It’s not quite the United States versus Canada at the NBA Rising Stars Challenge, but it’s getting there.
Friday’s game, part of this weekend’s all-star festivities in Chicago, will feature a record four Canadians in action.
The contest for NBA rookies and sophomores pits 10 Americans against 10 players from the rest of the world. This year, rookies RJ Barrett (Mississauga, Ont.), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Toronto) and Brandon Clarke (Vancouver) join forces with sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Hamilton) on the World team, marking the first time four players from the same country were named to the roster.
Canada has had a player on the World roster every year since the NBA took on the current format in 2015, and has had multiple players in the game every year except 2019. The names on previous rosters — Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks — stand as a testament to Canada’s rising influence in basketball over the past few years.
The previous high for Canada was three players (Wiggins, Dwight Powell, Trey Lyles) in 2016. No other country has sent more than two players to a World roster.
Here is a look at the Canadians who will be the latest to showcase the nation’s rising talent on all-star weekend.
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER — Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
The second-year guard is making his second appearance in the game after being Canada’s lone representative in 2019 as a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers. He will also take part in the Skills Challenge as a replacement for Detroit guard Derrick Rose.
Gligeous-Alexander is having an excellent sophomore year in Oklahoma City, averaging 19.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He had a particularly impressive stretch in December, when he reached 32 points three times in five games — including a 98-97 win over his hometown Toronto Raptors. He posted his first triple-double of the season on Jan. 13, with 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a 117-104 win over Minnesota.
After seeing his offensive numbers dip at the end of last month, particularly his three-point shooting, he has rebounded in February with an average of 21.3 points on 53.3 per cent shooting behind the arc over four games this month heading into a game Thursday night against New Orleans.
Gilgeous-Alexander was part of the blockbuster off-season trade that sent forward Paul George to the Clippers. After losing George and guard Russell Westbrook to trades, not much was expected of the Thunder this year.
However, Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the leaders of a OKC squad that includes point guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schroeder and Montreal rookie Luguentz Dort, who is making a name for himself as a quality defender.
The Thunder were in sixth place in the Western Conference heading into Wednesday’s NBA action.
BRANDON CLARKE — Forward, Memphis Grizzlies
Clarke is looking like a steal from the 2019 NBA draft after the Grizzlies traded up to take the Vancouver native 21st overall. The former Gonzaga star is averaging 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game despite starting in just two of his 46 appearances this season.
Like Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies are also blowing past pre-season expectations thanks to the play of a young core that includes Clarke, rookie sensation Ja Morant, second-year power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., and third-year forward Dillon Brooks of Mississauga, Ont. The Grizzlies stood eighth in the Western Conference heading into a Wednesday night game against ninth-place Portland.
Clarke entered Wednesday’s action ninth in the league in rookie scoring with 553 points, and third in points per 36 minutes at 19.9 among rookies who had played at least 30 games.
RJ BARRETT — Shooting Guard, New York Knicks
Barrett has had an eventful year since being drafted by the rudderless Knicks with the third-overall pick in 2019, behind Duke teammate Zion Williamson and Morant.
He scored 21 points in his NBA debut, in which he played 37:07 minutes in a 120-111 loss to San Antonio. He saw a lot of court time under former head coach David Fizdale before he was fired after 22 games. Barrett averaged 36 minutes over five games in November, and 31.8 minutes over 13 games in December.
He had been playing arguably his most consistent basketball of the season when he suffered a right-ankle injury in a Jan. 16 game against Phoenix. He was coming off a 22-point performance that saw him shoot 5-of-7 from three-point range.
He missed New York’s next nine games, and has seen limited action over the Knicks’ past three contests.
Barrett entered Wednesday’s action eighth in rookie scoring with 598 points despite the time missed with the ankle injury.
NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER — Shooting Guard, New Orleans Pelicans
Alexander-Walker hasn’t yet made the name for himself that his cousin Gilgeous-Alexander has. But he showed what he is capable of when the Pelicans were decimated with injuries earlier in the season.
Alexander-Walker scored 27 points in a 109-94 loss to Miami on Nov. 16, shooting 6-of-9 from three. One night later, he had 19 points and shot 5-of-13 from three in a 108-100 win over the Golden State Warriors.
Minutes have been hard to come by of late for Alexander-Walker, with the Pelicans at full strength and with rookie sensation Williamson finally in the fold after missing the first half of the season with a knee injury. But the 17th pick in 2019 had a great pre-season and has shown flashes of talent when given playing time, and could be part of a competitive Pelicans team in the future if it properly builds around Williamson.
AROUND THE LEAGUE — Miami’s Kelly Olynyk looked more like a point guard than a front-court big man on Monday. The six-foot-11 centre from Kamloops, B.C., had a career-high 11 assists, to go with 12 points and six rebounds, as the Heat downed Golden State 113-101. … Denver guard Jamal Murray has looked exceptional since coming back from a 10-game layoff with an ankle injury. The native of Kitchener, Ont., has averaged 28.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds over his past four games.
KEEP AN EYE ON — The Rising Stars Challenge could be a preview of some of Canada’s talent at the upcoming men’s basketball Olympic qualifying tournament, which begins June 23 in Victoria.
CanaDunks, a weekly notebook on Canadians in the NBA, is published every week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2020.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press