A new crop of Canadian players in the NBA are showcasing their individuality and blazing a new path for the next generation. No one is doing it with more flair and style than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

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.

Gilgeous-Alexander once said that he wanted to “never be static and never be satisfied” in his game. Watch him turn any direction downhill, slipping through opposing screens meant to snare him with a deceptively fluid stride that can, with a breath, contort to a sharp angle straight for the rim, or pickpocket the ball away on defence, and witness that desire on two long legs.

“Most of my life, I was shorter,” Gilgeous-
Alexander says when asked about his disruptive style. “So I think that forced me to be crafty and deceptive with my movements on the court, just to get to where I wanted to go. I found ways. It was harder when I was smaller, and then I hit a growth spurt,” he smiles, “and it turned out well.”

Did it ever.

His steps work like a king cobra swaying side-to-side until he’s anticipated which way it is he’ll drive and ultimately unbalance the dazed defender left behind. Below the rim, with his 7-foot wingspan, there’s no scoop shot or stutter-
stepped high bank basket Gilgeous-Alexander can’t extend to finish, his fingertips like a maestro’s, always in motion.
“I was always longer – I had long limbs, long arms – and I had big feet when I was shorter so I knew I was going to grow,” he says. “I was a little clumsy, because my legs were so long and I hadn’t grown into it yet. But once I did, I felt it,
and it felt very natural.”

Part of the reason Gilgeous-Alexander looks so at home in the league is because of the wholly unique identity he’s carved out for himself through his style, on and off court, but some he attributes to family too. He credits his parents for instilling in him the unflappable approach that comes across in interviews and on the floor, taking life day by day and a season game to game.

“You can’t get too ahead and you can’t look in the past, it’s already done,” Gilgeous-Alexander says. “So just stay in the moment and take advantage of every opportunity you have.”
There’s also the anchor of his cousin, Alexander-Walker. The two are the same age

and “went through everything in life together”. Alexander-Walker, who was drafted a season later than Gilgeous-Alexander, in 2019-2020, established himself as a quietly efficient scoring threat for New Orleans over three seasons before he was traded this past year to the Utah Jazz. There, he’s dug in defensively, and will see his first playoffs with the team.

“From high school to college, to now the pros, we faced a lot of challenges together,” Gilgeous-Alexander says of their relationship.

“It makes every situation easier on us.”

The two have admitted they’re more like brothers than cousins, and whether they steal clothes from each other like siblings, they do share the same eye for fashion. Both are regularly featured in the hallowed grids of LeagueFits and GQ, avenues ideal for the evolution of their styles. For Gilgeous-Alexander, who graced the most recent MET Gala’s red carpet, that’s been a lot like how he plays basketball — bold, disruptive, and with a focus on the fundamentals.

Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have a stylist and prefers to shop, and put together outfits for NBA tunnels, himself. The joy is in being able to flip through racks, feel fabrics, and find the standout pieces to best express himself through.

“Being able to be creative, and to kind of spin them and wear them in my own way, I think that’s my favourite part about fashion and clothes,” he says. “You get to create your own identity in what you wear, and make it unique on your own.”
His process is meticulous. His closet is divided into dedicated sections for everything from denim to varsity jackets, heavier coats for the cold, and blazers.

“Then I have flannels on a rack,” he continues. “Cardigans on a rack. Puffer vests on a rack. T-shirts on a rack, pants on a rack, and hoodies on a rack. Like they’re all on their own rack. And I hang them up from, if I get it [new], then I’ll hang it in the front so I know it’s newest to oldest.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is a fan of Toronto’s iconic Kensington Market for vintage, and lists Japan (for streetwear), along with London and Paris (for vintage and high fashion), as future dream shopping destinations. Asked if he has a “holy grail” item of clothing he’s always on the hunt for and he smiles assuredly. “I have them,” he says, noting the baggy cargo pants and oversized hoodies that have become staples of his game-day rotations.

Even when dressing for comfort, Gilgeous-Alexander has started to fold in more maximalist pieces into his fits, a nod to his flourishing confidence in fashion.

“I think those pieces, they speak loud,” he explains. “They kind of speak for themselves. They’re a little bit harder to wear obviously, but I like to space those pieces out and wear my everyday swag more often.”

