The rise to NBA stardom for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been rapid.
It might seem surreal for a player in his fourth year in the league to talk about the Canadians who influenced him, and in the next breath note that Canadian basketball is on the way to establishing a sense of regionality on par with American colleges, but that’s been the accelerated timeline of a player like Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s a fast and frenetic growth, and it has run parallel with the explosion of Canada’s representation in the game.
“I think the biggest thing for the youth is to see that it’s possible,” Gilgeous-Alexander says. “That’s what it was for me. I saw guys before me — Andrew Wiggins, Steve Nash, obviously he’s a little bit older, but guys before me that made the NBA, and made the dream a reality.”
Canadian history is short. The history of Canadian players in the NBA is even shorter. Players like Leo Rautins, Bill Wennington, and Todd MacCulloch were once the lone Canadian figures on the league’s stage, and likely before many fans were paying attention.
In the past two decades, more Canadian players have slowly arrived. Jamaal Magloire
was named an All-Star in 2004. The following two seasons, Steve Nash won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards with the Phoenix Suns. When Toronto-born Anthony Bennett went first overall in the 2013 draft, it became an irrefutable milestone for basketball in Canada.
Chris Boucher, who went undrafted in 2017, was the first Canadian player on a Canadian team to win a title with the Raptors. A new crop of Canadian athletes entered the league the same summer as the championship parade in Toronto. RJ Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Oshae Brissett, Brandon Clarke, Ignas Brazdeikis and Lu Dort all shared the stage at the 2019 NBA draft.
There was a time not that long ago when every basketball player from this country was simply known as Canadian. To call them that would have been enough. An all-encompassing measure of who they were and how their future careers might mete out based on where they were from.
It isn’t that Canadian players — 25 in total across the NBA and G-League this season — are suddenly rejecting their home country. It’s that for the first time they’ve allowed fans and forced the media to look beyond that connection.
Whether it was a question of career longevity or impact on the game itself, that Canadian players weren’t seen to be as dominating as their American counterparts, through this generation’s explosiveness and skill, or their individual styles on the floor, the once prescribed limitations of what it meant to be a Canadian pro are gone.
Beyond Canadians crowding the league’s stage, what’s been most exciting to watch is the way this next-gen of players have used flair and flourish to forge wholly unique signature games. There’s no utilitarian, national stamp, only standout styles that showcase what it means to develop in a place where there’s no set blueprint to follow.
In the national conversation, let alone league-wide, there’s no one making moves on the floor or picking tunnel fits as unique as Gilgeous-Alexander’s.
Born in Toronto, Gilgeous-Alexander grew up a forty-minute drive southwest along Lake Ontario in Hamilton. His mom, Charmaine Gilgeous, was an Olympic sprinter who represented Antigua and Barbuda and his dad, Vaughn Alexander, drilled Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, on the fundamentals from
the time they were ten via a hoop mounted to the family’s garage.
Gilgeous-Alexander and Alexander-Walker transferred to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for their junior and senior years, sharing a room in coach Zach Ferrell’s home. Initially committing to the University of Florida in his junior year, Ferrell urged Gilgeous-Alexander to re-open recruitment in his senior year, and he accepted an offer from the University of Kentucky
Flying imperceptibly under the radar for his first dozen games as a Wildcat, Gilgeous-Alexander soon exploded, securing a spot in the starting rotation and taking the team to the NCAA’s Sweet 16. The quiet recruit from Canada would be drafted 11th overall by the Clippers that summer, named a Rising Star at All-Star Weekend, play all 82 games of his rookie season before being traded to the Thunder in exchange for Paul George. What could’ve been an upset to a charmed first season became the bigger stage, and primed spotlight, that Gilgeous-Alexander was waiting for to put on a show.