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A Four-Star Recruit Will Decide Kentucky’s Fate in the NCAA Tournament

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t the elite supernova recruit you’d typically expect to be Coach Cal’s best player, but the freshman has shot up the draft boards, and he might not be done rising.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

John Calipari hasn’t held an official position in the NBA since the turn of the century, but his fingerprints are all over the league as we know it. Coach Cal has only one NCAA title to his name, but in just nine seasons in Lexington, he’s turned the University of Kentucky into an assembly line for professional players — both in the NBA and in leagues across the globe. This week, we’re exploring Kentucky’s and Calipari’s impact on the basketball world, and whether or not his one-and-done blueprint has staying power at both the college and pro levels. Welcome to the Kentucky Basketball Association.

Kentucky’s best player started the season on the bench. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the second-lowest-ranked player in the team’s eight-man recruiting class of 2017, and he’s the only non-five-star recruit in the Wildcats’ rotation. The odds are against anyone with his pedigree at John Calipari’s NBA factory. Only three four-star recruits have signed with Kentucky in the last four years, and they all ended up transferring due to lack of playing time. Players usually don’t stay at Kentucky for long: They either transfer or they go pro. History suggested Gilgeous-Alexander would be the former, but a lot has changed in five months. His draft stock has skyrocketed, and it could rise even higher by the time the NCAA tournament is over.

Kentucky is Gilgeous-Alexander’s team now. His averages (21.0 points on 55.3 percent shooting and 6.7 assists) in the SEC tournament, where he was named MVP after leading Kentucky to the championship, are closer to his talent level than his more modest season numbers (13.9 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 5.0 assists). His offensive responsibility has grown over the course of the season, and Calipari has finally put enough 3-point shooting around him to spread out the defense. One of the most inconsistent teams in the country now has an identity: Clear out for Gilgeous-Alexander and let him go to work. The Wildcats have a tough road to the Final Four, but he’s good enough to carry them there. If he plays poorly, on the other hand, they could lose in the first round.

It’s easy to see why Calipari overlooked him at first. Gilgeous-Alexander is not a typical Kentucky point guard. He doesn’t have blazing speed or a lightning-quick first step. He’s a deliberate player who controls tempo and plays at his own pace. He sidesteps defenders instead of jumping over them. To borrow an analogy from baseball, he’s a finesse pitcher who keeps hitters off-balance rather than overpowering them with velocity. He uses a variety of hesitation moves to get a step on defenders and then keeps them on his hip all the way to the rim. He knows how to get to his spots on the court. It never looks like he’s breaking a sweat.

His greatest strength is his size. At 6-foot-6 and 182 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander has absurd dimensions for a point guard. Even when a defender is draped on him, he can elevate over them and create a look at the basket. It’s impossible to anticipate where he’s going to shoot from. He has a number of different release points, and he can finish with either hand anywhere in the paint. If he doesn’t have anything, he will lean into his defender or use a pump fake to draw a foul. Gilgeous-Alexander can live at the line on nights when his shot isn’t falling: He attempts almost half as many free throws (4.3) as he does field goals (10.1).

The most impressive part of his production this season is that he spent almost all of it driving into the teeth of the defense. Three-point shooting is Kentucky’s Achilles heel. The Wildcats actually make 3s at a decent rate (36.1 percent). They just don’t attempt many: Their average of 15.1 per game ranks 334th out of 351 teams in Division I. It doesn’t matter how much length and athleticism a team has if defenses can pack the paint against them. Gilgeous-Alexander almost never had any driving lanes to the basket, yet he was still able to find cracks in the defense. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he took 61.8 point percent of shots in the lane.

The big change in the SEC tournament was Calipari committing to playing his only consistent 3-point shooters together. Kentucky ran something resembling an NBA offense: Gilgeous-Alexander got a ball screen from a big man, with freshmen Kevin Knox (35.4 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game) and Quade Green (38 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) and sophomore Wenyen Gabriel (39.8 percent on 2.9 attempts per game) spotting up on the perimeter. Gabriel shot an unsustainable 11-of-15 from 3 over the last three games, but Green and Knox went only 6-for-21, so Kentucky should still be able to space the floor in the NCAA tournament if all three regress to their averages.

An ankle injury to freshman Jarred Vanderbilt forced Calipari to shorten his rotation. Vanderbilt might be their most talented interior player, but there are only so minutes they can afford to give to non-shooting big men. They still have three McDonald’s All-Americans (freshmen Nick Richards and P.J. Washington and sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones) who can handle interior defense, rebounding, and finishing at the rim. Gabriel is the only one of their five big men who can drag a defender out of the paint. Vanderbilt could give Kentucky a different element as a playmaking small-ball 5 who switches screens and snatches every rebound, but only if he’s playing with Gabriel and not instead of him.

