STORRS, Conn. – Connecticut basketball fans can barely contain their enthusiasm to see freshman point guard Alterique Gilbert run onto the Gampel Pavilion court for the first time.
Gilbert was universally rated one of the top five or six point guards in the class of 2016. His Top-30 status establishes him as the leader of UConn’s talented, self-appointed “Top 5” freshmen who vow to elevate the Huskies this season.
Before the season gets cranked up, Gilbert has extended a warning to anyone who might bump into him on campus: They won’t see the same person on and off the court.
“I have two different personalities,” Gilbert said in a recent interview at UConn’s practice facility. “On the court, I’m very aggressive, loud and gritty. Off the court, I like to be laid back, relaxed and calm.”
In his downtime, Gilbert might be spotted swimming, a skill he has enjoyed most of his young life. Or he might be chilling with his sketchpad, working on his latest drawings.
He was a ninth-grader at Miller Grove High School in Georgia, when he discovered art as a way to keep calm away from basketball.
“They put me in an art class,” Gilbert (6-feet, 170-pounds) said. “I didn’t know how to draw. But the teacher took it step by step and we all learned.”
No word yet if Gilbert will host an art show at Gampel.
“I’ve drawn portraits of Michael Jordan and Mickey Mouse – just to fool around a bit,” he said. “Also, I’ve drawn different sceneries and backgrounds. That helps me expand my talent.”
College basketball’s artistic canvas is blank right now, awaiting the start of school and then preseason workouts before the games begin. Extra patience has been a requirement for Gilbert, who separated his left shoulder during the Jordan Brand Classic in mid-April. He has been able to do light work and shooting, but it could be late August before he participates in full-speed drills.
Gilbert says he feels stronger, but UConn will be careful not to push him into action too soon.
The wait has given him plenty of time to think about his goals for the season. Gilbert is determined to make an instant impact on the Huskies.
He has great admiration for the guards who have gone before him at UConn, especially Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier.
Gilbert would like to model his game after those two national champions, and he vows to work his hardest until that goal is achieved.
“Being vocal and being an extension of Coach [Kevin] Ollie on and off the court,” Gilbert said when asked what that will take. “Bringing my personality to the table is vital. That means being a gym rat – every day.
“Leadership is what connects all the great guards who have been here.”
Ollie is on that list of great guards who passed through Jim Calhoun’s UConn program. Ollie can’t help but be excited about adding Gilbert as a teammate of sophomore point guard Jalen Adams.
Gilbert and Adams will share the floor much of the tim. Their talents will allow UConn to return to a two-point guard system – something that has been very successful for the Huskies in the past.
The departure of Sterling Gibbs, Omar Calhoun, Sam Cassell Jr. and Daniel Hamilton gives Ollie a chance to reboot his backcourt.
“We are going to be a faster team, I really believe, because of Alterique and Jalen pushing the ball and those two guys playing a lot,” Ollie said. “I don’t like calling it a two-headed monster. I don’t know what the word is. But we’ve used two guards like that and had success. I can really get back to playing that way. You can really get back to those two ‘push guards’ like Kemba and Shabazz.”
Adams went through an up-and-down freshman season but began to earn Ollie’s faith late. Gilbert is already familiar with his new UConn teammate.
“I played with Jalen before my sophomore year, at the Elite 100 Camp in St. Louis,” Gilbert said. “We got to know each other really well and I was excited to come in here and play with him again.”
Gilbert’s top reason for picking UConn is his relationship with Ollie. He called that “crucial.” He loves the history, the tradition, and the opportunity to play right away.
If the Gilbert-Adams combination works, the season highlights might provide plenty of inspiration for the freshman’s drawings. It was suggested that he might want to dedicate one to his head coach.
“I think he would [like that],” Gilbert said. “I might give him one, one day.”
Perhaps it will capture the image of the Ollie cutting down the nets after another national championship.
They can dream, can’t they?