Zion Williamson and Ja Morant exchange jerseys (left), as do Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Pelicans rookies look forward to teaming up with a close friend in Rising Stars game

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Zion Williamson describes one of his teammates and good friends on the USA roster at Friday’s Rising Stars game in Chicago as a “brother.” On the opposing squad, one of Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s World teammates is literally a family member.

As New Orleans rookies Williamson and Alexander-Walker prepared to represent the Pelicans on a national stage this weekend, they looked forward to fulfilling a lifelong dream of being part of the NBA’s All-Star weekend. For the 19-year-old Williamson and the 21-year-old Alexander-Walker, there’s also a particularly personal reason why Friday’s exhibition featuring first- and second-year players will be special.

Williamson will join forces with Memphis rookie guard Ja Morant, a close friend and fellow South Carolina native who once played on the same AAU team. A duo that first teamed up on the basketball court as high school freshmen went 1-2 in the NBA draft just five years later, an occurrence that Williamson still sometimes has a difficult time believing happened.

“I used to play with this dude back in ninth grade,” Williamson said. “For us to come this far, it’s crazy.”

Alexander-Walker will have an equally incredible background story and connection on the hardwood in the United Center: His first cousin, second-year Oklahoma City guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is joining him on the World roster. The family members, who were coached extensively by Nickeil’s uncle – Shai’s father – are part of Canada’s rapidly growing prominence in producing NBA players.

“As kids we always talked about being in the Rookie-Sophomore game,” Alexander-Walker said, referring to the event’s previous name during its infancy. “Or trying to be in All-Star weekend every year of our careers. For me to have the opportunity to play with him and do everything we talked about, it’s a blessing. I’m just trying to make the most out of it and have fun.”

Williamson, who said of Morant recently, “He knows he’s my brother,” had a similar perspective on his approach to playing in the Rising Stars event.

“I’m looking to go out there and have fun, as simple as that,” Williamson said.

Friday’s game also serves as a bit of a “reunion” for Alexander-Walker and Gilgeous-Alexander with fellow Canadian R.J. Barrett, teammate from prior international competitions who was the No. 3 pick in the ’19 draft by New York. Alexander-Walker and Gilgeous-Alexander were also high school teammates.

“(Rising Stars) just brings us back to high school, enjoying the time together, doing what we love,” Alexander-Walker said. “(Shai is) my best friend. To do something you love with someone you love and have bonded with, you can’t really put it into words.”

The unique USA vs. World format of Friday’s game also means that after spending the first 55 games of the NBA regular season as teammates, Williamson and Alexander-Walker will be opponents. While focusing on New Orleans’ push for a playoff berth, the Pelicans’ rookies have not discussed that fact much as All-Star weekend approached, but Alexander-Walker expected some good-natured conversation to be forthcoming.

“Not yet, but when that times comes there will be a little bit of trash talk, maybe if he gets switched out on me (defensively) or something,” Alexander-Walker said. “We probably will joke around about it.”

Asked what advice he might have for World Team frontcourt players who may have to match up with Williamson in Friday’s game, Alexander-Walker joked that he planned to provide any defensive strategy tips in extremely limited doses.

“In this type of game, I will wait until the fourth quarter (to give advice), when it’s time to win,” the Virginia Tech product said of the Rising Stars tilt. “But at the end of the day, I know (the Pelicans are) going to have to play against these guys later (in the regular season), so I can’t give away too much!”

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