Canadians in the NBA Roundup: Career years abound for the Canucks

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best Canadian player to step foot on a basketball court since Steve Nash. But when Nash won back-to-back MVPs between 2004-06, he was the only Canadian player the average basketball fan knew of. Whereas now, Gilgeous-Alexander leads a motley crew of a record 23 Canadians in the NBA this season.

While Gilgeous-Alexander leads the way as the third-leading scorer in the league and the odds-on favourite to win the Most Improved Player of the Year award, he isn’t the only Canadian having a career year in 2022-23. 

“I don’t follow it that closely, but now you can’t help [but notice] it almost,” Toronto Raptors and Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse said about the Canadians thriving across the NBA. “A lot of guys are playing good. So it’s cool.”

From legitimate stars like Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins to impressive rookies like Bennedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard and Shaedon Sharpe to veteran role players like Chris Boucher, Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, and Dwight Powell, Canadians are dominating NBA headlines in a way we have never seen before. And this is only the start.

Here are some Canadian having career years during the 2022-23 NBA season.

The Stars

Gilgeous-Alexander is leading the youthful Oklahoma City Thunder in points (31.0), assists (5.8) and steals (1.7) per game. Although the Thunder have lost four games in a row, they are a respectable 11-17 on the season and have been more competitive than anticipated due in large part to Gilgeous-Alexander’s leap into one of the very best players in the NBA and a surefire first-time all-star. At just 24 years old, Gilgeous-Alexander has a long and potentially all-time great career ahead of him.

Wiggins is also having a career year averaging 19.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 STOCKS per game on 51/45/63 percent shooting, giving him a career-high 62.1 true shooting percentage. The 27-year-old reigning NBA champion has been the Golden State Warriors’ second-best player this season, seeing his defence and rebounding improve to previously unthinkable levels as he continues to shoot the lights out of the ball.

Meanwhile, Murray finally returned from injury this season, 539 days after tearing the ACL in his left knee. The 25-year-old is slowly ramping things up as he gets back to 100 per cent, averaging 20-4-6 on 58.5 true shooting percentage over his last nine games. He is still a step slow defensively and in the process of finding a rhythm with his 17-10 Denver Nuggets team, who could legitimately win the championship if Murray finds the best version of himself by playoff time. What clearly hasn’t left him is the clutch gene that makes Murray one of Canada’s best, going shot-for-shot with Damian Lillard before drilling his first game-winner of the season on Dec. 9. 

The Rookies

The Indiana Pacers are 15-14 and in a playoff spot thanks in large part to a pair of Canadian rookies (and Toronto native Oshae Brissett). Mathurin and Nembhard have both been spectacular to start the season, providing the Pacers a much-needed boost off the bench, albeit in dramatically different ways. 

Mathurin is averaging 17.8 points and 5.7 free-throw attempts in 29 minutes per game, second among rookies in both categories behind only the Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero. The Montreal native is brimming with confidence, shooting the ball whenever he sees daylight and aggressively taking it to the rim whenever he has a step on his opponent.

Nembhard, on the other hand, is more of a pure point guard who affects the game with his steady playmaking (4.0 assists per game), knockdown shooting (40.4 percent from three) and — most impressively for a rookie — his advanced defence, staying in front of opposing guards and protecting the rim as a help-side charge-magnet, averaging the fifth-most charges drawn per game in the league (0.33). 

Meanwhile, Sharpe has been electric for the Portland Trail Blazers. The 19-year-old London, Ont., native is one of the most exciting young dunkers the league has seen in some time, exploding off of two feet to get head and shoulders above the rim for thunderous dunks. Sharpe is playing 20 minutes per game for the 16-12 Blazers because he can do a little bit of everything, thriving as a rebounder (2.6 rebounds per game), a spot-up shooter (33.8 per cent from three), and a heady cutter who takes advantage of all the gravity drawn by teammates Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Still, the dunking is what stands out, and there’s a chance he will raise even more eyebrows at this year’s dunk contest. 

The Vets

It’s never too late to find yourself on the basketball court or off of it. Some Canadian veterans are proving just how important role and circumstance are when it comes to finding the best version of yourself, having career years at relatively advanced ages.

Boucher has been the best and most consistent bench player for the Toronto Raptors this season, embracing his role as an energy big who injects speed, physicality and rebounding to the game every time he steps on the court. The 29-year-old is averaging 11.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.7 STOCKS per game while playing the best defence of his career. Boucher is helping a Raptors team that is desperate for rebounding on both sides of the floor, where he has arguably been the team’s second-best rebounder behind only Pascal Siakam.

Olynyk has arguably never had as big of a role on a winning team as the 31-year-old does now with the 17-14 Utah Jazz, averaging 13-5-3 on 54/44/84 shooting, good for a career-high 67.6 true shooting percentage. The centre from Toronto has given the upstart Jazz everything they could have asked for and more after trading for him this off-season, helping buoy one of the most fun and surprisingly good teams in the league.

And speaking of fun teams, the 19-9 Memphis Grizzlies are once again at the top of the Western Conference thanks in large part to another pair of Canadians: Brooks and Clarke. Brooks is averaging 18-4-3 on an impressive 34.9 per cent from three while taking 6.6 attempts per game, improving on his three-point shot to fit in better beside superstar Ja Morant. Clarke is averaging 10-5-1 on 65 per cent from the field coming off the bench. The two Canadians form the spine of the Grizzlies’ sixth-ranked defence, giving the youthful Grizzlies some much-needed toughness as they work to contain the ball, create turnovers and set a tone with their hustle and grit. 

Team Canada

All of that is not to mention guys like R.J. Barrett, who is having a down year with the New York Knicks; Powell, who won the starting job back for the Dallas Mavericks; Dalano Banton, who is doing what he can in inconsistent minutes with the Raptors; or Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who is finally putting it all together playing under his fifth coach in four seasons following a summer with the Canadian national program. 

“It’s coming from so many guys,” Boucher says about the Canadians thriving this season. “Guys that have been in the league trying to figure it out for a long time, so it’s really nice. … I think it’s something that we knew that we had before but now you’re seeing it from everywhere and it’s not a secret that Canada basketball is getting bigger and people are getting better.”

In fact, the majority of players mentioned participated in the Canadian program this past summer, either playing qualification games for the 2023 FIBA World Cup or at least participating in the two training camps held by Nurse and company. Suiting up to play international basketball in the off-season is not the only way to improve but it sure beats pickup ball. 

“It’s super competitive, right? So I think anytime you’re getting reps of things, you’re working on things in the summer and all of the sudden, you get to go play a really tough game and a scouting report and a training camp and travel and all those things that just kind of make you more experienced. It helps you,” Nurse said about how the summer can help prepare guys for the NBA season. “I think that a lot of those guys have come to — not just ours, I would say you can look at probably a lot of countries that do it, but we’re looking at our country — they’ve come to our camp and made a step forward and been ready at training camp and done a good job.”

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