Former Hamilton Heights player now a star at Kentucky

Published 12 March 2018
Jeff Roberson

ST. LOUIS — Having just scored 19 points and handed out eight assists in Kentucky's 86-63 Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal win over Alabama on Saturday afternoon, freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander understandably found himself talking to a small army of media types.

But he talks to one temporary Chattanooga resident every day of the year: his younger brother Thomasi, who's a junior guard at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy.

"I talk to my brother every day," said Shai, who played two seasons for the Hawks before signing with the Wildcats in the fall of 2016. "And I still talk to Coach Zach (Ferrell) quite a bit. Everyone was so nice to me there. They treated me like family. It started to feel like home to me."

Kentucky was expected to be the Canada native's home for at least three years. Gilgeous-Alexander was rated a top-35 recruit coming out of Hamilton Heights but never was considered a potential one-and-done player. One Sports Illustrated computer program estimated that SGA would average 6.1 points per game this season.

Instead, he heads into today's 1 p.m. EDT SEC championship game against Tennessee averaging 13.4 points, five assists and 3.9 rebounds. Those numbers earned him second-team all-conference honors this past week.

Those stats also have him projected to be a lottery pick by NBADraft.net if he chooses to turn pro. CBSSports.com currently has SGA as the No. 17 overall pick.

So what happened between changing his verbal commitment from Florida in the summer of 2016 to signing with Kentucky that fall to now being viewed as a solid first-round draft pick?

"Who's our best player?" Kentucky coach John Calipari asked UK's media two weeks ago before answering it himself with, "Shai."

"Who's never late for class or a tutoring session?" Again, "Shai."

"Who works the hardest in the weight room?" Again, "Shai."

It shows everywhere. He leads the Wildcats in steals by a wide margin with 52. His assists-to-turnover ratio is nearly 2-to-1. Over this weekend's first two SEC tourney wins over Georgia and Alabama he's been credited with 17 assists to just two turnovers.

"I just try to do what Coach tells me to," he said Saturday.

It's all a long way from the way he spent his school days the last two years in Chattanooga.

"We'd go to Hamilton Place mall sometimes after Bible study," he said. "There was a Japanese steak house, Shogun, I really liked. There were just a lot of great people I met in Chattanooga."

And the next time he sees them, he just might be an NBA lottery pick.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.