournament runs and shuttles them off to the NBA draft. Thirty-one players have been drafted during Calipari’s run with the Wildcats, including 24 in the first round.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would have been the headliner of most programs’ recruiting classes, having been rated the No. 31 player overall and No. 2 combo guard in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite, but he was a mere afterthought in Kentucky’s nation-best 2017 haul. Including redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo, six players in the group were ranked higher than Gilgeous-Alexander, per the 247Sports Composite, and the only one ranked lower than him has yet to log a minute for the Wildcats because of an injury.
If Gilgeous-Alexander was headed down the one-and-done-to-lottery path that has become synonymous with Calipari stint at UK, it did not look like it in the fall. His reputation as a draft prospect tracked with his comparatively underwhelming recruiting pedigree. Five Kentucky players were listed on the Big Board that The Crossover’s Front Office put out in November, but Gilgeous-Alexander was not among them, and Sports Illustrated’s preseason projection model pegged him to average only 6.1 points per game.
That was clearly selling him short. Heading into Tuesday night’s meeting with Mississippi State, Gilgeous-Alexander ranks third on Kentucky at 14.3 points per game, leads the team with 4.3 assists per game and he’s gone off for at least 20 points three times since late December. Gilgeous-Alexander came off the bench for most of the Wildcats’ non-conference games, including when he scored only 10 points and committed nine turnovers across a pair of mid-November matchups with Vermont and Kansas, but in part because of an injury to their main alternative at point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander has been on the floor more than any of his teammates since the start of SEC play.
He’s not wasting the opportunity to show what he can do. With less than two months until the Big Dance, Gilgeous-Alexander has brought to the surface a question that would have been summarily dismissed before the season began: Is he Kentucky’s top draft prospect?
There is nothing about Gilgeous-Alexander that pops in same way that, say, De’Aaron Fox’s blurring quickness or Malik Monk’s volcanic scoring did. He’s an able scorer and facilitator, but not particularly great at either. Nor should he be considered a lights-out shooter at this stage. And though one of Gilgeous-Alexander’s comparisons from Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics website is UCLA product Jrue Holiday, it’d be surprising if Gilgeous-Alexander is ever starting at point guard for a playoff-contending team the season after signing a max deal.
What wouldn’t be surprising: NBA front offices buying into the idea of Gilgeous-Alexander as a productive role guy with offensive upside and defensive range who provides lineup flexibility. At a time when a rotation heavy on two-way players feels like a prerequisite for any team trying to get within shouting distance of the Warriors, Gilgeous-Alexander is particularly intriguing because he offers both legit backcourt skills and the potential to guard multiple positions. As far as comparisons go, you could do worse than Spurs guard Dejounte Murray.
Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t possess the burst to rush past most quality defenders, but he changes directions on a dime and uses stop-start dribbles to penetrate. Though his lack of top-end explosiveness limits him when attacking the basket, Gilgeous-Alexander’s long arms, willingness to absorb contact and at-the-rim craft enable him to navigate shot-blockers and finish. Watch him come off a ball screen and rev up for a blow-by, then spin past his defender and glide in for a contested, one-handed layup during a Jan. 3 win at LSU.
If Gilgeous-Alexander tops out as merely a passable offensive creator, it’s his upside on the other end of the floor that could turn him into a valuable rotation player. At Kentucky’s pro day in October, he measured at 6’6’’ in shoes with a 7-foot wingspan. That length is the foundation of the sort of defensive adaptability teams seek out for switch-heavy schemes. Gilgeous-Alexander may be able to guard 1 through 3 in the NBA, but his slender frame could make him vulnerable against stouter wings. (He weighed in at 182 pounds at the pro day.)
It’s not just Gilgeous-Alexander’s physical tools that make him one of the most interesting defensive prospects among guards in this draft class. He’s also disruptive off the ball, using his reach to get into passing lanes for steals and deflections, and engaged on the ball, moving his feet well and frustrating opponents with active hands. According to Sports Reference, no qualifying Kentucky guard during Calipari’s time in charge of the Wildcats has recorded a higher steal percentage than Gilgeous-Alexander’s 3.5 through 19 games this season.
In this first-half sequence (below) of Kentucky’s Dec. 29 win over Louisville, Gilgeous-Alexander rises up to tip a pass intended for Cardinals leading scorer Deng Adel, spins around and then gets down in his stance while approaching Adel beyond the three-point line. Gilgeous-Alexander does well to stay in front of the 6’7’’, 200-pound junior as he busts out a crossover and spin move before settling for an awkward, one-handed push shot near the end of the shot clock.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been Kentucky’s point guard for a good chunk of this season, but he may be better suited as an auxiliary ball handler at the next level. Though he looks comfortable facilitating out of pick and rolls, Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t a polished playmaker. He tends to get loose with the ball and has turned it over on 23.2% of his possessions in 2017-18. Against Tennessee here, Gilgeous-Alexander uses a pick to jet into the lane with a long runway, only to try an ill-advised dump off pass precipitating a fast break the other way.
One element of Gilgeous-Alexander’s game that’s difficult to evaluate at this point, but should continue to be monitored, is his shooting. Gilgeous-Alexander’s stroke is mechanical and a bit slow, but he’s canned 47.8% of his tries from beyond the arc this season, albeit over a really small sample (11-of-23). It’s worth noting that his work at the free-throw line, a strong indicator of three-point shooting at the next level, is encouraging: Gilgeous-Alexander has connected on 57 of his 70 attempts at Kentucky, good for a 81.4% clip.
Gilgeous-Alexander has shined firing off the catch this season, as well. His average of 1.8 points per possession in those situations leads the SEC among players with at least 15 attempts, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. He’s not nearly as adept rising and firing off the dribble, having scored only 22 points on 37 attempts, per Synergy. That could hurt Gilgeous-Alexander as a pick-and-roll operator. Teams won’t hesitate to duck under screens for him if he can’t pose a threat as an off-the-bounce launcher.
Whether or not the jumper eventually comes along, Gilgeous-Alexander’s length, perimeter skill set and defensive malleability make him a first-round candidate who could move into the back end of the lottery by the summer. Let’s be clear: Gilgeous-Alexander is a projectable rotation piece, but he’s a cut below the three most highly regarded backcourt prospects in this class—Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic, Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Alabama’s Collin Sexton—all of whom offer the promise of developing into franchise-changing stars.
As things stand now, Kentucky teammate Kevin Knox, a 6’9’’ freshman from Tampa, is generally regarded as a superior prospect than Gilgeous-Alexander. Knox checks in at No. 9 on the Big Board we released on Jan. 10, compared to No. 26 for Gilgeous-Alexander, and Gilgeous-Alexander does not appear in our latest one-round mock draft, whereas Knox is the No. 8 pick. But subpar three-point shooting (29.8% on 84 attempts so far this season) has dampened Knox’s appeal as a floor-spacing combo forward.
It’s possible Gilgeous-Alexander ultimately doesn’t overtake Knox, or even Diallo, a springy shooting guard who declared and subsequently withdrew from last year’s draft, on most teams’ boards. The fact that it’s even worth considering whether Gilgeous-Alexander could be the best prospect coming out of the nation’s best prospect factory in 2018, though, is remarkable given his relatively low profile a few months ago. NBA draft devotees did not need another reason to watch Kentucky this season. Gilgeous-Alexander has given them one.