A lottery prospect in Thursday's 2019 NBA Draft, the Virginia Tech sophomore has been working out with his cousin, LA Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
A lifelong Toronto Raptors fan, Alexander-Walker was anxious to watch what proved to be the Game 6 clincher against the Golden State Warriors. But even within the time zone, Alexander-Walker struggled to watch his favorite team clinch: just as Toronto was fending off the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Alexander-Walker was making his way through Los Angeles International Airport, apparently without ready access to a big-screen in one of the travelers’ bars or lounges.
“I’m at LAX, I’m on FaceTime and I’m trying to get my friends to show me the screen,” the guard from Virginia Tech said on the eve of the Draft, which will be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
“So I’m, like, yelling [as Toronto won]. People at the airport are looking at me like, ‘What the heck is going on with this guy?’ ” Alexander-Walker said. “I got chills, to be honest. It felt unreal. ‘Did they really just do that?’ ”
They did -- the Raptors in a span of about two weeks went from hosting the first Finals game played outside the United States to becoming the league’s first champion based outside the U.S. And now Alexander-Walker, Duke’s RJ Barrett and several others like them are about to do more -- flood the Draft with Canadians, lending an even stronger maple scent to the NBA’s spring.
“I was jumping up and down screaming, watching the game,” said Barrett, who had a better seat for the clinching game than Alexander-Walker and will have a better spot in Thursday’s talent mart. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 pick, likely headed to the New York Knicks anywhere from 10 to 15 spots ahead of his countryman from Toronto.
“It means a lot for our whole country,” said Barrett, who grew up outside Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario. He is the son of Rowan Barrett, a Toronto native who played at St. John’s, competed professionally overseas and helped the Canadian national team in the 2000 Olympics and in FIBA world championships.
Not only is the elder Barrett the source of his son’s name -- “RJ” is short for Rowan Junior -- he also is the current executive vice-president and GM of Canada Basketball. And his good friend Steve Nash, the two-time NBA MVP and Naismith Hall of Famer from Victoria, British Columbia, is RJ’s godfather.
All that pedigree makes Barrett one of the most heralded players in Canada’s hoops history, up there in hype with the Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, dubbed “Maple Jordan” as he generated excitement growing up in Vaughan, Ontario, before enrolling at Kansas.
“[The Raptors] are the only team we’ve got,” Barrett, the Blue Devils’ 6-foot-7 wing -- teammate and roommate of No. 1 prospect Zion Williamson -- said of the freshly crowned Raptors. “I remember as a kid watching Chris Bosh, watching DeMar DeRozan. So I can only imagine what the young kids now are doing watching Kawhi Leonard, and seeing the whole team and how they’re doing. Hopefully it inspires the nation.”
Canada already ranks as the NBA’s second-biggest source of talent, as noted by commissioner Adam Silver before Game 1 of The Finals last month, with 13 of its citizens on rosters at the end of 2018-19.
This will be the 10th consecutive Draft in which at least one Canadian gets selected, and there likely will be more to follow. According to multiple mock drafts, five players from Canada could hear their names read from the stage at Barclays Center.
In addition to Barrett and Alexander-Walker, the top north-of-the-border prospects include Florida State forward Mfiondu Kabengele of Burlington, Ontario; Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort of Montreal, and Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke, who was 3 years old when his family moved from Vancouver to Phoenix.
There are more and more Canadian players coming. We’re about to go crazy. "
Others with Canadian roots who could be in play Thursday: Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis of Oakville, Ontario, and Iowa State guard Lindell Wigginton of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
“There are more and more Canadian players coming. We’re about to go crazy. We’re about to do some amazing things.”
Ironically, with so much homegrown talent on the board, the Raptors don’t have a first-round pick this year. They hold the No. 59 pick, one from the end, although a frenzied trade market is expected Thursday that could jumble the order of teams from No. 4 through No. 60.
The 2014 draft established Canada’s previous high for NBA selections, with Wiggins, Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis going in the first round and Dwight Powell getting picked in the second round.
Those were the sort of players Barrett, Alexander-Walker and the others followed when their own games were starting to blossom as young teens. In all, 33 Canadian-born players have competed in the NBA (including lone Naismith Hall of Famer Bob Houbregs, 1953-58. Nash technically doesn’t qualify because he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, before his family moved to British Columbia.)
But 18 have done so since 2012.
“I feel like I’m the next one, so I’m watching my step,” said Barrett, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (22.6 ppg) while breaking Kenny Anderson’s 1991 ACC freshman record for points. “Just trying to do the best I can for my country.”
Said Alexander-Walker: “I remember looking up to the players, guys like Andrew Wiggins. Seeing them get drafted, I was like, ‘Man, I want to do that.’ I believe that there’s kids that will try to follow me. So I try to be the best example I can be.”
What the Raptors accomplished may have a two-fold effect: Inspiring more Canadian kids to hit the blacktop and the gyms, while opening more NBA players’ eyes to Toronto as a destination market. Or at least one that can be defined by its ability to compete for top players -- a re-up by Leonard would help with that -- and a championship.
“It’s the best city in the world,” Alexander-Walker said. “So when you get to play basketball and live in one of the best cities -- regardless of weather -- you just have to enjoy it.”
Admittedly, he feels connected, part of the proverbial subject in the Raptors' slogan and rallying cry, "We The North." He’s one of them. Nickeil-Alexander grew up in Ontario rooting for the franchise that is four years older than him.
“As a kid, I missed the Vince Carter era by a little bit. But definitely a big Raptors fan,” Alexander-Walker said. “You were always like, ‘This could be the year.’ And then it wasn’t the year.
“I’m glad this year was [it].”
Might soon be saying the same about this Draft.
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