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Canada’s Gilgeous-Alexander is matching Nash’s greatness, but could he surpass it?

TORONTO — Even as the presence of Canadians in the NBA has exploded in the past 20 years with lottery picks, all-star teams, maximum contracts and championship rings as touchpoints for how far it all has come, one fact seemed forever unassailable: Steve Nash was and always will be the best basketball player Canada has ever produced. 

No one before and seemingly no one since looked like they could pull together a resume that included eight all-star game appearances, seven All-NBA teams, six assist titles, two Most Valuable Player awards, a spot on the NBA’s 75thAnniversary team and induction into the Hall of Fame. 

For perspective, no other Canadian player has even received a vote to be on an All-NBA team, let alone be included in an MVP conversation. Nash was a late bloomer and played until he was 40, so there is plenty of time for Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett or maybe one day a Ben Mathurin or Shaedon Sharpe to reach the peaks of the sport. 

But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t waiting, and he isn’t late-blooming. His time is now. 

When the Oklahoma City Thunder star takes the floor against the Toronto Raptors Thursday night he will be giving a local audience a first-hand look at — arguably — the best season a Canadian NBA player has ever had. 

His is a hardwood masterpiece, on par with any of Nash’s best seasons, even his MVP years in 2004-05 and 2005-06 — we’ll get to that in a minute — and beyond what any other Canadian has managed otherwise.

At 24 he’s already the youngest of the four Canadians to have ever appeared in an all-star game, and at the end of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander will almost certainly join Nash as just the second Canadian to earn All-NBA recognition. Presuming it happens, the achievement would come four years and a season before Nash was named third team All-NBA in 2001-02 as a 28-year-old in his sixth season and then playing with the Dallas Mavericks. 

But Nash himself saw it coming. In 2020-21 Nash was in his first season as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets when he looked at what Gilgeous-Alexander was doing that season — his third — and identified that something special was brewing. 

“He’s taken another step — his scoring, his feel, his passing, pick-and-roll, and isolation situations … He’s shooting better off the bounce than (he) has been historically. He just continues to grow and prove he’s a very clever player,” Nash said then. “For such a young career, you can see him evolving into a perennial All-Star.”

That was the year Gilgeous-Alexander put up 23.7 points and 5.9 assists a game while shooting 50.8 per cent from the floor and 41.8 per cent from three. That he was limited by injury to just 35 games playing for the rebuilding Thunder meant that he more than doubled his production from his rookie season in 2017-18 largely went unnoticed. Last season there were more signs, as Gilgeous Alexander put up 24.5 points a game but again had his season cut short by injuries, plus the fact the Thunder were happy to finish in the lottery again. 

But this season has been — without exaggeration — unprecedented, and not just for Canadians. 

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.3 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 50.9 per cent from the floor for a young OKC team that was projected to be lottery-bound. But instead, the Thunder arrive in Toronto in eighth place in the Western Conference (prior to games Wednesday night), one game under .500 and — with 34 wins — having already well exceeded their win totals from the past two seasons with 13 games left to play. 

The point guard from Hamilton is on pace to shatter the previous high in points per game for a Canadian (23.6 by Wiggins in 2016-17) and total points (also Wiggins) and be the first to score 2000 points in a season. Gilgeous-Alexander is in a neck-and-neck race with Murray to become the first Canadian since Nash to have 400 assists in a season. 

And he does it all with a style that’s his own as he uses his six-foot-six frame, long arms, a tight handle and a mesmerizing ability to change pace and leave defenders grasping at air as he camps out in the paint, collapsing defences from the inside out. 

“He’s got an incredible first step, incredible quickness, incredible tempo to the way he can get his defender off balance and he’s by him and into the paint,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who also coached Gilgeous-Alexander this past summer for the national team and is hoping to have him at the FIBA World Cup of Basketball this coming summer. “He’s really just smooth and quick with that move and he can kinda do it in bunch of different ways so you can’t really catch his rhythm on it, if there’s a rhythm …. he’s hard to keep in front of anyone with the ball in his hands.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s breakout has s been building season by season since he was drafted 11th overall and then traded after a successful rookie season by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2018 to OKC in the deal for Paul George. 

