Two hours before Sunday’s tipoff at Scotiabank Arena, a Raptors official delivered to a thick stack of tickets to his Clippers counterpart.
Fifty-six were earmarked for friends and family of Clippers rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the highest numbers of tickets requested by any Clipper this season. They’d come to watch a homecoming.
Gilgeous-Alexander grew up a Raptors fan 40 miles away. He watched LeBron James and Cleveland play from the upper deck during his first game as a fan at Scotiabank Arena. He called playing in the NBA his lifelong goal.
To Dwane Casey, that counts as progress.
As coach of the Toronto Raptors from 2011-18, Casey built an Eastern Conference contender while also watching the grass-roots infrastructure of basketball grow in a hockey-obsessed country. Canada will always remain a hockey-first country, he said. But Casey, now the coach at Detroit, saw a basketball pipeline being built on his commutes to work while in Toronto.
“When I first got there it was all hockey nets in driveways,” Casey said. “After seven years you see basketball goals in the driveways.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is the latest export from Canada’s basketball boom. Mobs of his friends might have arrived Sunday — and 14 media members surrounded Gilgeous-Alexander before tipoff to discuss his return — but making the NBA is no longer a rarity for those born north of the border. Eighteen of Canada’s 27 all-time NBA draft selections were drafted within the last decade. Since Tristan Thompson became the country’s first player drafted in the lottery in 2011, seven others have joined him, with Gilgeous-Alexander the latest.
“Guys making it over the years has made it, you could say more numb to it, or accustomed to it, but it also gives the young guys belief that it is possible,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I guess we’re showing so.”
Duke’s R.J. Barrett will become one of the next drafted should he elect to turn professional after his freshman season, as is widely expected. Gilgeous-Alexander’s first cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who has averaged 17.6 points on 41% three-point shooting as a Virginia Tech sophomore, might one day hear his name called too.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who played a summer with the senior Canadian national team at 17, spent his final two years of high school in Tennessee and played one season of college at Kentucky. Going abroad before college might well remain the only choice for maximum recruiting exposure; the only Canadians to be drafted first overall, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, each attended a portion of high school in the U.S.
The difference in recent years, Casey said, is in the quality of coaching Canadian players receive at the youth level.
“Everyone feels like it’s getting better at a rapid rate,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
The Raptors have played a part in this, sponsoring camps and clinics since the franchise’s first season in 1994, but Casey called the improvements in coaching widespread across the country.
“Canada is doing a great job, not a good job, with their younger leagues,” Casey said. “They’re getting qualified coaches, not just the father or AAU coach, they get coaches to coach them the fundamentals. We had a lot of coaching clinics for those guys and I think that is the pipeline to help those kids coming up through that system. And not only in Toronto, guys in Vancouver, Calgary, all over the country, Montreal.
“I really took a lot of pride in trying to spread that word in the country and you see the product of these kids coming out now.… It’s due to the young coaching that they’re getting at a younger age instead of just rolling the ball out.”
Gilgeous-Alexander will represent Canada on the World team at All-Star weekend’s Rising Stars game, and the game's title is fitting, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers has long maintained that the rookie has star potential.