We’re a month out from the NBA playoffs and another regular season is almost in the books. Seems like a fine time to check in on how Canada’s NBAers are faring — and to recognize the largely undiscussed breakout of one of the country’s most perennially underrated.
Below you will find the top five Canadian NBAers, as chosen by me based on subjective criteria, of the moment. But before we get to that, here are some honourable mentions to chew on:
• Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves: In 2,053 minutes played — most among Canadians in the NBA this season — he somehow has fewer win shares (0.5) than Nik Stauskas (0.7). The only Canuck with fewer win shares is Dillon Brooks (0.0), and he’s played only 330 minutes this season, and not since Jan. 5. Wiggins’ dysfunctional team is also well on its way to missing the playoffs, a major disappointment after sneaking in last year.
• Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers: Suddenly more famous for his off-court romantic shenanigans than actually playing basketball (fun fact: the Brampton-born offensive rebound special was the most Googled athlete in 2018, both in the U.S. and globally), TT was having a quietly good season before he went down with a foot injury. Now his teammates are reportedly getting tired of the off-court drama.
• Khem Birch, Orlando Magic: Wanted to get a nice story in here. Birch isn’t lighting the world on fire, but he’s now played in 14 straight for the Magic (four more games and he’ll hit a career-high for games played in a row), and is averaging 16 minutes per. He’s also playing as advertised, blocking 0.9 shots and hitting 72 per cent of his shots from the field.
And that’s it. On with the show:
1. Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks: Recency bias? Maybe. But he’s done so much recently to warrant this spot. The thing about Powell is he’s always been a good player by analytics and per-36 numbers. He just hasn’t had a ton of rope to really show what he can do. (In a way, this makes him the anti-Wiggins.) Now, however, he’s getting the chance.
Since the Mavs traded away DeAndre Jordan, he’s playing 29 minutes per game and averaging 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds on 63–per cent shooting. He’s playing so well, in fact, that Rick Carlisle has finally acquiesced and begun starting him. In five starts he’s done even better: 19.0 points and 7.8 rebounds (including 3.4 offensive boards, long a specialty of his), on 80-per cent (not a typo) shooting from the field and 91-per cent (also not a typo) from three. He’s missed one of 11 threes since becoming a starter.
Add it all up, and, despite playing the sixth-most minutes among Canadians, he’s way out in front in Win Shares with 5.2. (Not coincidentally, he’s also first in player efficiency rating with 20.6.)
Powell has also shown some major chemistry with Mavs franchise cornerstone Luka Doncic, and made a few highlight reels to boot:
Who knows if this extended run is indicative of a long-term commitment to more playing time, or just one of those late-season blips fantasy players are so familiar with. But make no mistake: He’s the hottest Canadian in the game right now, and deserves our attention.
2. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets: The only guy on the list other than Powell who legitimately could’ve gone No. 1. He leads all Canadians in points per game and per 100 possessions (18.3 and 27.1, respectively), as well as assists per game (5.0). He’s running the offence and playing for the best team of any player on this list, the second-seed Denver Nuggets.
3. Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat: Shades of Powell here. Olynyk has now started 13 straight games for the Heat, and in that stretch he’s averaging 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. During Miami’s current three-game win streak, he’s gone off for 25 against Brooklyn and 22 against Charlotte.
4. Cory Joseph, Indiana Pacers: Joseph isn’t blowing the roof off since Victor Oladipo got injured, leaving a major hole in the guard rotation. But he has been steady, especially on the defensive end, where he has career highs in defensive win shares (2.4) and defensive box plus-minus (1.2). The third-place Pacers are also 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off it.
5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers: The connected area in the ven diagram of people who thought the Clippers would make the playoffs and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would have a great rookie season is a pin prick. Both the team and player have outperformed expectations this year. While SGA’s advanced and on-off numbers don’t look great, he’s averaging 10 points, 3.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds as a 20-year-old. That’s impressive.