Of all of the players in Kentucky’s 2017 class, Shai Alexander is the one we know the least about, so it’s fitting that going to watch him play was a bit of an adventure. With only a few weeks left in the season, my only opportunity to see Alexander in a game was in the NACA National Championships in Dayton, Tennessee, about a two and a half hour drive from Nashville. After making arrangements with his coach, I loaded up the car and headed for the foothills of the Smoky Mountains between Chattanooga and Knoxville. “Foothills” is an understatement; the last hour of the drive consisted of white-knuckled hairpin turns on a tiny two lane road. Finally, I made it to Fort Bluff, the church retreat hosting the tournament. A bit queasy, I found the gymnasium, paid for a program, and sat down on the bleachers to wait for Shai. A quick glance around told me I was the only person there not playing, or related to a player, which shouldn’t have been surprising considering it was the middle of a workday in the middle of nowhere.
The NACA (National Association of Christian Athletes) National Championships is a tournament for the best Christian teams in the region. In the opening round, Shai’s Hamilton Heights Hawks from Chattanooga were up against the Dawson Christian Eagles from Georgia, and within the first few minutes, it was clear that Dawson was outmatched. Aside from a pretty crafty little guard, the Eagles had no answer for the Hawks, specifically Alexander. At 6’5″ 185 lbs., Shai had a considerable size advantage and made the most of it, driving the lane with ease. While he brought the ball up the court most of the time, he would play off it at others, giving a nice preview of what we can expect next year when he’s playing alongside Quade Green. As Shai told me afterwards, his height increases his versatility.
“I can play on or off,” Alexander said. “My height makes it easier to play off the ball.”
With a dearth of experience in the backcourt next season, bringing in a second point guard was essential for John Calipari, and Alexander came around at just the right time. After moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee from Hamilton, Ontario in 2015, Shai quickly committed to Florida. As his stock rose in 2016, he realized his ceiling might as well. Alexander decommitted from Florida on October 17, 2016, at which point, he became a hot commodity.
“I think it was nothing that Florida did,” Alexander said of his decision to reopen his recruitment. “It was more personal, getting to where I want to get to, the goals I want to achieve, as quickly as possible.”
That’s where Kentucky came in. Calipari watched Alexander play on October 31 and offered him a scholarship on the spot. Four days later, Shai visited Lexington, where he was floored by the “professional” atmosphere around the program.
“It was really professional. The dorm is not even two minutes from the gym, so the guys get to work hard, extremely hard. They get to class and the classes are really professional. It prepares the guys for the next level.”
(By the way, Shai said he thinks Kentucky’s dorm is really nice. “A lot of schools have tried to copy them,” he pointed out.)
After visiting Texas, Shai decided he had seen enough and committed to Kentucky on November 14, two weeks after he got an offer from Calipari. Clearly, Cal made an impression.
“He’s a genuine guy. Good sense of humor, very straightforward,” Shai said of Cal. “He’ll tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter if it’s harsh. He’s just trying to get you better and make you a better you so he’ll tell you the truth no matter what.”
So, what should fans expect from Shai? He finished with 35 points, 5 assists, and 6 steals in Hamilton Height’s 93-53 win over Dawson, but as the score indicates, it’s not like he was playing against the best competition. In fact, Shai sat a good portion of the second half, but I saw enough to come away impressed. As mentioned earlier, it was promising to see him look just as good playing off the ball as he did playing on it considering he’ll share the backcourt with Quade next season. On a team where he’s clearly the best player, he exhibited a nice balance of being a pass-first guard while not passing up on easy plays in front of him. Although Shai may not possess John Wall or De’Aaron Fox like speed, he still has an incredible ability to get to the rim, using his size and speed to bully through defenders. What would Shai say his biggest strengths are?
“Ability to get to the lane, get to the basket, my vision, my height obviously — I’m bigger than a lot of point guards — my leadership and I’m a good teammate.”
While Shai’s game speaks for itself on the court, off it, he’s polite, maybe a bit reserved. We talked in a quiet hallway after his game, where he told me about adjusting to life away from home (his parents are back in Ontario, so he stays with his coach, a “funny guy” who’s made the transition easy). He misses his family, friends, and, of course, the Canadian comfort food poutine. He lights up when I ask about fellow Canadian hoopster Jamal Murray, who had just won the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend.
“He’s big,” Shai said of Murray. “Nobody really expected him to do what he’s doing now.”
Did Murray’s success at Kentucky help open Shai’s eyes to Calipari and the Kentucky program?
“Yeah, it did. To see how Coach Cal really changed his game to make him into a definite pro, that was big.”
Shai got his first taste of the Big Blue Nation at the Marshall County Hoop Fest in December and raved about the experience.
“It was crazy. I couldn’t even count how many autographs I signed, how many people came up to me. That’s what I realized what I was going to go through.”
Shai’s considered a four-star by the major recruiting services, which may mean he’s in Lexington for more than one season. What does he like to do besides play basketball and eat poutine? This question really made Shai think.
“If I’m not playing basketball with my friends, I’m watching basketball, watching film, trying to get better,” he said after careful contemplation. “Really, everything’s basketball for me.”
He’s headed to the right place then.