The changing of the guards: MVP Shai Gilgeous-Alexander


Kentucky freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander throws the net to his teammates in celebration after the game against Tennessee in the SEC tournament championship on Sunday, March 11, 2018, in St. Louis, Missouri. Kentucky defeated Tennessee 77-72. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Strong guard play has always been a staple of the John Calipari era in Kentucky. With UK’s most recent triumph – a fourth straight SEC Tournament Championship – that staple is clearer now than ever.

In the SEC title game, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Cats with 29 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He was voted the SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player and is considered by many to be the best player on the team.

“I think right now he’s playing his best basketball because he’s one of our leaders. He knows he’s getting better with the decision-making,” said teammate Kevin Knox.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s reputation wasn’t always so shiny, however.

Coming into college, Gilgeous-Alexander never played on the AAU circuit. He never went under the bright lights of an American high school tournament, was never a McDonald’s All-American and his college commitment wasn’t broadcast on national television as fans waited on the edge of their seats.

Instead, he opted to be a lanky guard for a small Canadian national team and represent his country. He originally committed to Florida, but reopened his commitment to join John Calipari and the Cats.

At the beginning of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander was a solid sixth man for the Wildcats. He dished out timely assists and played decent defense for the team that many considered an enigma, an uncertainty.

As the season progressed, he eventually took the starting job from Quade Green when Green suffered a back strain that sidelined him for several games. Green rarely started after that point, and the offense has belonged to Gilgeous-Alexander ever since.

“[Green] has done a really good job leading this team. Coming off the bench is tough when you’re not used to it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the 77-72 victory over Tennessee in the SEC Championship. “He’s a really talented guy.”

Now, Gilgeous-Alexander dizzies defenders with his signature eurostep, drains fadeaway jumpers with the shot clock ticking down and is one of the unquestioned leaders of this team. When he’s driving to the basket, his history of living in his team’s shadow isn’t in his mind.

So how did he get here?

“Here’s what he is. Seven in the morning, he’ll go in and get shots up, goes to class. Never late for a class, doesn’t miss,” Calipari said. “He then will come up and watch film with the coaches. He wants to know where his turnovers are, what he’s got to do better, what do they say, so we can see it. Never misses a tutor.”

Now, with the nets of the baskets in the Scottrade Center draped around his neck, Gilgeous-Alexander is seeing the fruits of his labors as confetti rains on him and his teammates.