But this season has been an explosion and Gilgeous-Alexander is on the short list of favourites for the Most Improved Player Award, which would be one more Canadian first. 

Another way to capture how momentous a season Gilgeous-Alexander is having? 

The only other NBA player to average at least 31 points, five assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game for a season is Michael Jordan — yeah, that Michael Jordan —  and Gilgeous-Alexander is the first to do it with a True Shooting percentage (a measure of scoring efficiency that captures two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws) of 62.5 or better. 

And then there’s Nash. When the Victoria star won his first MVP award in 2004-05 he averaged 15.5 points, 11.5 assists with a True Shooting percentage of 60.6 as he lifted the Suns from 29 wins the season before to an NBA-best 62 wins in his first year back with the Phoenix, where he had played for two seasons before being traded to Dallas. 

Nash wasn’t a hugely impactful defender, but he did average a steal per game that season. 

The advanced or ‘catch all’ measures are in Gilgeous-Alexander’s favour. His PER (player efficiency rating) is 27.1, the best ever by a Canadian and compares well with Nash’s 22.0 during his first MVP year. Similarly, Gilgeous-Alexander’s WinShares per 48 minutes of .229 is elite for a guard, and ahead of Nash at .203. Even Nash’s numbers in his most statistically dominant season in 2006-07 (18.5 points, 11.5 assists and 65.4 TS%; 23.8 PER and .225 WS/48) when the Suns star finished second in the MVP voting, don’t quite match up with Gilgeous-Alexander’s overall production this year

Those who know him well will say they knew they had this kind of level in him, but to get to it this soon in his career? 

“I mean, he was real good last year. He’s always been really good,” Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk – a teammate of Gilgeous-Alexander’s on the Canadian national team this past summer — told me recently. “He’s just got a lot of tools in his bag, but I didn’t know he’d be this good, this fast, I guess. But even his rookie year, you knew he was going to be something special in this league for sure. He’s got size for a guard, length, long arms. Can shoot it, put on the floor, go by people, and has a knack for getting fouled and he can pass, so he’s a real tough cover.”

Gilgeous-Alexander had it all on display when he suited up for three games for the senior team during World Cup qualifying last summer and was casually dominant in leading Canada to three wins while averaging 26.3 points, 4.7 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks. 

“This summer you could see it for sure. He was scoring at will,” said Olynyk. “When he was with us he was the best guy in the gym 99 per cent of the time.”

And if he doesn’t come across with the kind of snarl often associated with NBA alphas — just the other day he made a case for being nicer to referees — it’s not because he’s lacking edge or confidence. The opposite maybe.  

“He’s kind of cool, calm, collected, but I think he’s got a killer instinct in his head, but he doesn’t make it known,” said Olynyk. “He just believes in himself to the utmost degree and you’re watching it unfold.”

Gilgeous Alexander signalled he was on a mission earlier this year when he hit a pair of walk-off game-winners to cap off huge nights — one on Nov. 16 against the Washington Wizards and another on Dec. 19 against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

Nothing new, says his cousin and national team backcourt mate Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who will be in Toronto on Saturday with the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

“Watching all these game winner, I’m like, ‘I’ve seen this a thousand times.’ I’ve seen it go from People’s Church [in Hamilton] to an NBA arena, and it’s the same result,” said the four-year veteran. “And there’s days I believe in him more than I believe in my own self. I’ve learned a lot from him, and to see what he’s doing is no surprise to me. People think it has been just this past summer, but this has been compounded from all the summers of work going back to high school. He’s worked tremendously hard, and I knew one day this is what we’d be seeing.” 

What we’re seeing is Canadian basketball greatness, with Gilgeous-Alexander playing the game as well or better than anyone from this country ever has, with a future limited only by his health and imagination. 

Nash set an impossibly high bar for Canadians with NBA dreams to reach. At 24 years old, Gilgeous-Alexander is showing that he be might the person to clear it.


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