clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Arizona women’s basketball freshman Kailyn Gilbert brings spark while learning the ropes

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 13 Women’s Cal State Northridge at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona freshman Kailyn Gilbert seems like a bundle of contradictions. The dynamic scorer and 2020 Class 3A Player of the Year was labeled as a point guard when she played for Tampa Prep in Tampa, Fla. during her freshman and sophomore seasons but averaged just 0.7 assists per game while scoring 29.6 points per game over her first two seasons. She had over 1,000 points in those first two years of high school basketball but only 31 total assists.

As a sophomore, when she averaged 0.9 APG, the Tampa Bay Times ran a story with the headline “Six Tampa Bay basketball players who are ball hogs in the best way.” The article primarily focused on Gilbert, and that is still the contradiction of the Wildcats’ freshman guard. To this day, she remains a “ball hog in the best way” who is adapting to team play.

There are a lot of things to learn and get accustomed to when moving from high school to big-time Division I women’s basketball. Defense might be the biggest, but it’s certainly not the only thing. Sharing the ball is important when you have four players in the starting lineup who average double figures. Even something as simple as sportsmanship and proper court etiquette can sometimes slip a player’s mind, whether she’s a freshman or not.

On the court, Gilbert is slowly but surely becoming more team oriented. It started with the fast break. At the beginning of the season, she would dribble the ball up the court and take the shot herself even if she had a teammate on the break ready to receive the ball and score before the defense got set.

Within just a few games, she had started to break herself of that habit. After all, the quickest way up the court is the pass not the dribble. Passing to someone as quick as Shaina Pellington, who is already running up the court, is even quicker.

That doesn’t mean Gilbert is not getting hers. She will even take shots in traffic and after a single pass, things that Arizona head coach Adia Barnes generally does not like when other players do it.

It’s hard to argue with those shots from Gilbert, though. She hits 42.5 percent of her shots from the field, 36.7 percent of her 3-points shots, and 73.1 percent of her free throws. That’s just below the team’s average of 44.7 percent field goal shooting and exactly the team’s average from 3, with both numbers ranking her sixth on the team. At the line, Gilbert is well above the team’s average of 65.9 percent and ranks third on the team.

She is becoming like fifth-year guard Jade Loville, who has “earned the right” to take contested shots according Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. Barnes said that it’s the team’s responsibility to not only know who can take what shots but also to know who is hot at any given time and “feed the hot hand.”

Against Washington State, both Gilbert and sophomore Madi Conner were the hot hands for a long stretch in the second quarter. Feeding them got Arizona back into the game.

Barnes has compared Gilbert to Loville since before the season started. She compares their abilities to score and their willingness to work. That willingness to work was one of the first things Barnes mentioned about Gilbert before the season began. It makes the coach feel especially responsible for developing her player.

It's not a new thing for the freshman. Gilbert’s work ethic has been praised since she was very young.

“Her work ethic,” trainer Chris Ward at The Skill Center told Sports Stars of Tomorrow last year. “It’s just different. You can tell when a kid is different, where their focus is.”

Gilbert said that focus has been intense for years. She said there weren’t a lot of courts where she could work near her home. So, she and her dad David would spend hours driving around looking for a place to work.

While she had everything she wanted in a material sense, she said that didn’t have the kinds of opportunities that a lot of top basketball players from other parts of the country have.

“Where I’m from, basketball really isn’t pushed as much as in other states,” Gilbert said. “So…coming from there, you kind of have to find and connect with the right people to make sure that you’re put on a certain platform.”

In order to get the right platform, Gilbert transferred twice during high school. Her high school path started at Tampa Prep in her native Tampa, Fla. As a junior, she played for Seffner (Fla.) Christian Academy, which is also located in the Tampa area. The next season, she was at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Bradenton is about an hour south of Tampa, just north of Sarasota.

At IMG Academy, she was with other highly motivated young women trying to reach the top of the sport. One of them was Oregon freshman Grace VanSlooten, who relocated from Ohio to spend her final year of high school in Bradenton. She has turned that into the best freshman campaign in the Pac-12.

“Playing with Grace was amazing,” Gilbert said. “Hard worker, good attitude. Good person in general.”

In addition to playing alongside someone of VanSlooten’s caliber, Gilbert found resources at IMG that she was not used to. It wasn’t just about the facilities, which were good enough that the WNBA used them early in the pandemic to create a “bubble” that allowed the pros to have a season. IMG also offers mental health support by way of IMG’s Head of Mental Conditioning, Lindsey Hamilton.

That kind of support might be why nothing seems to phase Gilbert on the court. Her biggest challenges have been adapting to what the coaches want from her and the ways college and high school differ. She thinks she has gotten the hang of it fairly quickly and is already a better player than she was just a few months ago.

“High school and college are two different things, and I think that coming from where I came from, some of the things weren’t emphasized as much as they are here,” Gilbert said. “So just kind of breaking bad habits and forming new habits.”

Each transfer she made in high school was done with the express purpose of preparing for college—looking for an environment most conducive to not only getting her to the next level, but to helping her thrive at a top program. Now that she’s playing a significant role at a Top 25 program, her goal is to prepare for a professional career, hopefully in the WNBA.

“[Going] from my regular high school to IMG was really hard because I got away with a lot of things at my other high school,” Gilbert said. “So, when I got to IMG, I was running a lot, and some days I wanted to quit. But I’m still here.”

