Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.

'Young Bull' Collin Sexton might be the next piece for the young Bulls

'Young Bull' Collin Sexton might be the next piece for the young Bulls

The Bulls’ youth movement is underway and in full swing. Only the Suns and Sixers had a younger Opening Night roster, and by season’s end their four leading scorers were 24 years or younger. Bobby Portis and his 199 career games is the elder statesman of that bunch, and they’ll become more youthful with two first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft (and Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez trade candidates with expiring contracts).

Tuesday’s lottery drawing went against the Bulls, bumping down from No. 6 to 7 as the Kings moved to No. 2, they’ll still have options after the first six names go off the board. John Paxson appears set on taking the best player available when they go on the clock June 21st, and while he doesn’t exactly fit a positional need, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton could top the Bulls’ big board and give them what they “need” more than anything: talented basketball players.

A top 10 recruit in the country, Sexton committed to Alabama in November 2016, in part because of the guidance he’d receive from head coach Avery Johnson, who played 16 seasons in the NBA and led the Mavericks to an NBA Finals appearance in 2006, winning 440 games in seven seasons with Dallas and later the Nets.

That tutelage paid off, both from a collegiate perspective and for his NBA prospects. Sexton led the Crimson Tide to their first 20-win season since 2013, their first Associated Press Top 25 appearance since 2012 and their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2006. Though he was known in recruiting and SEC basketball circles, Sexton joined the national conversation in late November when he scored 40 points in a loss to Minnesota in which the Crimson Tide finished the game with three players.

Sexton’s next national headlines came in March, when he went on an absolute tear in the postseason. With his team squarely on the bubble, Sexton went the length of the floor in 4.4 seconds and hit a floater at the buzzer to beat Texas A&M – the floater accounted for two of his 27 points. The following day he dropped 31 on SEC regular season champ and rival Auburn in another upset win. Sexton blew past Virginia Tech in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 25 points on 14 shots while handing out six assists. He even managed 17 points on 50 percent shooting against juggernaut Villanova in a second round exit.

In five postseason games – Texas A&M, Auburn, Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Villanova – Sexton averaged 24.2 points on 53 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists. A blur in transition, physical at the rim and a hound defensively, the 19-year-old saved his best basketball for last and showed NBA scouts that his game is made for the next level. He said Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine that he has his coach, Johnson, to thank for that.

“He was a big part of my success because he put me in the right positions this past year,” Sexton said. “He put me in a lot of pick and rolls and stuff and put the ball in my hand and allowed me to play through adversity.

“He made me want to work that much harder because in practice he’d be on me tough. If I throw a left-hand pass, a one-hand pass, he’s on me. So he really helped me out a whole lot.”

Sexton wasn’t asked to do much perimeter shooting in his lone year at Alabama. Whereas fellow top point guards in the class like Trae Young (3.7 makes per game) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (40 percent on 57 attempts; 11 of 22 in his last 10 games) used the long ball, Sexton shot just 33.6 percent on 131 attempts. His efficiency went up during that run in March, but he’s still ball-dependent and needs to work playing off the ball.

He’s been working on his perimeter shooting and mentioned Chris Paul as someone he models his game after. Paul, of course, is sharing the floor with James Harden in Houston and has subsequently had to improve his game off the ball.

“The NBA’s evolving. You’ve got to be able to play both positions,” Sexton said of backcourt versatility. “You can’t have the ball in your hands all the time.”

Still, he averaged 19.2 points, got to the free throw line 7.6 times per game and made 44 3-pointers. He won’t struggle to score at the next level, though at just 19 years old there’s still some fine-tuning needed. He measured just 6-foot-1.5 in shoes at Thursday’s combine, but his aggressiveness, quick feet and athleticism made him one of the league’s better defenders. He’s ready to play from Day 1.

And he would on a Bulls team that likes what they have in Kris Dunn but isn’t against upgrading in that aforementioned critical area: talent. Sexton brings a surplus of it to the table, both in his playmaking ability and transition game. Plus, in an era of positionless basketball the only reason to have two ball handlers on the floor at once is because you couldn’t find a third.

And if Sexton’s attributes and skill set weren’t enough to make him the perfect fit in Chicago, he has an apt nickname: Young Bull. Sure, it’s related to his bully-style basketball at the rim and the way he pressures on defense, but during a time when the Bulls want to get younger for the future, drafting a young Bull makes too much sense as the Bulls stock up on talent to push them forward.

NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Unless the Bulls are able to defy the odds in the NBA Draft lottery on May 15, it looks like they’ll be picking in the 7-9 range this June. So, if you’re just joining the college basketball party with the start of the NCAA Tournament, here are some players you should keep an eye on as possible Bulls’ draft targets.

