Meet the Wildcats: Gilgeous-Alexander works with eye to the future

Special thanks to Papa John’s for presenting this year’s Meet the Wildcats series.

The 2017-18 season is fast approaching, and head coach John Calipari’s latest top-ranked recruiting class features seven fresh new faces. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will profile each of Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with an episode of the Behind Kentucky Basketball podcast, as well as a video of each player playing a game of Horse against either Kentucky basketball great Rex Chapman or Hollywood actor and Kentucky basketball superfan Josh Hopkins. Today, the 2017-18 series continues with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a Canadian guard who appreciates honesty and a straightforward approach to everything he does.

T
he game is over and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is heading back to the locker room. He grabs his phone from his locker and sees that his mom, Charmaine Gilgeous, has been trying to get a hold of him.

What will she say? Good game? Keep working hard? Maybe some constructive criticism?

“You suck,” she says.

Oh.

To outsiders, Charmaine’s words seem blunt and harsh, but Shai doesn’t mind it. He’s used to the criticism at this point and he knows where it’s coming from and why it’s being said. He’d much rather hear that than have her sugarcoat her feelings.

“My mom is probably my number one supporter and hater at the same time,” he said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “She always, always finds a way to criticize, but always finds a way to motivate me and keep me going.”

Charmaine knows what it takes to achieve great success in the sports world. A track athlete, she ran in the 400 meters at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona for her home country of Antigua and Barbuda.

Bio Blast

Position: Guard
Date of birth: July 12, 1998
Parents: Charmaine Gilgeous and Vaughn Alexander
Hometown: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
High school: Hamilton Heights Christian Academy
Nickname: Shizzy
Twitter: @shaiglalex
Instagram: @sav_shai2
Favorite TV show: Power
Favorite food: Mom’s homemade lasagna
Favorite superhero: Spiderman
Favorite player: Allen Iverson (all time), Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving (currently)
Favorite sport/hobby outside of basketball: Soccer
Favorite movie: Rush Hour series
Favorite musical artist: Drake

Now she serves as a motivator of sorts for Shai, a freshman guard at Kentucky. After every game he plays Shai knows he’ll have a phone call or text message waiting for him and he knows who it will be from.

“She’ll blow (up) my phone until I answer,” Shai said. “The first thing that comes out of her mouth is, ‘You suck.’ That’s the first thing. Straight to it. Doesn’t even ease her way into it. You just suck. But then she’ll tell me good game and she’ll tell me what I can do to get better, stuff like that. She’ll always tell me at the end to stay humble and know who I am.”

She also likes to remind Shai just how good she was as a track athlete at Alabama and beyond. That’s one reason why it was so special for Shai to make the Canadian national team as a 17-year-old.

“When I was younger, she’d always brag about her achievements,” Shai said. “She was, I think, 17 as well and she ran for the senior national team … and I was 17 as well and got to play on the senior men’s national team, so I got to rub it back in her face. She’s not ahead of me anymore.”

Shai comes to Kentucky as a promising prospect who flew under the radar for a bit before coming more to the forefront over the past year. By the time the final recruiting rankings were released by 247Sports, Gilgeous-Alexander went from a four-star prospect ranked in the 40s all the way up to a five-star at No. 19 nationally.

Kentucky knew who Gilgeous-Alexander was, but head coach John Calipari said playing with the Canadian national team brought pieces of his game out that previously had not been seen. That play, Gilgeous-Alexander said, resulted in additional attention and boosted his confidence when he played against guys his own age.

Gilgeous-Alexander committed to Florida, the first “high major” school that had offered him. At the time, he felt it was the perfect fit. The Gators matched his goals and all was good. But as the year went on and Gilgeous-Alexander continued to get better and grow as a player, his goals began to change and he decided he wanted to de-commit and reset everything.

Enter Kentucky.

Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knows that after every game he’ll have a phone call or text message waiting for him from his mom. (photo by UK Athletics)

“Coach Cal, when he talked to me, it was different,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Like, a lot of coaches tell you what you want to hear and they sugarcoat you and suck up to you and stuff like that. Coach Cal wasn’t like that. He was straight forward, and I love it. Guys I look up to in my life, mentors and stuff like that, they’re straightforward with me. That’s what I want to be around, so that’s why I chose Kentucky.”

Calipari’s straightforward approach surprised him at first and stuck out from the other recruiting pitches he had heard in the past.

“I believe he said, ‘We don’t beg for anybody. No player in the country. We don’t beg for anybody,’ ” Gilgeous-Alexander said of Coach Cal’s recruiting message. “If you like it you’re going to come and it is what it is.”

At 6-foot-6, Gilgeous-Alexander brings great size to the point guard position, aiding in his passing and ability to get in the lane. He also knows his size can make him a defensive weapon, but admits he can get lazy at times on defense.

“I just have to take pride in it every possession and really focus on it,” he said.

Which is part of the reason Kentucky stood out to Gilgeous-Alexander. Kentucky, perhaps more than any other school, will be able to push the Canadian each day in practice with its abundance of talent.

He entered high school at 5-6. He grew three inches as a sophomore and then another six inches to get up to 6-3 as a junior. The growth spurt caused Gilgeous-Alexander to buy new clothes. On campus now and working out with strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris, Gilgeous-Alexander has already gained 10 pounds.

“Honestly, I like the feeling of being sore, the feeling of I just put in work and it hurts now but it’s going to pay off later,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s a good feeling.”

“I like to chase the version of me 10 years from now. So, how much better I am 10 years from now, I’m trying to get to that earlier than 10 years from now.” – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
On the court, Gilgeous-Alexander has been working on his shot and getting it off quicker. At the Derby Festival Classic in Louisville, Gilgeous-Alexander won the 3-point contest and then scored 29 points in just 19 minutes and knocked down 12 of 15 shots en route to MVP honors in the game.

“That’s probably what a lot of people think is one of my weaknesses in my game [his shot], but I’ve put in a lot of work and I know I can shoot it so I was confident that I was going to win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the 3-point contest. “And then the game I was the only Kentucky guy in the game so I just wanted to let all the other guys know we’re separate. Like, it’s a different level out here. And that’s what I did.”

He’s also been working on getting his shot off quicker by positioning his feet and hands better for when he gets the ball, and said he’s already noticed a difference in how he plays.

When it comes to Gilgeous-Alexander, everything the 19-year-old does is with an eye toward the future. It’s why he likes a straightforward approach. There’s no sense in wasting time when a correction or suggestion can be made to fix a potential problem.

He sees a bit of Rajon Rondo in his game in that he’s long and can pass the ball, but also likes watching how Chris Paul uses ball screens. Now it’s about applying those qualities to his own game.

From his youth, to his college selection and his work during training, Gilgeous-Alexander competes in everything he does, and the competition always remains the same.

“It’s more mental with me,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m not really chasing anybody. I like to chase the version of me 10 years from now. So, how much better I am 10 years from now, I’m trying to get to that earlier than 10 years from now. I just work extremely hard.”