After a crushing defeat at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C. last July, Canada’s senior men’s national team head coach, Nick Nurse, met with 11 Canadian NBA players in Las Vegas to stress the importance of playing for the national team and building chemistry throughout the summers.
Before Nurse even had a hand chance, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander interrupted him, stood up and let everyone know he was committed to playing for Team Canada.
Gilgeous-Alexander was tied to the team the previous summer for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and potentially the Olympic roster but sat out due to a plantar fascia tear he suffered during the NBA season.
This time, he wanted to leave no doubt.
“I just wanted to get out in front of (the outside noise) and let them know I’m here, I’m committed, everything’s worked out, and I’ll be with the team going forward,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
He’ll now be joining some familiar faces, including his cousin, New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker when Team Canada comes to his hometown, Hamilton, Ont. to face the Dominican Republic in Group C action for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Qualifiers.
The last time Gilgeous-Alexander played in Hamilton, he was 16-years-old playing at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School. Now he’s the star of a young Oklahoma City Thunder team and finished his last season averaging 24.5 points, six assists and five rebounds a game.
It’s been a while.
“Now I’m like 36,” said the 23-year-old guard with a smile.
Alexander-Walker raved about his experience with the national team to his cousin, who appeared on the senior team during the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Gilgeous-Alexander said he was initially upset about having to play for the national team that year while there was an elite basketball camp happening at that time, but after receiving guidance from Rowan Barrett, he stayed with the group. He sharpened his skills playing against Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis in practice and the pace of the game took him to the next level, where he would eventually find himself playing for Kentucky and the NBA.
“After that experience, I de-committed from Florida, sorry Florida, and my offers went through the roof,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It definitely worked out.”
The two cousins will play together for the first time since high school, and Gilgeous-Alexander is bringing a swagger and confidence that his playstyle in the paint will be able to translate to the FIBA game. He’s been a productive player in the NBA, but Gilgeous-Alexander says he sees his addition to the team as more of tone-setting, lead point guard, someone who can make things happen by driving into the paint and kicking out for three, command the pick and roll, and someone who can score inside as well.
Nurse said he sees the two cousins as interchangeable in the same way that Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry were during their Raptors run.
“I think both of us have gotten a lot better since (high school), so our tandem should be better,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Myself, kind of a driver, him more of a jump shooter, it kind of compliments each other perfectly, and we’re excited to show the world.”
The game in Hamilton isn’t just a homecoming for the two. It represents progress for two of the goals Canada Basketball set after losing to the Czech Republic in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. They wanted more basketball games being played on homecourts, and World Cup Qualifier in Hamilton will be one of at least seven games being played over the next two weeks with Canada’s U23 team competing at GLOBL JAM in Toronto, Ont.
They also wanted to receive commitments from top players to build chemistry over the summers. A month ago, they announced a 14-man summer core, including RJ Barrett, Khem Birch, Lu Dort, Oshea Brissett, and Jamal Murray – who are with the team in training camp but not playing in this window.
They may not see the court this Friday, but Gilgeous-Alexander says their presence in camp has been felt, and the ability to keep players up to speed on the system they’re running will ultimately pay off when they play together down the line.
“It’s a brotherhood,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Learning as much as they can before they get on the court will only help us in the future when we get together.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at Team Canada SMNT camp (Courtesy Shaun McLeod)