CHICAGO – NBA scouts have one big question about Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: Can he improve his jump shot?
What the scouts don't doubt is Kidd-Gilchrist's work ethic, given how much time he's already put in trying to overcome his biggest challenge: stuttering.
After years of letting his stuttering silence him, Kidd-Gilchrist no longer fears talking about his condition – or anything else.
"I don’t care about what people think about me anymore," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "This is my life, not their life. I have to live it. They don’t.
"It’s been a big battle for me just mentally. I’m just fighting through it. … I don’t mind it no more."
Kidd-Gilchrist's father, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Sr. – who played alongside former NBA player Milt Wagner on the 1981 Camden High basketball team that won a New Jersey state championship – was fatally shot Aug. 11, 1996, before Kidd-Gilchrist turned 3. Kidd-Gilchrist's mother, Cindy Richardson, raised him, and his stuttering contributed to him being shy as a child.
He had to face his stuttering problem after becoming one of the nation’s top high school basketball players at St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, N.J. His growing fame led to interview requests, which Kidd-Gilchrist was "terrified" to accept.
“I spoke a lot around my friends and family, stuff like that," he said. "But other than that, I wouldn’t talk to nobody really."
Kidd-Gilchrist joined Kentucky's stellar recruiting class last year, which included No. 1 projected draft pick Anthony Davis. The Wildcats' huge following made it impossible for Kidd-Gilchrist to hide.
The school hired a speech therapist to work with Kidd-Gilchrist once a week his freshman year. He rarely participated in postgame news conferences or did one-on-one interviews. He still repeatedly drops and picks up an object – often a water bottle or watch – to aid his rhythm when he speaks to the media or with a coach in a meeting.
As the Wildcats marched to last season's national title, the attention they received swelled. While Kidd-Gilchrist improved his speech, he didn’t speak at a news conference until after Kentucky became national champions. He also spoke with four other teammates when they announced their intentions to declare for the NBA draft.
"I’ve grown a lot," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I’m a mama’s boy from Jersey. Basketball-wise, with off the court stuff on my speech, too, I got a lot better."
Former Kentucky forward Darius Miller said Kidd-Gilchrist arrived at school very shy but eventually opened up. "He dealt with it really well," Miller said. "He was kind of hesitant at the beginning. He was younger coming into college, too. That was a piece of it. We never said anything to him about it."
NBA scouts say few, if any, prospects in this year's draft play harder than Kidd-Gilchrist. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 31.1 minutes per on a Kentucky team that features six draft candidates. He knows he'll need to improve his outside shooting after making just 25.5 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Kidd-Gilchrist patterns himself after Hall of Fame forward Scottie Pippen. One Eastern Conference assistant general manager projected that Kidd-Gilchrist could be selected fifth overall by the Sacramento Kings.
"He’s a tough and versatile defender who can guard multiple positions," the assistant GM said. "The better talent around him, the better he will be. He can't score on his own, but he scores well in transition and would be really good on a playoff team.
"I love his toughness, energy, defense and versatility. You can market that he will play hard every night."
NBA teams aren't too worried about his stuttering.
"With him being a high draft pick in high demand from local and national media, he will need some training," the East assistant GM said. "I’m sure he will keep attacking it just like the way he plays."
Said one West assistant GM: "I don’t care that he stutters. I don’t care if he is a mime or a mute. My question is, 'Can he play?' That’s all we should be concerned about."
Los Angeles Clippers free agent Kenyon Martin and former NBA player Bob Love have fought to overcome their own stuttering. And Kidd-Gilchrist is proud that he, too, could become a role model for children who stutter.
"My advice is to just be you," he said. "Don’t shy away from it. Don’t ever shy away it."
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