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UNLV’s lone freshman earns respect with defense, competitiveness

UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger noticed something about freshman point guard Keshon Gilbert. Senior wing Bryce Hamilton notices it, too.

“He shows that he has confidence,” Hamilton said Thursday during the Mountain West’s annual media days. “He comes in, shows that he can play with the older guys. He does a very good job at it. He’s got a killer. He’s only going to learn and get better. Every day.”

Maybe a little cliche, but accurate in this case, because Gilbert is the only freshman on a roster flush with juniors and seniors and is earning respect with his competitive nature. The former Durango High standout is impressing first with his demeanor and second with his defense.

It’s who he is. What he does. How he’s going to play. Why he’s going to get on the floor this season.

“My offense always comes from my defense,” said Gilbert, voted the preseason Mountain West Freshman of the Year on Wednesday.

“If that’s how I’m going to get on the floor, that’s what I’m going to do. … Just be a dog. Work harder than my opponent.”

It’s the way Gilbert has always played — dating to his days a kid in Peoria, Illinois, and St. Louis. The ones that predate his tenure in Las Vegas, where he began fulfilling his potential to blossom as a three-star recruit. He moved to Las Vegas during his freshman year of 2017-18 and played three years at Durango before concluding his prep career with a state championship at St. Louis-Vashon.

He committed to UNLV at the beginning of his junior season and honored his pledge amid former Rebels coach T.J. Otzelberger’s departure and Kruger’s promotion. The rest of the program’s freshman class fizzled, leaving Gilbert as the only teenager on the team.

With that in mind, he competes rather feverishly, and Kruger thinks the age gap serves as additional motivation.

“Being the youngest on the team … I think he almost uses that as a positive insecurity in trying to prove himself every day with the older group,” Kruger said. “That’s fueled him to have a chance and to be a good college player. Having that motivation has been great. I think he’ll be able to do big things this year. Because he just loves to play. … Sometimes you’ve got to tell him to calm down a little bit.”

Just not when he’s defending full court.

In practices, Gilbert is thriving as an on-ball defender and often hounds his fellow point guards all the way up the floor. He’s grown, too, standing now at 6 feet, 4 inches, and his size, length, quickness and activity give him the defensive versatility to check some wings.

As he said, his offense is often a byproduct of his defense — though he’s a deft ballhandler who can drive, finish and kick as he continues to refine his jumper. That said, Gilbert thinks it has improved enough for him to play off the ball in certain situations.

Upperclassmen Jordan McCabe and Marvin Coleman also run the point, and Gilbert has played off the ball in practice in lineups that feature multiple ballhandlers.

“He’s done everything he’s been asked,” Kruger said. “And from our approach, we notice that. He doesn’t have his own opinion about the way things should be done. If you try to help him and coach him, he’s welcome to it. He wants to get better at it.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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