Georgia’s Gaines makes net gains as a sophomore

It was easy for Kenny Gaines to get lost in the shuffle playing for the Georgia Stars on the summer circuit when he was in high school.

AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia guard Kenny Gaines (12) high fives fans while walking off the court after an NCAA college basketball game in Athens, Ga., Wednesday, March 5, 2014.

His teammates included top 100 national prospects Alex Poythress (Kentucky), Tony Parker (UCLA), Brandon Montay (Florida State) and Marcus Georges-Hunt (Georgia Tech).

“I saw some of my other AAU teammates who were ranked higher and things,” Gaines said. “So I always kind of had a chip on my shoulder to just play harder every time I go out and my talent will show up.”

Gaines, a three-star recruit out of Whitefield Academy, certainly is showing his talent for Georgia, where he is an important building block for a team that can clinch the Southeastern Conference tournament’s No. 3 seed with a win in today’s 5 p.m. game at LSU in the regular season finale.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound sophomore shooting guard has led Georgia in scoring in five of the last six games, averaging 18.3 points per game.

“I would like to say I’m surprised but actually I’m not,” Whitefield Academy coach Tyrone Johnson said. “I’ve always felt like Kenny’s talent level was off the chart and he was one of those kids who blossomed relatively late as compared to some of his peers that got a lot of limelight earlier in the eighth and ninth grade years.”

After playing behind NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last season, Gaines has increased his scoring average from 3.7 points per game as a freshman to a team-leading 13.1 this year.

“I didn’t know how it was going to be this year, but I knew that I could get the job done defensively being pretty quick on my feet and having really good defensive instincts,” said Gaines, third on the team with 21 blocks.

Johnson said Gaines has more than just the special athletic ability that was on display again Wednesday night when he skied to dunk on a lob from Charles Mann to beat the buzzer in the rout of Mississippi State.

“Kenny has the intangibles I feel to be a great player,” Johnson said. “He has an insatiable appetite to compete regardless of the stage.”

Gaines’ stage isn’t limited to the basketball court.

“He talks a big game about singing and dancing and piano playing,” guard Juwan Parker said.

And showed it, taking to the keys on grand piano at the Knoxville Marriott hotel before a game there on Feb. 18.

Just like he did on last year’s trip to Tennessee.

He played a gospel song by Byron Cage this year.

“I just decided to play a couple of tunes,” Gaines said.

Gaines began playing piano when he was 8 and says he now he can play songs by ear,

He played the drums in the marching band in high school — the bass as a sophomore, the snare as a junior and the tenor as a senior — and performed a rap song with a friend in the school’s “The Bean” talent show.

“It was more him singing and me like beat boxing to help him along,” Gaines said.

His hoops start began at the age of 2 when he got a basketball as a Christmas gift.

By the time he was in the eighth grade, he scored 39 points in a varsity game at Colonial Hill Christian School.

He hasn’t quite reached that total at Georgia, but netted 25 against Arkansas and 27 against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks, Clemson, Iowa and Georgia Tech were among his finalists when he picked Georgia. Louisville also offered him a scholarship two days after he committed to Georgia, Gaines said.

During the last six games, he’s shot 57.1 percent from the field, including going 23 of 44 on 3-pointers (52.3 percent).

“I think it’s just confidence,” Gaines said. “Last year, I wasn’t as confident with my offensive game. This year coach kind of gave me the green light and told me to go out there and play and whenever I do, good things tend to happen.”

Georgia coach Mark Fox said Gaines, like Caldwell-Pope, has learned which shots to take and which to pass up.

“Now he takes much better shots,” Fox said. “We just pointed out on the tape from the last game a shot that he turned down that last year he would have taken. He deserves credit for taking better shots, and with that he’s had success and developed confidence.”

Gaines is a big reason why Georgia has won 11 SEC games for the first time since 2003.

“He’s given them a perimeter threat along with (Nemanja) Djurisic, and I think he’s playing with a lot more confidence than early in the year,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Obviously, he’s on a roll right now. …He’s in a really good place right now, looking very comfortable on the basketball court.”

Fox thinks Gaines can keep getting better.

“I think he’s got a very, very high ceiling,” Fox said. “He’s a very talented young guy.”

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