Shai, we hardly knew ye.
Like so many John Calipari signees, he streaked across the Kentucky basketball landscape, like a big blue meteor – burning hot and fast on his way to a land of riches.
It’s become the norm rather than the exception for at least a couple of Wildcats to play one and then be done with college basketball, but the departure of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander might be the most surprising.
He was, indeed, a highly-touted recruit but when it came to hype, he was lacking. In fact, when he joined the UK class of signees at the end of the 2017 season, he was considered a backup to the next Calipari Point Guard.
That would be Quade Green, the next UK floor general, in the mold of John Wall, Marquis Teague, Brandon Knight, De’Aaron Fox. Only, Mother Nature had other ideas.
Green went down in early January with a strained back muscle. In stepped Gilgeous-Alexander, who’d been playing significant minutes already. Only now, he had the keys to the Cadillac – and Calipari made certain he stayed behind the wheel.
In his first two games as the Man in Charge, he played 39 minutes both against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
SGA did his best to spread the ball among his teammates but there were times that just wasn’t working, so the 6-foot-6 guard with the 7-foot wingspan did what he does best – slithering through defenders to amazingly open finger-rolls.
And as he drew opposing defenses closer, teammates found themselves with more room to breathe on the perimeter – guys like Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox, who joined SGA among NBA Draft hopefuls.
Knox is physically stronger, with more of a reputation as an outside shooter who can also finish at the rim. Diallo has outrageous explosiveness, when it comes both to quickness and leaping ability.
Knox and Diallo both were expected to treat the entrance to Rupp Arena as little more than a revolving door to the NBA; such were their reputations when they arrived.
Gilgeous-Alexander? Shoot, the kid was cut from his high school “junior” team in Hamilton, Ontario. But he just kept working – both with his teammates and on his own. Head down, eyes up, future bright.
“Shai doesn’t want attention,” said forward P.J. Washington. “He just wants to put the work in and wants people to judge him on results.”
And apparently, the judges like what they see.
“He’s playing like a lottery pick,” Green told reporters during the NCAA tournament. “He’s going to do great things after this.”
And he’ll do it with the same attitude he brought from the Great White North. “I’ve just been trying to embrace the role and be there for these guys and try to help the team win,” he said.
Unfortunately, SGA’s time in his only NCAA tournament was cut short by an upset loss to Kansas State. But his legacy will live on, as long as Calipari wears the whistle at Kentucky.
The man who brought him to Lexington never missed a chance to tell reporters about SGA’s early-morning workouts, dogged determination in the weight room and devotion to academics.
“Shai’s development is a story I’ll tell our players for the rest of my career,” Calipari said.
It’s a story that won’t be ending any time soon.