Though his style is innate, cataloging his clothing has helped Gilgeous-Alexander plan for every new piece he picks up. “If I buy something, what I’ll do is put it in an outfit, I’ll take a picture of it, and it’ll just be in my phone and one day I’ll get back to it and wear that outfit,” he says.

There’s also the matter of dressing for the regular season’s schedule. Rather than go with a few things he can rotate, “I plan it city by city,” he says smiling. “It’s usually more fun when you go to Miami during the winter time. You get to rock the shorts and t-shirts.”

The schedule has him running into fellow Canadians on court at an all-time high, starting in his own locker room.

For three seasons in Oklahoma City, while Gilgeous-Alexander revelled in asymmetric finesse, his Montreal-born teammate, Lu Dort, has taken a direct approach. Namely, head-down, barreling barrages to cut with confidence and speed straight into the paint.

In his short time with the Thunder, Dort has matured into a versatile player who works low and steady, using his strength to propel shots from deep or coiling up energy to drive through traffic. He uses that same speed when gleaning what the offence needs, with the majority of his shots being made with less than two seconds of touch time, the game a puzzle he’s already cracked.

The Memphis Grizzlies boast two Canadians as well in Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks, key components of the team’s explosive, energetic core. Clarke can make the Grizzlies’ breakneck pace look subdued when he lifts from a crowded paint to catch perfectly timed lobs for dunks, deflections, or pops up at the glass to block like he’s brought his own ladder. Brooks has the same knack for timing as Clarke, an intuitive blend of quick reads and knowing the gaps Memphis’s sprinting fast breaks force in their opponents’ defence.

The list, of course, goes on. Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors might feel the most Canadian of active NBA players, given his quiet demeanour, but on court he tends to punish opponents with that same unassuming calm.
He’s a catch-and-shoot force, deadly with dagger shots from the corners, and will weave his way out of screens to pop wide open for lobs.

In Denver, Jamal Murray oozes the same composure. Anchored by sticking with a single franchise that’s valued slow growth and a two-man symbiosis with the immovable force of Nikola Jokic, Murray works the floor with a deftness that disrupts. It can feel like a staring contest, watching him back down defenders only to step out and back and pull-up languidly, or stop short on a drive for a step-back three. Murray doesn’t tend to stick to his spots so much as roam the whole court, at home in whatever range.

There’s also something to be said of the newfound longevity available to Canadian players in the NBA, where extended careers are still the exception rather than the rule. Players like Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson and Trey Lyles have carved out niche roles on multiple teams and, even after winning titles, work to improve specific skill sets season over season to meld into the continually evolving landscape of the game.

There were 146 Canadians active on Division 1 rosters this year, hailing from Calgary to Quebec City, Winnipeg to Gatineau, with 28 men and 20 women entering into the NCAA’s March Madness.

While the majority of them opted for prep academies in advance of American colleges, the rise of organizations in Canada like the prestigious Bounce program and the continued development of Canada Basketball and new expansion franchises in the CEBL focusing on basketball fluent regions like Scarborough and Montreal, where NBA alums like Magloire and Joel Anthony have hands-on roles with their teams, makes a future where Canadian stars can develop without leaving home not only possible, but close.

There were a record 18 Canadians showing out on opening night of the 2021-2022 season, the sole Canadian NBA franchise currently counts three Canadians as active members of its roster and it’s Canadian players who are pushing the game farther, through a unique alchemy of skill, speed and ingenuity, night after night — simply put, we’re here.
None of that should be a shock, or even news to the most casual of fans. The goal of moving beyond those numbers isn’t erasure to a larger national identity, but a challenge.

To push those still pegging star players as Canadian first to reimagine what that actually means, to see the boon and benefit in straying from some long-held and outdated singularity of place. To be a Canadian in the NBA is finally not just about being Canadian — these players have exploded into the league and in doing so have shaken the foundations, raised the ceiling and made plenty
of room for the dreams of who comes next.

For the first time, with so many active Canadian players in the game and set to make debuts, there’s a sense of regionality. While Toronto and the GTA still hail as the most common home base for the majority of pros, now, because of players like Dort, Boucher and the Raptors’ big man Khem Birch, the next generation from Montreal or Quebec are able to see themselves on the map.

“I don’t think it will stop any time soon,” Gilgeous-Alexander agrees. “Kids growing up are seeing that guys that live down the street from them can be in the NBA. The more kids you get believing and trying to make the NBA, the more kids make it.”