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Graney: Hard work pays off for UNLV sophomore Keshon Gilbert

It wasn’t a specific moment. Or practice. Or individual workout.

Kevin Kruger didn’t just look up one day and notice the vast improvement in the basketball skills of Keshon Gilbert.

It all developed over time, while locked in a gym, putting up shot after shot, a certain miss playing over and over inside the sophomore point guard’s head.

“His stubbornness is his best thing because he hates the thought of people taking the ball from him or messing up or getting beat,” said Kruger, UNLV’s second-year coach. “It’s why the world is at his feet in terms of basketball. His best is still ahead of him.”

The Rebels on Saturday night play their first true road game of the season at the University of San Diego. UNLV is 7-0 and off to it best start in 11 years.

“Being 7-0 is not our goal,” Gilbert said. “We want something bigger.”

Better every day

His production is staggeringly better than a year ago, when Gilbert as a freshman played in all 32 games while averaging 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds.

But he remembers that first taste of college ball mostly for one 3-point shot in the season’s last game.

The Rebels trailed Wyoming by a point in the final seconds of a Mountain West Tournament quarterfinal when the ball was swung Gilbert’s way. He launched an attempt that would have given UNLV the lead. It hit front iron and bounced away.

“It put a chip on my shoulder,” Gilbert said. “I just went to work and made sure I was in the gym every day trying to get better at everything.”

He has. Incredibly so.

Gilbert in the early going this season leads the Rebels in scoring (15.9) and assists (3.3) while shooting 56 percent. He has attempted 22 3s and made 14. That’s good for 64 percent.

His shot is different. Much better. A much smoother rotation to the ball. He likely makes that 3-pointer against the Cowboys with this form.

He also hasn’t cheated the game, not allowing what are obvious strides at the offensive end to affect how he defends at the other. He’s second on the team in steals with 14.

He has always owned this knack for getting inside, never fearful of driving among the trees. It’s an aggressiveness born from the stubbornness Kruger speaks of, a 6-foot-4 guard unwilling to flinch in the eyes of adversity.

“It was only a matter of time before all his work showed up and that’s what is happening now,” senior guard EJ Harkless said of Gilbert. “Everyone is seeing it. He’s not afraid of anything. Nothing is going to stop him.”

Leadership is developed over time. It’s earned. Maturity plays a key role. The Rebels have eight seniors and yet are being led on the floor by a second-year player.

I would think 7-0 strongly suggests things are working.

“Being a sophomore around a lot of older guys isn’t always the easiest thing in the world,” Kruger said. “But when you play as hard as (Gilbert) does, there’s a respect level there automatically. It just comes with it.

“No matter what (year) you are or what you do, playing hard gives you credibility. And then, of course, he’s producing. Shooting it well, getting in the paint, making plays. He gets better every day.”

Wants another shot

The Rebels remain a work in progress offensively, their finest efforts at that end coming the last few games. It’s on Gilbert to show the way, involving teammates while never forgetting that how this team defends should ultimately decide how far it goes. And it has been terrific doing so.

There isn’t a college team across the country that doesn’t face big shots to possibly win games.

Gilbert had one last year.

Should he again stare down a 3-point attempt with a conference tournament game on the line …

Will he make it?

“Yes, for sure,” Gilbert said. “No question about it. I want that chance.”

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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