The heir apparent as Kentucky point guard described his approach to basketball as aggressive, assertive, unflinching and unyielding.
“I’ve always had that attack-you mentality,” Sahvir Wheeler said Friday.
To explain the source of this unquenchable desire to triumph, Wheeler went biblical. To be exact, Numbers Chapter 13 is the inspiration.
As the story goes, Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. God set the destination of Canaan (aka the Promised Land).
When nearing Canaan, Moses sent representatives of the 12 tribes ahead to get a sense of their prospective new home. Their mission was to determine how easily or difficult it would be to take control of the land of milk and honey.
Ten of the 12 reported to Moses that the people living in Canaan were too powerful and their cities too fortified.
But Joshua and Caleb offered a minority report that won the day. The Lord promised us this land, they said. Why wouldn’t we go and take it?
“That mentality has always worked for me,” Wheeler said. “That was the roots of my confidence. No matter where you were, no matter what’s going on, you’ve got to be that guy knowing who you are. And you can take over any place you are at.”
Wheeler, who might be considered something of a basketball Israelite in transferring from Georgia to the basketball land of milk and honey that is Kentucky, corrected a listener who interpreted the story as that of a player motivated by being an underdog.
“It’s never been (an) underdog,” he said. “It’s more of, like, I deserve to be here. I know I should be there. I know I’m qualified, and I am the best here.”
In that context, it was no surprise to hear Wheeler dismiss his lack of size (Georgia listed his height as 5-foot-10) as significant. He shifted from Joshua and Caleb to an American singer of the 1970s, Meat Loaf.
“I might not be the biggest, but I’m probably one of the strongest and fastest,” he said. “So, I guess two out of three, that’s not so bad.”
With that, Wheeler laughed. That served as a fitting punctuation to a description of his approach to basketball told in a pleasant tone and highlighted with smiles.
Wheeler also brushed off any concern anyone might have about a point guard faced with the prospect of leading a team of relative strangers. He echoed comments made earlier by teammates in saying team bonding exercises are proceeding nicely.
As for learning the strengths and weaknesses of teammates, which could be considered Exhibit A in an assessment of a point guard, Wheeler said, “I learn something new every time we play. A guy shows me something he didn’t do previously. A lot of things are super surprising, but also to know, man, these guys are good, too.”
Wheeler said he has been struck by the size of his teammates.
Wheeler’s confidence in learning his teammates on the fly would not have surprised former Kentucky star Kevin Grevey. This week, he said that by definition the best point guards have a knack for taking charge.
“If you’re a real point guard in every sense of the word, you’re going to be a leader,” Grevey said. “You’re going to be seeing (and) watching what everybody else is doing, finding out where they like the ball, their sweet spots. …
“The real great ones, they come in and, seamlessly, they just figure it out.”
SEC Network analyst (and one-time UK assistant coach) Jimmy Dykes also dismissed any anxiety about Wheeler leading relative strangers.
“I do not think it’s a big concern that Sahvir Wheeler will be playing with entirely new teammates this year,” Dykes said. “Student-athletes these days have played so much ball with so many different teammates over the course of their high school and AAU travel ball, that figuring out who can do what is on an accelerated pace, especially for a talented point guard like Wheeler. …
“From Day One, I expect his teammates will follow him. That alone will offset any concerns about playing with all new guys. Leaders can lead, no matter who you put them with. And I think that’s Wheeler.”
Shooting was not a strength of Wheeler’s in the two seasons he played for Georgia. As a freshman, he made 16 of 50 three-point shots (32 percent). And in 2020-21, he made only 22.5 percent of his three-point shots (18 of 80).
Wheeler said he had been working on correcting a mechanical problem in his shot (a lefty, he tended to begin the shooting motion with the ball on the right side of his body).
He has set a goal of 35 percent-plus accuracy for next season. “I definitely expect to shoot it a lot better than I did last year,” he said. “I put in a lot of time (and) a lot of reps.”
Wheeler saw Kentucky adding shooters like Kellan Grady and CJ Fredrick helping enhance his game.
“They’re going to have to honor those guys,” he said of opposing defenders. “So, that’s more layup opportunities, more floater opportunities, more opportunities to hit the lob.”
Plus, defenders reacting to UK shooters ball-faking and driving will create open shots for him, Wheeler said.
Plus, the idea of defenses spreading out to cover Grady, Fredrick and Dontaie Allen led Wheeler to sound like a modern-day Joshua or Caleb. Kentucky will be unstoppable, he suggested.
“It’s hard to deal with a guy like me coming down full speed at you,” he said. “Where you have to decide whether you’re going to stop me or give up a three to a 40-plus percent three-point shooter.”