In anticipation of the Final Four, we're highlighting four players whose very presence on the court is a reason to watch. Not that you need any convincing, probably. Part one, Ryan O'Hanlon's tribute to Louisville guard and college kid extraordinaire Russ Smith, is here. Part two, Josh Weill's salute to Kansas's extraordinary and extraordinarily patient Thomas Robinson, is here. Part three, David Matthews anti-paean to Duke-ian annoyance maestro Aaron Craft, is here.
The name, Kidd-Gilchrist, barely fits on the back of his jersey. That name, and how it came to be, is obviously important. But it’s his game—the breadth of it and the thrill of it both—that makes Michael Kidd-Gilchrist the most compelling player in New Orleans this weekend. He is also a superior athlete, the best fast-break player in college ball, fully capable of defending all five positions, and the emotional leader of the nation’s best team at age 18. All important, all impressive, all more than enough to ensure that he’ll be one of the first five players chosen this summer if he chooses to leave school for the NBA. He was even the central figure of a documentary made about his high school basketball team. And yet, the first attributes coaches and writers ascribe to MKG have very little to do with his basketball talent. That's part of it, but it's not nearly the whole of it.
To give that talent its due, though, it's pretty great. MKG will fly from no where to get an offensive rebound, or sprint back to block an opponent’s break away lay-up, or complete an and-one that should require more strength than someone with his frame can exert. Offensively, as one rival coach, Kidd-Gilchrist can use either hand but never changes direction with his dribble, a trait that should make him easy to defend; yet he seemingly always gets to the rim. His size and strength help a lot, here, of course. But what guides or directs all that is something greater than talent. Kidd-Gilchrist's dives to the hoop have a unique inevitability—he gets there because he can, but he can in large part because of how ferociously he wants to.
Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t the first great college player to dominate games by force of will. Tyler Hansbrough won a National Player of the Year award and a National Championship with that MO and not nearly as much else as MKG brings. And while Hansbrough skills were underappreciated, his game was aesthetically, let's say, difficult—flailing arms, bully-boy shoulders, rugby-scrum rebounding and the gape-mouthed Psycho T perma-expression that made him look like a demonic carp—gave the impression more of a spazzy kid wilding out on the playground than it did of a high-wattage star. On the court, MKG shows no sign of that struggle. It isn't effortless—it's always obvious how hard he's working. But there's an effortlessness to his game that is unique; Kidd-Gilchrist's movements have a different kind of grace and force than his peers, and one shared mostly by NBA players to whom it would be unfair to compare him.
That grace, as it should, has sharp edges. He is the closest thing Kentucky has to a enforcer, more willing to be physical than Anthony Davis; he’s the stopper on a team that also features a paradigm-exploding defensive force. Yet, and here's where the grace comes in, MKG doesn’t take the surly approach favored by other players put into the stopper's role; there is no sense, in watching him, that it’s at all Kidd-Gilchrist Against the World, or that he’s out there to silence doubters. As with the rest of his teammates on this unusually likable juggernaut, that sour-beyond-its-years cynicism and cockiness is largely missing from Kidd-Gilchrist's game. It’s hard to watch MKG play and not be struck by his positivity. The Cool Hand Luke smile belies just how hard he’s working, but he’s also clearly having fun.
As others here have said, projecting a player’s game onto their personality is risky. Kidd-Gilchrist is a shy dude who largely avoids the spotlight; he apparently skipped Final Four media day. We know he felt uneasy about pushing Darius Miller to the bench. We know that Kidd-Gilchrist started early morning shooting sessions for the team and that his teammates always commend his work ethic. But even to the extent that we could ever know a teenage stranger, we don't know him.
It’s easy, particularly knowing his past, to hear these anecdotes and want to project a thousand things onto MKG. But it probably makes sense to enjoy what we know we will see this weekend: that Kidd-Gilchrist is going to compete as hard as anyone and that he'll make a few plays that shouldn’t be possible look effortless. And, after the games, we can be reasonably sure that he’ll find a way to relax and watch The Lion King. As any other kid might, but also not quite.