Gilbert thanked the coaches, especially IMG head coach Shell Dailey, for the fact that she made it to Arizona. The freshman has shown the confidence she has in her abilities since the moment she arrived in Tucson, and she has not looked back. She misses Florida because of her family and the ability to go jet skiing on a regular basis, but the basketball is challenging her and she is growing.

Gilbert’s strength and confidence has had major impacts on the Wildcats almost every time she has had the opportunity to get on the court. When Arizona was struggling against Washington State on Sunday, it was the fearlessness of Gilbert and Conner that got the Wildcats back into the game and gave the fans something to cheer about. The team was not able to pull off the win, but without the two underclassmen, the game would have been over halfway through the third quarter.

She is still growing, though. So, Gilbert’s impact is both positive and negative. When she is on the court, she is very involved in the offense. That means she is directly involved in the successes and failures of the team.

Gilbert has the highest usage rate on the team this season at 26.8 percent. That’s almost a full three points higher than fifth year forward Cate Reese and more than three points higher than Loville—and it just keeps rising.

Just a week ago, Gilbert was just two percentage points higher than Reese. What that means is that when Gilbert is on the floor, she either shoots the ball, goes to the line, or turns it over 26.8 percent of the time. That is the ninth highest usage rate of any Arizona player since Barnes took over the program as head in the 2016-17 season and three of those above her belong to Aari McDonald.

Does a usage rate that high by someone who came in as a point guard help the offense flow? Does it cause it to stagnate? Would it be better for her to play only off the ball? The answer has been different at different times.

McDonald was both the team’s leading scorer and facilitator when she was Arizona, so her high usage rate helped the Wildcats.

This is a different kind of team, though. Arizona has a lot more scorers now. That kind of usage rate by the player who is supposed to be setting up the offense can keep someone like Loville or Reese from getting touches even when they are the players with the hot hand.

Reese leads the team in scoring with 12.3 PPG in conference play, although her usage rate is fourth at 24.5 percent. Loville is second in scoring with 10.8 PPG and third with a usage rate of 24.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Pellington’s usage rate and number of shots have been consistently falling since Pac-12 play started. Her usage rate is just 19.2 percent in conference play (7th on the team), Gilbert’s has gone in the other direction. She is up to 25.2 percent in conference play and maintains the top position on the team by a considerable margin. Conner is second in league play at 24.8 percent, a dramatic jump from the 21.4 percent (5th on the team) she had in nonconference play.

Learning if those are good trends or not will take a while for both coaches and players. Perhaps most importantly, learning when the trends are working in their favor is important. Even if the plan is to feed the hot hand, when other players are not getting to touch the ball or impacting the game in any way, they tend to become dissatisfied. That becomes a balancing act for Gilbert, whose tendencies both in high school and the start of her college career have been to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court almost every time she touches it.

“I think when we’re moving the ball and we’re playing with balance, everybody feels like they’re touching the ball,” Barnes said. “Because even as a player to touch it and reverse it, or to dribble off an on-ball and pass it, you feel involved versus standing in the corner, one pass, two pass, shot. So, when it’s reverse, reverse back, everybody feels the ball because you’re touching it, you’re doing something in the offense.”

But to be on the court and be part of those trends requires more from Gilbert than making shots. It is about putting the team first at all times.

On-court etiquette and sportsmanship are also signs of putting the team first. Several players have had breakdowns in those areas. Esmery Martinez had the most recent one when she got a costly technical for pushing a Washington State opponent.

The week before, it was Gilbert who had a breakdown of sportsmanship when Arizona easily defeated Arizona State in Tempe.

With the Wildcats up by 13 points, the Sun Devils conceded and backed off. Rather than respect that and dribble out the clock, Gilbert tried to shoot the ball with just a few seconds left. While Gilbert told Barnes she believed the clock was already at zero by the time she shot it and she was just messing with her coach, Barnes was not pleased. She brought it up to the media unasked in her post-game press conference and elaborated when asked about it on prior to playing Washington.

“I had a serious talk with her,” Barnes said. “I don’t want her doing that. She cannot do that. She doesn’t understand you don’t want to ever give teams locker room material. You don’t want to take a shot like that because if I’m the other team, I would try to tear her up the next game. I would say, ‘She comes to the lane, foul her hard.’ Because it’s a disrespect thing. And she doesn’t mean it like that. She honestly was just messing with me. And she took it right after the buzzer she said, but that’s not how it looks and everybody’s…I think their reality is how they perceive things. And so, it looks like she took it. And I told her, if that was me and I’m on the other team, I’m gonna lay her on the floor. I would have fouled her really hard. So, you don’t want to be in a situation like that. And it’s a respect thing. It’s our standards and we don’t do that. And it’s the second time I’ve had to apologize to a coach. So, I don’t know. In high school she did that, too. She doesn’t understand the big picture of that, but she’s learning. She won’t do it again.”

Barnes loves the work Gilbert puts into her craft. The coach loves that her freshman guard can take over a game at any moment. She just needs the freshman to grasp all the finer points of college basketball and rise to the top, both in her play and her attitude. When that happens, the guard is everything that’s great about women’s sports.

Kailyn Gilbert speaks to the media on Nov. 16, 2022

Adia Barnes, Kailyn Gilbert and Madi Conner speak to the media on Jan. 29, 2023