Canadian hoops star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander grinded his way to the top
Kentucky freshman dedicated countless hours to mastering his craft
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can't be missed whenever he takes the hardwood for the University of Kentucky. The 6-foot-6 Canadian guard seems to be everywhere, whether it's scoring, playmaking or shutting down opposing players.
Now Gilgeous-Alexander has the Wildcats within two wins of another NCAA Final Four appearance as they prepare to face Kansas State in Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup (9:37 p.m. ET).
The 19-year-old freshman has arguably been Kentucky's best player this season. But there wasn't much about the Hamilton native that stood out right away to his former high school and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coach Dwayne Washington.
"He was just consistent in his work ethic and scored really well," says Washington, who has known Gilgeous-Alexander since the latter was a five-foot-five eighth-grader and went on to coach him in Grade 11 at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School in Hamilton as well as the UPlay Canada AAU team.
'Creature of habit'
Gilgeous-Alexander, though, had a hunger for learning and improving his game. If you gave him a drill, says Washington, the ultra-focused "creature of habit" repeated it until the skills became second nature.
"He cares about his family and basketball — that's it," says Washington. "He likes the craft of it — mastering certain skill sets and difficult concepts on the court. At that time, he didn't know he was going to use this stuff. He just thought it was cool to learn it."
Washington jokes that he didn't have a lunch break for three years because he spent the time going over NBA video clips with Gilgeous-Alexander. The high schooler was so enthusiastic and energetic about the film study that Washington couldn't say no.
The two spent countless hours going over footage of star point guards like John Stockton, Steve Nash and Chris Paul, breaking down their movements and the way they would position everyone else on the court with those movements.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Kentucky?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Kentucky</a> is the 1st freshman with 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in an NCAA Tournament game since Chris Paul in 2004 <a href="https://t.co/rBdl86MrrQ">pic.twitter.com/rBdl86MrrQ</a>—@ESPNStatsInfo
"He knows how to control the game, but he knows where the other nine people are going to be based on the action he takes," Washington says. "He knows how every piece moves, how to react, and he understands that because he's seen it so many times.
"I'm sure in his head [the game] is probably going really slow for him because of all the video that he watched."
Seeing the potential in Gilgeous-Alexander, Washington knew the youngster couldn't stay at home if he wanted to reach the next level as a player.
Washington reached out to some friends in the United States, who suggested that Gilgeous-Alexander would be a great fit for the basketball program at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.
It was a difficult decision for Gilgeous-Alexander, but he ultimately realized what he had to do and moved away in 2015.
"I was like, 'You gotta go,' and he says, 'Why?' 'Because there's nothing I can do for you here.' He was crying. He was really upset," Washington says.
Higher levels of competition and increased exposure south of the border certainly helped Gilgeous-Alexander. At just 17 years of age, he was named to Canada's senior national team for a last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in July 2016.
A year later, he was selected for the Nike Hoop Summit — a game that pits the best high schoolers in the U.S. against the best in the world.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SquadUp?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SquadUp</a> Proud of the way these guys competed. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NikeHoopSummit?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NikeHoopSummit</a> 🇨🇦🏀 <a href="https://t.co/dwTfd4RcVh">pic.twitter.com/dwTfd4RcVh</a>—@bayner
Under the radar
Gilgeous-Alexander originally committed to the University of Florida for the 2017-18 season but ultimately decided on Kentucky instead because he felt the Wildcats were a better fit and would provide more playing time.
Despite having proved himself against the best high school talent, Gilgeous-Alexander flew under the radar when he joined powerhouse Kentucky and its five incoming McDonald's All-Americans.
That, too, seemed a good fit for him.
"Shai doesn't want attention. He just wants to put the work in and wants people to judge him on his results," Washington says.
Gilgeous-Alexander hasn't disappointed in his freshman season. He averaged 21 points, 6.7 assists and five rebounds per game en route to being named the most valuable player of the Southeastern Conference tournament. In two NCAA tournament games he has stuffed the stat sheet with 46 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and seven steals.
Armed with a seven-foot wingspan, he's also a strong perimeter defender — another skill aided by his obsessive film study.
"He understands that defence is all about anticipation, but you have to know the opponent. A lot of the stuff is cerebral. It's not just taking a 50-50 chance going for a ball — it's very calculated," Washington says.
But Washington believes Gilgeous-Alexander has grown the most as a leader. From afar, he's seen Gilgeous-Alexander demonstrate an ability to huddle guys together, keep egos in check and lead by example.
"In the American media, he wasn't [considered] a five-star [recruit] but that doesn't matter," Washington says. "He's going there saying, hey, we work together, let's do this."