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THE NBA'S BEST CANADIANS: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been solid this season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. (GETTY IMAGES)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been solid this season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. (GETTY IMAGES)

Canada set an NBA record for most non-American players on opening day rosters this season.

There were 16 in all, as well as four more on two-way contracts, meaning they could split time between the NBA and its development league, the G League. Two more Canadians got called up during the year.

In the coming weeks we’ll take a look at how the brightest lights of this golden generation of Canuck hoopsters fared in 2019-20.

First up, Oklahoma City Thunder breakout star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

RECAPPING THE SEASON

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has never lived the life of a super prospect. He has always just quietly gone about his business, a subtle star who goes at his own speed and gets results.

He was good enough to land at Kentucky after playing high school ball in his native Hamilton, Ont., and then in Tennessee and as his stock rose — capped by some strong NCAA tournament performances — Gilgeous-Alexander started to garner attention as a potential lottery pick.

Toronto was smitten, but, consumed by its pursuit of Kawhi Leonard, was not able to get into the draft mix. The Los Angeles Clippers pounced, making a deal to acquire his rights from Charlotte.

After a solid, if uneven rookie year, the Clippers reluctantly dealt him to Oklahoma City (the cost of signing Leonard would be also adding Paul George and the Thunder wisely insisted on getting Gilgeous-Alexander for George).

Few expected what came next, though.

The 11th pick of the 2018 draft, burst out of the gate, emerging as one of the top players from that class. After only six games with at least 20 points and no more than 24 in any one contest, Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 26 on opening night and that was just the warmup.

He had 28 two nights later, averaged 19.3 points for the season and eclipsed 24 nine times, including his career-best 32 in 3-of-5 late-December games, including one at Toronto that saw him sink a game-winning floater.

It was the most points a Canadian has ever managed against the Raptors, which got a smile out of Gilgeous-Alexander afterward.

With an all-time great point guard in Chris Paul mentoring him, Gilgeous-Alexander thrived and helped make the Thunder one of the NBA’s most surprising teams by doing a bit of everything. Gilgeous-Alexander led Oklahoma City in scoring, ranked second in rebounding and steals and third in blocks and assists as the club stunningly won 40-of-64 games, good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference.

OKC didn’t appear to be slowing down either, winning 8-of-10 before the NBA went on hiatus to creep within sight of Utah, Denver and even the Clippers.

The young guard had been in a late groove too, scoring 27 points in a March win over Detroit and then 18 in just 22 minutes against New York before injuring his hip.

The ailment forced Gilgeous-Alexander to miss his first game of the season on March 8, but was considered minor. He likely would have been back within another game or two.

Instead, he went into limbo like everyone else. But not after turning many heads and leaving observers wondering just how high his ceiling might be.

FUTURE OUTLOOK

After looking quite good in his playoff debut series against Golden State (three games with at least 18 points) while with Los Angeles last year, Gilgeous-Alexander was set to return to the post-season as a featured star for Oklahoma City. We’ll see if that happens or not. Many scenarios are being considered.

He’d also become the second top Canadian (after Denver’s Jamal Murray) to commit to June’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria back in November. That’s obviously going to have to wait too, with the Olympics postponed.

Gilgeous-Alexander might get some votes for most improved player and appears to be on the trajectory to make some all-star appearances down the line.

Oh, and he doesn’t even turn 22 until July so there’s still plenty of room to grow.

With Paul not getting any younger, expect Gilgeous-Alexander to become the face of the franchise for years to come, as well as one of Canada’s highest-profile basketball players.

THE BEST OF SHAI

The top outings of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s sophomore season:

Date Opponent Summary

12/29 Toronto 32 pts, 7 reb, 3 stl, game-winner

1/13 Minnesota First triple-double (20 pts, 20 reb, 10 asst)

12/20 Phoenix 32 pts, 3 asst, 0 turnovers, 72% shooting

10/25 Washington 28 pts, 7 reb, 3 blks, 59% shooting

3/4 Detroit 27 pts on 12-for-15 shooting

11/10 Milwaukee 4 3-pt, 22 pts, 6 asst, 6 reb in close loss against NBA leaders

12/22 L.A. Clippers 32 pts, 5 asst in win over former team

12/06 Minnesota 29 pts, 5 reb, 12-for-12 at FT line

02/23 San Antonio 22 pts, 13 reb, 4 asst in a win

01/22 Orlando 18 pts, 12 reb, 3 stl, 3 blk

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