Mikal Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Villanova — Bridges is your classic “3 and D” guy who brings so much value in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA. Bridges is already an accomplished defender with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and he’s been at his best in the most important games. He would be a good fit at small forward with the Bulls playing alongside Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.

Kevin Knox, 6-foot-9, SF, Kentucky — Knox wasn’t able to put together eye-popping stats playing for an erratic, freshmen-filled Kentucky team. But when you watch him play, he reminds you of Chicago native Jabari Parker; a big powerful small forward who can overpower defenders in the post. Knox has the potential to develop into a consistent NBA scorer.

Miles Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Michigan St. — Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives by coming back for his sophomore season, even though he would have been a lottery pick last year. Bridges looks more comfortable from the 3-point line this season, but he’s more of a fast-break finisher than a polished offensive player.

Collin Sexton, 6-foot-2, PG. Alabama — The Bulls really don’t need a point guard with Dunn, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne all signed for next season, but try to take your eyes off the electrifying Sexton. He possesses that extra gear that you only see in the special point guards like Russell Westbrook, John Wall and a pre-injuries Derrick Rose.

Trae Young, 6-foot-2, PG, Oklahoma — The Sooners only got into the NCAA field because of Young, who was the darling of college basketball when he was putting up 30-point, 10-assist games on a consistent basis during the early part of the season. Young’s shooting range is reminiscent of Steph Curry, but teams have reduced his effectiveness with aggressive off-the-ball defense.

Wendell Carter, 6-foot-10, PF, Duke — Again, not a position of need for the Bulls, but Carter showed his inside scoring potential in the four games Marvin Bagley missed because of a knee injury. Could Carter play small ball 5 alongside Markkanen? That will be one of the questions Bulls executives will be pondering while watching Duke in the tournament.

Lonnie Walker, 6-foot-4, SG, Miami — When you’re watching Chicago’s lone NCAA qualifier, Loyola, play in Round 1, keep an eye on Walker (actually you can’t miss him with his very distinctive hairstyle). Scouts love his ability to create his own shot, and he’s one of those classic upside guys that always seem to get over drafted.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-foot-6, PG, Kentucky — Another player who’s shooting up NBA draft boards based on his athleticism and ability to create off the dribble. Gilgeous-Alexander is painfully thin, but he does remind you a bit of Penny Hardaway with his size and shot-making ability at the point guard position.

Around the Association

Injuries continue to be a big story in the 2017-18 season. Boston has been hit especially hard, starting on opening night when free agent addition Gordon Hayward went out with a gruesome ankle injury.

Kyrie Irving carried the Celtics to the best record in the East for the first half of the season with MVP-caliber play, but now Irving is faced with missing several games because of knee soreness. And, if Irving isn’t healthy come playoff time, the Celtics are likely to be knocked out early.

Boston also lost valuable depth this week because of a season-ending injury suffered by rookie big man Daniel Theis and another injury to valuable wing defender Marcus Smart, this time a torn thumb ligament that could have Smart sidelined for several weeks. Add in the concussion suffered by Jaylen Brown in that frightening fall last week, and the Celtics find themselves with a depleted roster for the final 4 weeks of the regular season.

— That means Toronto will most likely finish with the number one seed in the East, and with the Cavs slumping again, they could wind up facing the Raptors in a second round series. Toronto and Boston would love to avoid the Cavs until the conference finals, especially with Kevin Love returning to the line-up soon to give Cleveland a reliable second scoring option alongside LeBron James. Surprising Indiana currently holds a slim lead over Cleveland for third place in the East, but a lot could change over the final month.

— The race for playoff positioning is taking a back seat to the massive tank-a-thon going on at the bottom of the standings. In case you haven’t been watching, wins are scarce these days for the bottom nine teams with all of them hoping to land a top three pick for a shot at franchise-changing bigs Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. The Knicks have completely given up since the season-ending injury suffered by Kristaps Porzingis, and it probably won’t be long before they pass the Bulls for eighth place in the race to the bottom.

— Finally, here’s hoping Derrick Rose can find a meaningful role in Minnesota after reuniting with Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson (among other former Bulls’ players and coaches). Rose turned the ball over a couple times in a 7-minute debut on Sunday against Golden State, but I don’t think Thibodeau would have brought in the former league MVP unless he planned to give him a serious look off the bench. Rose had a harsh response to critics who think he’s washed up at the age of 29, but if he can’t make it work playing for Thibs again, his NBA future could be in serious jeopardy.