A matchup about a decade in the making is set to take place Saturday evening.
Beginning on a driveway “court” in Hamilton, Ont., and now continuing in the world’s best league, cousins Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will get a chance to bring their childhood grudge match to the NBA when their respective teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, play against each other at Chesapeake Energy Arena at 5:00 p.m. ET.
“We’ve almost fought before, almost punched each other in the face,” said Gilgeous-Alexander of his blacktop battles with Alexander-Walker.
This was a quote taken from all the way back in February, when Gilgeous-Alexander was still in the midst of a stellar rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Clippers and Alexander-Walker was starring for Virginia Tech.
Obviously quite a lot has changed since then, with Gilgeous-Alexander getting traded to the Thunder and Alexander-Walker selected 17th overall by the Brooklyn Nets in this past June’s draft before seeing his draft rights traded to the Atlanta Hawks and then flipped again to the Pelicans.
What can’t have changed, however, is the fraternal bond between these two Canadian cousins.
“Me and Nickeil are like brothers, and if anybody knows us they know that about us,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
Added Alexander-Walker: “Since birth, that’s like a twin brother to me, couldn’t be any closer. One of my best friends, if not my closest friend.”
Familial love aside, however, don’t get things twisted and start to believe that these two won’t do everything they can to try to get the win against one another. A good portion of their relationship was forged within the fires of competition.
“His dad would always make us play one-on-one and he would force us to compete as tough as possible,” said Alexander-Walker. “His dad always used to say, ‘Don’t let Shai score on you,’ and ‘Shai you’re supposed to do your best to score on him.’ He would really make us go at each other.”
Given where the two of them have ended up, It turned out to be a good idea in the end for them to push each other hard.
“Having a brother my age and is damn-near just as good at basketball we used to go at it all the time,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Growing up with a guy like that will give you a competitive edge.”
In Gilgeous-Alexander’s case, those epic games of one-on-one helped forge the foundation of what’s looking like could be a special NBA career.
The 21-year-old is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him start 73 of the full 82 games he played with the Clippers, and average 10.8 points per game to finish sixth in Rookie of the Year voting. In five games played this season with the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has apparently taken his game to a whole other level, leading the team with a 21.6 scoring average while also collecting seven rebounds per game.
Alexander-Walker, on the other hand, isn’t off to quite as an auspicious start to his NBA career as he seems to be trying to find his feet as a rookie, only averaging 5.2 points per game with the Pelicans.
However, the potential is there for Alexander-Walker, who was a legitimate star with the Hokies averaging 16.2 points and four assists per game in his sophomore season in 2018-19 when he was named Third-team All-ACC and boosted his draft stock into the mid-first round range.
So while the start to his NBA career likely isn’t going the way Alexander-Walker wants it to, there’s still plenty of room for improvement and all he’ll have to do is look across to the opposing team’s bench at his favourite cousin for the motivation he’ll need to get to where he wants to be.
Alexander-Walker and Gilgeous-Alexander played together from about the fourth grade all the way up to their senior year in high school – when they both attended Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn. Since then they’ve never shared a court together in an official capacity.
That will change on Saturday, although this time as opponents.
Regardless of the outcome of the game, however, Gilgeous-Alexander and Alexander-Walker will continue to walk their improbable NBA journies together, even while they’re apart.
“It’s the little things that I have with him that I probably can’t get with anyone else: The trust,” said Alexander-Walker. “He’s as close as I can get with anybody.”