After injuries, Gilbert finally producing for Huskies
Now healthy, UConn’s Alterique Gilbert is reaching his potential.
STORRS — Alterique Gilbert has been at UConn forever, it seems, well over two years now. He’s a longstanding member of the Storrs community, having worked a part-time job in the president’s office and studied and, as much as anything, spent countless hours rehabilitating in the wake of shoulder injuries and surgeries that cost him the bulk of two basketball seasons.
“To be able to look back and say I overcame that, it’s a positive for me,” Gilbert said Thursday night after the latest step in his evolution, a strong 19-point performance in UConn’s 76-64 victory over SMU at Gampel Pavilion. “And to play is just a blessing. I don’t take any day for granted.”
No player better represents UConn’s past, present and future than Gilbert, a redshirt sophomore who has played, and started, all 16 games for the Huskies after being limited to just nine games over his first two seasons. He is an emerging source of dependable and even prolific play, though still a strange combination of seasoned veteran and essentially overwhelmed rookie.
That’s the deal when you’re is so often in a sling or street clothes over two years, time valuable in being part of a pro-
gram but barely part of a team.
“You see the dynamic [play], and you see the, ‘Why did he just try to drive that gap? What did he see there?’ ” coach Dan Hurley said. “You have to treat him like he’s a freshman. He hasn’t played college basketball. Plus, he hasn’t played basketball. He’s just been on the shelf. There’s just rust there. He’s going to continue to develop. He’s obviously a talented guy. His speed and 3-point shooting are impressive, and his on-theball defense. We just have to help him become a better decision-maker.”
Gilbert was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and has looked like it through his first pro- longed opportunity in college — at times, anyway. He’s one of UConn’s best players right now, and he should be through 2020-21, especially if his comfort level catches up with his physical gifts.
We’re seeing the transformation play out. Gilbert is averaging 13.2 points on the heels of a particularly effective seven-game stretch during which he averaged 15.8. He is shooting 44.4 percent on 3-pointers, second in the AAC, after making 17 of 35 over that time, which followed abysmal showings against Arizona and Lafayette (a combined 4-for-16 from the field, 0-for-5 on 3s, 10 points). He’s becoming a lockdown defender, too, as most recently evidenced by his work on SMU’s Jahmal McMurray, who was 5for-18 from the field and 1-for-9 on 3s Thursday.
Gilbert is in an increas- ingly better place. He will continue to be, week to week, month to month, season to season. The most recent shoulder injuries — the two at UConn that followed two in high school — threw his whole world out of whack, resulting in inactivity, rehab, boredom, even depression.
He’s back to full speed, working toward full efficiency, and that work will have a lot to say about what becomes of UConn in the AAC this season.
“I just feel like I’m taking it step by step,” Gilbert said. “I’m out there having fun, and I think I’m doing a good job getting back on my feet and leading my team to a better position. I sat on the bench for two years, and I saw things a certain way. Now I’m actually out on the court and experiencing things in games. You see it a differently. I got the best of both worlds, and I’m just trying to learn each and every day. … I’m feeling great, trusting my body and just playing basketball.”
Rehabbing from such serious injuries is complicated, the mind sometimes trailing the body. Gilbert wondered if his play would be hindered by any fear of the next injury. Early on, it would enter his mind during dives for loose balls and drives to the basket. He’s past that.
The fear does seem to be on the mind of fans, at times. Gilbert was clobbered near the basket during the first half Thursday and hit the floor hard. He popped right back up, jumping. It was an “I’m fine, chill out” moment as the crowd roared its approval.
We all got used to seeing Gilbert on the periphery. Now we’re getting used to seeing him in the thick of things. He’s averaging 28.9 minutes, developing a feel for the offense and a nice chemistry with Jalen Adams. That bodes well for UConn down the stretch and especially into the next two years.
“It’s going to take Al time to become the player you hoped he’d be,” Hurley said. “You just need experience, man. ... You need minutes on the court. You’re going to learn some hard lessons. The hard lessons aren’t over.”
Those lessons take place in games now, 16 and counting. There are hints of a little Shabazz Napier moxie and A.J. Price cool in Gilbert’s game. This is only the beginning of what could end up being a special player, a special career, one worth waiting a couple years for.
“I just want to be a leader and play my heart out every single day,” he said.
UConn guard Alterique Gilbert is averaging 13.2 points after scoring 19 against SMU on Thursday.
MIKE ANTHONYman[email protected]