Jose Alvarado, Georgia Tech’s prince of thieves, shines as a senior

February 6, 202, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) grab a rebound against Notre Dame's forward Nate Laszewski (14) in the second half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 6, 2021. Georgia Tech won 82-80 over Notre Dame. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
February 6, 202, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) grab a rebound against Notre Dame's forward Nate Laszewski (14) in the second half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 6, 2021. Georgia Tech won 82-80 over Notre Dame. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In the living room of his family’s apartment in New York, Jose Alvarado trained to be a boxer. It was a passion of his father – also Jose Alvarado – and he taught his son how to move his feet and throw punches.

“We bought pads, we bought gloves, we bought jump rope, we bought a mouthpiece, we bought everything,” the younger Alvarado said.

He loved the sound that his gloves made connecting with the pads with rapid-fire punches. Young Jose never actually competed in matches, simply sharing his dad’s love and occasionally entertaining his mother Odilia Martinez and guests to their Brooklyn home. That fact may not surprise anyone who has come to know the child pugilist as the Georgia Tech point guard who punctuates 3-pointers with riffs of air guitar.

“I was always that type of kid,” Alvarado said. “Let’s do this when everybody’s there.”

As Alvarado’s hands and feet quickened and he honed his sense of timing to attack an opponent when his guard dropped, little did he know that he was training to one day become the ACC’s master thief.

In a superlative senior season for the Yellow Jackets, Alvarado leads the conference in steals and is fourth in Division I with 2.78 thefts per game. With 202 career steals, he is fifth in school history, 38 behind all-time leader Mark Price.

Tech assistant coach Anthony Wilkins even compared Alvarado’s prowling style to a boxer’s.

“He just moves in a very, very fluid way,” Wilkins said. “His hand-eye coordination, his feel, his timing, his instincts are just off the charts.”

His daring and savvy on the defensive end have been a defining element of a season in which he has held up Tech’s legacy of New York point guards (following Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury) and could become the first Tech player named first-team All-ACC player since Alvin Jones in 2001.

“We’re watching the film as we prepare (to play Tech) and he comes from behind and I think he got somebody from Duke and goes coast to coast, and I turned to the staff and I said, ‘That’s called getting New York-ed,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “New York guards have an instinct for picking your pocket and great hands, and he is right out of that mold.”

Brey was witness to Alvarado’s habitual larceny. In Tech’s win over the Fighting Irish Feb. 6, Alvarado was a difference maker as he snuffed out six Notre Dame possessions with steals in a game decided by two points (in addition to accumulating 19 points, six rebounds and five assists against one turnover in 40 minutes of play). Among his six steals were three pulled off on three consecutive possessions.

In the space of 24 seconds of game clock, he knocked the ball out of guard Prentiss Hubbs’ hands as he tried to make a pass in the lane, deflected a backcourt pass by guard Cormac Ryan and then snuck around forward Nate Laszewski to poke the ball away as he turned his back on Alvarado on the dribble.

The last one may have been the most impressive. Because of a defensive switch, Alvarado found himself in the low post defending 6-foot-11 Juwan Durham, who backed in the 6-foot, 179-pound Alvarado, took one dribble and turned to shoot. That was all the opportunity Alvarado needed; as Durham gathered the ball at hip level to bring it up for a shot, Alvarado knocked it loose and dove to the floor to recover it.

“When they dribble the ball, they’ve got to put the ball above their waist eventually,” Alvarado said. “I can try to time it and once see that I can get it that’s when I try to take my chance to get it.”

Alvarado’s defensive might hasn’t been restricted only to his thefts. In Tech’s loss to No. 9 Virginia last week, coach Josh Pastner assigned Alvarado to defend 6-8 forward Sam Hauser, who was averaging 15.4 points per game to lead the Cavaliers. Alvarado clung to Hauser, denying him opportunities to receive the ball and suffocating him when he got it. When Hauser tried to exploit his height advantage in the post, Alvarado’s activity prevented him from getting comfortable. Hauser finished with a season-low eight points.

“He’s experienced and he’s really got a defensive mindset,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of Alvarado prior to the game. “And he’s very quick with really good instincts.”

