The art of the steal rests on anticipation. And ever since he was the smallest guy on the court—and make no mistake, at a generous 5-9, he still is—Jacob Gilyard has turned heads with an electrifying mix of speed, hands, and a savant-level basketball IQ that has opposing guards, coaches and big men fretting the turnover column in old-school box scores.
If you are so unlucky to run into the Richmond Spiders, the first thing on a smart scouting report will be a warning about Jacob Gilyard. But it won’t matter, cause that little dude you thought was too small, well, he will commit a 211 in broad daylight while he adds to the all-time Division I steals record that may well never be broken.
For the last five seasons at Richmond, Gilyard has hounded guards, delivered jaw-dropping dimes, and made game-winning plays with his defense, court vision, and shooting. And on December 6, 2021, in a game at Northern Iowa, Gilyard corralled career steal No. 386, topping the Division I mark long held by former Providence guard and current Georgia assistant coach John Lineham.
Those defensive chops run in the family, as Gilyard’s dad, Rodney, owns the all-time steals record at Ottawa University, an NAIA school in Kansas. The proud father was present at the record-breaking game and can’t help but smile when talking about his son. “I just really enjoy watching him do what he does,” Rodney says. “And just knowing that he’s done something that nobody else has done. I mean, he’s done it as well as anybody that’s ever played the game, which is just incredible.” For his part, though, Jacob says the record still doesn’t quite feel real. “It’s truly special, for sure,” says Gilyard. “But it’s hard to understand the magnitude of it while you are still in college.”
Gilyard landed as a high school freshman at Kansas City’s Barstow School under the tutelage of coach Billy Thomas. The former NBA player said that within the first 10 minutes of seeing Gilyard scrimmage he knew he had his starting point guard for the next four years. What struck Thomas the most was Gilyard’s will, work ethic, and adaptability to any situation on the floor. “A lot of kids want to play Division I, but don’t have an inkling of how hard it’s gonna be,” says Thomas, now the head coach at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo, “and Jacob said, ‘Bring it on, however hard it is, I’m willing to do that because this is what I am trying to attain.’”
Gilyard would lead his Knights to three straight trips to the Missouri Class 3 State Championship game alongside running mates Jeriah Horne (now at Tulsa) and Shea Rush, who walked-on at North Carolina. The Knights won one of those championships in 2015. The following year, the team suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Michael and Jontay Porter-led Father Tolton team, 62-60. Gilyard nabbed six steals in that championship game. In his senior campaign, Gilyard averaged 33.2 points per game and was named the winner of the DiRenna Award, annually given to the best player in the Kansas City metro. Former KC standouts Alec Burks, Semi Ojeleye, and Kareem Rush also have won the award. No matter Gilyard’s accolades—three all-state selections and 2017 Class 3 Missouri player of the year—at 5-9, the blue bloods weren’t calling. But Richmond coach Chris Mooney did.
Mooney didn’t see an under-sized point guard, he saw a young man who not only dazzled with his energy but also had the mental toughness to compete at the highest levels. Gilyard’s enthusiasm, communication, and alertness gave Mooney the confidence to hand the keys to a freshman. Mooney raves about Gilyard’s memory and ability to apply what has happened in the past to his next split-second decision. That mental acuity, coupled with a highly-competitive nature, translates into the winning plays. “He’s always engaged and ready and able to make great plays because it’s never really turned off,” says Mooney. “He has incredible instincts, the best instincts I’ve seen, and he’s so confident and comfortable.” And time after time, those instincts lead to clampdown defense and fast-break points, like his five-steal, six-assist game in a road win against then-No. 10 Kentucky on Nov. 29, 2020.
That signature win also featured one of Gilyard’s most dramatic steals. Down early in the second half, Gilyard poked away a Devin Askew entry pass. As the ball bounced toward the sideline, Gilyard leapt, snagged the rock, and just before landing out of bounds, uncorked a behind the back rainbow pass that settled into the hands of Blake Francis for an uncanny assist and an easy two. Later that night, the play was No 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
Gilyard’s skill even draws the praise of opposing coaches, including Mike Rhoades, who leads Richmond’s A-10 rival VCU. Rhoades has faced Gilyard nine times over the last five years, and twice Gilyard has pick-pocketed the Rams for five steals in a game. “Jacob causes lots of problems due to him anticipating the next play at a high level. He is innate with his feel to get his hands on a dribble, pass, or even a simple loose ball,” Rhoades says. “If it’s there to take, he takes it. Like the last piece of candy at the candy store. It’s over. His ball.”
When Gilyard walks across the Richmond campus with 6-10 Grant Golden, students see the oddest couple. To hear Gilyard tell it, he didn’t know that the center would end up being his best friend. Gilyard likes to cut it up, and Golden’s more of a quiet type who’s armed with a subtle humor that routinely leaves Gilyard laughing on the floor in their apartment. The Princeton offense the two anchor exacerbates the duo’s connection on the floor. “We have a feeling for how each person likes to play,” Golden says. “And we’ve been really successful.”
Golden remembers Gilyard hopping into the mix during his first visit to Richmond. Gilyard played like he already belonged in college, Golden says, strictly from his IQ and understanding of the game. But everyone in the gym was shocked by Gilyard’s speed. “I’ve never seen someone that fast on the basketball court,” Golden says, who also adds that he still gets a thrill from playing with Gilyard. “There are steals he’s gotten this year I wouldn’t expect anybody to get. But if anyone is going to get them, it would be him.”
Two of those steals came on December 11, 2021, when the Spiders were hosting Toledo. Before the game, Gilyard, as he always does, put his iPhone in Focus-Work mode and took a dip in the hot tub. Out on the floor before the game, Gilyard stood by himself in a spotlight at center court. Above him, the video board showed a montage of various thefts, starting with his first and closing with 386. Then a banner featuring his picture was hoisted to the rafters to enshrine the steal record. The Robins Center crowd chanted “Gilly…Gilly…Gilly.”
Once the tip went up, though, Richmond promptly laid an egg and found themselves down 17 at the half. Gilyard was scoreless from the floor and had just one steal and one assist. “I was thinking, Man, we can’t lose this one,” Gilyard recalls. “This will all fall back on me if we lose this. I can’t let that happen.”
And he didn’t. Under his leadership and better overall second half execution, the Spiders clawed back into the game. With 34 seconds left, Gilyard drained a three-pointer to take a 71-69 lead. After a missed free throw by Richmond junior Tyler Burton, Gilyard squared up against Toldeo standout sophomore Ryan Rollins.
Gilyard wondered if Rollins would pull a three, but then he saw the guard lift his eyes. Gilyard salivated. Rollins didn’t get into Gilyard on the first dribble and the crafty guard already knew what would happen next. “Okay, yeah, he’s definitely pulling up on the second dribble,” Gilyard recalls thinking to himself. “Sure enough, he takes a second dribble and lifts and I get my hand on it.”
With three seconds left, Toledo has one last chance and heaved a Hail Mary inbound pass to forward J.T. Shumate. And you already know who swiped it away from the big man to seal the victory.
Mark S. Luce lives, writes and teaches in Kansas City.