When it became apparent late last spring that Sahvir Wheeler and Kentucky were about to join forces, questions about the wisdom of UK bringing in the former Georgia point guard were loud and persistent.
In an era of basketball in which perimeter-shooting prowess is the game’s most-coveted skill, why would Kentucky want a guard who shot 39.9 percent overall, 22.5 percent on three-point tries, as a sophomore for the (Tom) Crean team?
The knocks on his shooting became so vociferous, even Wheeler heard them.
Of his sophomore year in Athens, “those (were) my worst-shooting numbers I’ve ever had as a basketball player,” Wheeler said before the UK season began. “Look through high school, my freshman year (at Georgia), I’ve always shot 50 percent on twos, I’ve always been a 36, 38 percent three-point shooter.”
In what is becoming a major bounce-back season for Kentucky basketball (17-4, 6-2 SEC) following last season’s 9-16 slog, the Wildcats’ imported 5-foot-9 point guard is doing a commendable job of dunking on his skeptics.
Over the five games since Wheeler returned from a neck injury he suffered while running blindly at full speed into an LSU pick, he is shooting at a blistering clip.
Starting with UK’s 107-79 demolition of then-No. 22 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Jan. 15 through the Wildcats’ 80-62 pasting of then-No. 5 Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night, Wheeler is making 59.6 percent of his shot attempts (28-of-47).
He is also converting 55.6 percent of his three-point tries (5-of-9) and 84.6 percent of his foul shots (11-of-13).
That’s not half bad for a guy who “can’t shoot.”
In retrospect, Wheeler believes his difficult shooting season as a Georgia sophomore can be laid off on his having to carry an exceptional offensive burden for a Bulldogs team that had lost 2020 NBA Draft overall No. 1 choice Anthony Edwards from the previous year.
“I think some of it was a bit of the high usage and having to take some difficult shots, having to force some of the offense,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s recent hot streak has pushed his overall shooting percentage at UK to 48.3 for the season. He is making a robust 51.8 percent on two-point field goal attempts. Only in his season three-point shooting percentage, 28.1, is he below the marks he sited before the year as his historical range.
While no one should reasonably expect Wheeler to shoot just under 60 percent for the rest of the season, he doesn’t need to for Kentucky to thrive offensively.
He just needs to be able to hit enough jump shots that teams have to respect him as a threat — and therefore can’t defend UK as Notre Dame did in its 66-62 upset of the Cats in South Bend on Dec. 11.
That day, the Fighting Irish sagged off Wheeler, went underneath screens and jammed the lane against drivers. Wheeler struggled with his shot (0-of-5, 0-of-2 treys) and seemed to let that impact the remainder of his game.
Afterward, Notre Dame freshman guard Blake Wesley summed up his defensive approach to playing Wheeler. “He can’t shoot. So, I might as well stay in the paint,” Wesley said.
Subsequent attempts by foes to replicate that defensive approach against UK have not been effective for various reasons — most recently because Wheeler is shooting with such confidence.
If Wheeler can make defenders respect his jumper and therefore have to come out on him, few will have the athleticism to stay in front of the Kentucky guard if he subsequently chooses to drive.
“They’ve had really good guards (in the past) but Sahvir is different from a speed standpoint,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said in the run-up to UK-KU. “Sahvir is the best 94-foot player in the country — hands down.”
For my money, one has to go back to the 2002-03 season, when Tubby Smith and UK put a 70-55 thrashing on newly-minted No. 1 Florida in Rupp Arena, to find a Wildcats regular-season victory of similar magnitude to what the 2021-22 Cats pulled off versus Kansas in Lawrence on Saturday night.
It was the kind of win that energizes a fan base and changes the perceptions of what is realistically achievable for a team.
Though he took only seven shots, making three, at Kansas, Wheeler’s hands were all over UK’s stellar showing. In an open-court, up-tempo game, he did a masterful job getting the ball where it needed to be when it needed to be there.
“I thought Sahvir tired out at the end. He should have taken himself out,” UK Coach John Calipari said afterward. “But he played good.”
It’s funny how these things play out.
Just as it was when it became apparent he was contemplating transferring from Georgia to Kentucky, Sahvir Wheeler and the relative merits of his game were again heavy topics of conversation on Twitter on Saturday night.
The twist, however, is that rather than (some) Kentucky fans questioning his shot, this time it was primarily Kansas backers lamenting that the Jayhawks hadn’t landed Wheeler out of the transfer portal.
Vanderbilt at No. 12 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. EST Wednesday
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: UK 17-4 (6-2 SEC); Vanderbilt 11-9 (3-5)
Series: Kentucky leads 152-47.
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-66 on Jan. 11, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.