After the Virginia game, Pastner touted Alvarado as the ACC defensive player of the year. He would be Tech’s second winner, following center Ben Lammers in 2017, Pastner’s first season.

“I don’t know who’s a better defender than Jose Alvarado in this league,” Pastner said.

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado, left, steals the pass intended for Pittsburgh forward Justin Champagnie, right, during an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb 14, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado, left, steals the pass intended for Pittsburgh forward Justin Champagnie, right, during an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb 14, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Alvarado has simultaneously developed into a highly effective offensive player – he was fifth in the ACC in scoring (16.8 points per game) after Sunday’s games. But Alvarado puts defense first. It’s the mindset he has embraced since his days playing in the schoolyard next to his middle school, PS/MS 200 in Queens. Before he locked in on the likes of Hauser and Notre Dame’s Prentiss Hubb, he trained his sights on older kids named Tyler, Vance and Vell.

Alvarado said he loved playing defense and always wanted to take on the other team’s best player.

“When they scored on me, it was like they went in my house and literally took everything that I had,” Alvarado said. “It was just something that I was so prideful in. That’s what it is. I don’t think defense is a strategy. I think defense is heart.”

That competitiveness is the essence of the player who has endeared himself to Tech fans since his freshman season – tough, passionate and unrelenting.

“He bleeds the energy and the character of Georgia Tech,” said Wilkins, the Tech assistant. “And he is as compelling of a young man as you will find. He’s got the best energy in the world.”

While Alvarado was a three-star prospect coming out of high school who picked Tech over Rutgers and Seton Hall, there is no player quite like him this season. Across Division I, after Sunday’s games, there were three players averaging at least 15 points, three assists and two steals per game while shooting at least 50% from the field. Of the three, Alvarado (16.8 points, 4.1 assists, 2.8 steals, 51.7% field-goal percentage) is the only one registering those numbers in a power conference.

A starter since his freshman year, the Jackets are indisputably his team.

“I see some people tweet saying Jose plays like a punk or he celebrates too much after he gets a steal or he beats his chest,” teammate Jordan Usher said. “But, man, they can just keep that where it’s at, because Jose would cut off his fingers for us to win a game.”

Alvarado has developed his craft with the same tenacity that he has sought to lock down the ACC’s scoring threats. One of many reasons his scoring efficiency has improved is that, when he was unable to practice at Tech due to the quarantine, he went out and bought a basketball goal from Walmart.

“I shot in the parking lot by my house,” he said. “It was in the middle of the street. I had to move it every time a car passed by.”

His response to his low point of the season – missing two free throws in the final 10 seconds at Clemson last Friday, setting the stage for the Tigers to hit the game-winning 3-pointer – offered another glimpse into the drive that helped him earn a spot on the Naismith Award’s 30-member midseason team, the first Jackets player to earn that honor since Jarrett Jack in 2005.

After the game, Alvarado was in tears over his misses. When the team returned to campus around 2 a.m., he shot free throws for about 20 minutes at McCamish Pavilion, Pastner said. Sunday, his contributions to Tech’s 71-65 win over Pittsburgh included a 6-for-6 effort from the free-throw line, bumping his free-throw percentage to 86.0%, highest in the ACC.

Alvarado is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in literature, media and communication. He said he has not given much thought yet to the possibility of using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19.

The four years through Tech, as they usually are, have been a journey, one that has had at least one unexpected bend. In February 2020, his girlfriend Flor Castillo gave birth to Nazanin.

“She’s just a special kid, a special person, in my heart,” he said. “Just seeing her smile, that’s just the best thing.”

Perhaps in time, Nazanin will come to understand the unique imprint his father has left at Tech, of a player who infused his team with his competitiveness, his defensive zeal and, in his senior season, pushed his team into NCAA tournament contention.

“I don’t want to compliment him too much because I want him to have an edge for us finishing this year,” Wilkins said. “So there’s some things I would say to you if this was the end of the year that I’m cautious of saying right now. But I would tell you I wouldn’t trade him for any guard in the country, I’ll tell you that.”

In Other News