Not too long-ago Andrew Wiggins was considered the future of Canada Basketball. He was the best high school player since LeBron (not kidding) however after a few alright and disappointing seasons, he was passed by Jamal Murray as the king of Canadian hoops.
This was of course with the understanding that the program’s prodigal son, RJ Barrett, would take the crown as soon as he entered the NBA in 2019. A funny thing happened though. While all of this was happening, this tall, lanky guard was finding his way to the top of basketball in his home country.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t have the chosen one-esque story of Wiggins or Barrett and he doesn’t have the defining moment like Murray did in the 2015 Pan-Am Games. Instead, he has continued to get better at every step of the way, despite never being the first choice.
Even in the high school class of 2017 in Canada, he wasn’t the number one player as his cousin no less, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, took the honour.
After a few years playing at home in Hamilton, Gilgeous-Alexander transferred to a high school in Tennessee to face a higher level of competition. In Tennessee, he turned enough heads to earn serious offers around the SEC, originally committing to Florida but instead changing to John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats.
When he arrived on campus, he was the sixth highest member of his eight-man recruiting class. Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, Jared Vanderbilt and Quade Green and not Gilgeous-Alexander were expected to help continue the one-and-done tradition in Lexington.
Gilgeous-Alexander actually started the season coming off the bench in favour of Green however by January it was clear who the best guard was, and Shai was moved to the starting lineup. Part of the reason for hesitation was the pre-conceived notion that Shai couldn’t run the point for an entire game and was probably more of a two guard at the next level.
In the final 22 games of the season though, Gilgeous-Alexander would show off a smooth, always in-control style that wowed scouts and turned around a previously disappointing Kentucky season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Game Log (as a full time starter)
When he declared for the draft though, despite his impressive numbers leading the young Wildcats to an SEC tournament title and the Sweet Sixteen, people were still worried he wasn’t ready for the next level. His flashes were great, but his skinniness and lack of explosiveness made people worry about how’d he translate.
Now, two seasons into his career it’s safe to say his game has translated.
What people mistook for slow and unathletic was a level of maturity and poise you simply don’t find in players in their first two NBA seasons. He was even the major piece of a trade, forcing him to adjust to a new organization in just his second year in the league and that didn’t even phase him.
Oklahoma City instead turned into the perfect place for Gilgeous-Alexander to refine his game. After the promise he showed as a rookie, playing a lot as the lead ball-handler for a surprising Clippers team, Shai got to learn from Chris Paul in OKC. With Paul handling the bulk of the playmaking, it allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to play in more of an attacking style that clearly suited him better.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Year One vs Year Two
Shai is up across the board in virtually every statistic while greatly increasing his usage from 18.3% to 23.7%. Normally when players usage shoots up in a year like that, their efficiency goes down as they acclimate to their new role. Not Gilgeous-Alexander though as outside of a slight drop in three-point percentage (on two more attempts a game), he is up in two-point field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
All of this while increasing his free throw and three-point attempts meaning one thing: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is well on his way to being an All-Star level player.
Murray has shown flashes as Denver’s second option but never has he scored with the consistency of Shai this season. This is completely disregarding the fact Gilgeous-Alexander has the upside of an All-NBA level defender in the not too distant future.
He may be quiet, and his game may be more cerebral than flashy but, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the present and future of basketball in Canada. It’s time the lanky kid from Hamilton gets the respect he deserves.