Calipari has also changed the pecking order among his best playmakers, choosing to feature Gilgeous-Alexander instead of Knox. Knox is averaging 15.6 points a game on 44.4 percent shooting, but for Kentucky to maximize its potential, the team needs him shooting 3s, not posting up and attacking the rim. He’s not the facilitator that Gilgeous-Alexander is: Knox is averaging 1.4 assists and 2.2 turnovers. He’s at his best when he’s hunting shots on the perimeter, not facilitating. He was a perfect second option in the SEC tournament, catching and firing after running around screens and threatening the defense off the ball.

Calipari figured out his team at just the right time. He has so much turnover every season that it often takes awhile for him to figure out the right way to distribute offensive roles and defensive responsibilities across his roster. Even when Kentucky struggles in the regular season, the team is usually clicking by March. The most famous example was in 2014, when a team led by Julius Randle went all the way to the national title game as an 8-seed. In Calipari’s seven previous trips to the NCAA tournament at Kentucky, the Wildcats lost before the Elite Eight only once, when they ran into an Indiana team led by Yogi Ferrell and O.G. Anunoby in the second round in 2016.

This team could still go either way. It has a winning formula, but it doesn’t have much margin for error. If one of its shooters comes off the floor or goes through a prolonged slump, defenses can start packing the paint again. Kentucky needs Gilgeous-Alexander to knock down 3s in the NCAA tournament. He’s not a bad shooter: He shoots 81.4 percent from the free throw line on 4.3 attempts per game and 39.6 percent from 3 on 1.6 attempts a game. He doesn’t take many 3s because of how easily he gets to the rim, but he will need to space the floor in the tournament to give room for other players inside. While Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have a quick release, his length means no perimeter defender at the college level can bother his shot.

But can that 3-point shooting percentage translate to the NBA? That’s the biggest question about his future as a pro. Gilgeous-Alexander is in the 79th percentile of players nationwide when scoring and passing out of the pick-and-roll, but he will need to consistently make 3s off the dribble to match that success at the next level. Forcing defenders to press up on him will create more driving lanes, while knocking down spot-up 3s will keep him on the floor when he’s not running the offense. The good news for Gilgeous-Alexander is that free throw shooting at the college level, not 3-point shooting, is the best predictor of outside shooting in the NBA. He has a high floor. His ceiling at the next level will come down to his jumper.

Gilgeous-Alexander fits the way the NBA is trending. Unlike Trae Young and Collin Sexton, the two highest-rated point guards in this year’s draft, he can switch screens and match up with multiple positions on defense, although he will need to fill out his frame in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander has better block and steal rates as a freshman than Dejounte Murray, another supersized point guard who’s already a defensive difference-maker in his second season with the Spurs. A player with a 7-foot wingspan who can guard the point of attack is incredibly valuable. Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have Young’s 35-foot range or Sexton’s burst, but his length changes the game in more subtle ways. He doesn’t throw haymakers. He wears down opponents with shots to the body.

Gilgeous-Alexander can put himself on the map in March. He’s currently projected as a late-lottery pick, the range where complementary offensive players start coming off the board. If that’s where he’s selected, he will enter the NBA like he did college, as a role player who will have to earn his way into the rotation. NBA teams don’t usually allow rookies drafted outside the top-10 to dominate the ball. Donovan Mitchell in Utah is the rare exception. Gilgeous-Alexander could have a career path at the next level like Spencer Dinwiddie, a 6-foot-6 point guard who broke out with the Nets in his fourth season in the NBA. A knee injury to D’Angelo Russell is the only reason he was even able to run their offense this season.

A point guard can only be as good as their situation. The chance to be the primary option on a good team doesn’t happen often, particularly for guys who play like Gilgeous-Alexander. It took Calipari months to know what he had in him. The road ahead will be hard for Kentucky. Should they make it past a tough Davidson team on Thursday, they will face a titanic challenge against Deandre Ayton and Arizona in the second round, as well as potential matchups with two of the best defenses in the country (Virginia and Cincinnati) looming down the road. Gilgeous-Alexander will have to play like a superstar for them to reach the Final Four. No player in the country has more to gain with a strong showing in the NCAA tournament. He’s already come far this season. He could reach another level in the next few weeks.