Pelicans’ Alexander-Walker one of many Canadians drawing optimism in NBA

New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (0) makes a pass around Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka. (Frank Gunn/CP)

New Orleans – It says something about the evolution of Canadian basketball that a player can make his NBA debut against his hometown Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Area and barely generate a ripple of attention.

Now, given that Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s first game with the New Orleans Pelicans back in October coincided with the Raptors’ ring ceremony and the news that his much-hyped rookie teammate Zion Williamson was going to be out for eight weeks after unexpectedly undergoing knee surgery didn’t help matters.

But things have changed. With so many Canadians in the league it is relatively easy for one of them to slip under the radar – unless they’re putting themselves all over the highlight packages, which increasingly is the story.

On Wednesday night, history of a kind was made when two Canadians – Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies – went off for 30 and 31 points respectively, which is believed to be the first time two players from Canada counted 30-point nights in the same game.

Not to be lost in the shuffle was Memphis Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke, scoring 18 points on perfect 7-of-7 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds in 21 minutes.

It seems like every night there’s another noteworthy performance by a Canadian – there are 16 of them in the league, the most ever from a non-US country. It’s all eye candy for Rowan Barrett, general manager for Canada’s men’s national team, whose son, RJ Barrett, is off to a stellar start as a rookie with the New York Knicks.

“It’s tremendous. It’s not just the performance and the numbers,” says Barrett. “It’s the fact of the players being in the positions that they’re in to be able to affect their teams in that way … to see now that we have multiple players in the NBA – and some of them young players to – to have impacts on their team on a consistent basis each night is tremendous for their growth and ultimately for the growth of the game in our country.”

Will Friday night be Alexander-Walker’s turn to grab a headline?

Raptors and Canadian’s men’s national team head coach Nick Nurse will get a chance to see Alexander-Walker up close for the second time.

The Pelicans rookie created some significant expectations for himself, as he was arguably the NBA’s breakout star at the Las Vegas Summer League – he was a first-team all-star with a line of 24.3 points, 6.0 assists and 2.8 steals, and followed that up with some impressive outings in pre-season.

The Pelicans feel like they got a steal when they were able to draft the six-foot-five 21-year-old with the 17th pick of the draft.

The regular season has been a more difficult on a 2-5 Pelicans team that was expected to challenge for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. He has struggled shooting – converting only 23.9 per cent of his field goals in just 12 minutes a game – but showed signs of his potential with a 15-point, nine-assist night in 24 minutes against the Golden State Warriors recently.

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But Alexander-Walker was prepared for anything coming into the season.

“I’m just trying to be as professional as I can be and in my time and my minutes coming off the bench try to be efficient, so whatever that is, try and help the team win,” he said when he was in Toronto and about to make his NBA debut against the Raptors.

His outlook was shaped by his cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whom he grew up alongside, sharing a backcourt in both club basketball and when they went to the US to play high-school basketball.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been one of the breakout stories in the NBA with early-season averages of 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he had some rocky moments in a crowded backcourt in his rookie year with the Los Angeles Clippers, too.

His advice to his cousin is only a text or a phone call away, a valuable resource for a rookie trying to make his way.

“It’s really, really key. Because when you make it here, your circle becomes really vital,” said Alexander-Walker. “Who you surround yourself with is very important, and a lot of guys don’t have that. I’m fortunate to have someone who’s been through it and someone who is close to me that I can rely on and know their interests are for me and my best interests.”

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There is likely no better authority on Alexander-Walker’s game than his uncle (Shai’s father), Vaughan Alexander, who coached the boys growing up, helping raise them more like brothers than cousins.

He believes it’s only a matter of time and opportunity before Alexander-Walker begins putting up numbers more resembling what his cousin did as a rookie, a precursor to what he’s doing in his second year with in OKC after landing there as part of the Paul George trade.

“Last year, Shai was averaging 10.7 points a game and everyone was on cloud nine and I was like ‘I think he can do better than that,’” says the older Alexander. “With Nickeil right now, it’s the same thing. Trust me.

“Their games are similar in that they can do a lot of things,” he continued. “Nickeil can play point guard if he wants, he can play off the ball, he can play the three, he can rebound really well and they both play really good defence. If you need a point guard, you can use Nickeil. If you have too many point guards but need a two, Nickeil can find minutes that way. If you need a stopper, he can do that and Shai is the same way.

“They’re the exact same height, exact same age and they grew up together, so they have the same mentality.”

It’s dizzying stuff for fans of the Canadian basketball, and – wait for it – can’t help but raise hopes and expectation for the men’s national team.

The catch is getting the impressive wave of talent carrying Canadian passports to play for Canada internationally.

In this, Barrett remains optimistic, pointing out that the majority of the Canadians enjoying banner seasons have played for the senior team in the recent past or – in the case of Alexander-Walker – played for Canada in age-group competition.

In his first full year with the general manager’s title, Barrett has taken steps to make sure Canada Basketball’s relationship with the country’s NBA talent is tightened.

He tends to visit with players outside of Toronto, he says, to get more time with them as their NBA visits home tend to be hectic and crowded with family commitments. But actions like recognizing Canadian NBA players with national team ties on the big screen during timeouts at Raptors games is a new development.

Having Nurse in the fold for a full season should hopefully help also.

“That’s part of the recruitment strategy that we have,” says Barrett. “… When Nick goes to the different towns he’ll be speaking with each of them.”

There are no shortage of players to speak with and lots of good things to talk about.

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