Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has come a long way from being the youngster soaking up information on the Canadian men’s basketball team.
The 25-year-old Hamilton native got his first taste of the senior team in 2016 when he joined Canada for the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila, Philippines.
“I was really young. I didn’t play a minute in a game. I was pissed about it,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters Tuesday.
“I think I learned professional basketball that year. I learned a lot of terminology, the physicality of it, the speed of it, and it for sure was a kick-start to my professional career.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder guard, who broke out in 2022-23 — his fifth NBA season — with all-star and all-NBA first team honours, is now viewed as a leader and a voice on the Canadian squad.
“You guys have seen him play in the NBA right? An all-star, a guy that is leading his team and what’s he done for us here, he’s been the guy connecting with everybody,” Canada’s head coach Jordi Fernandez said Tuesday.
“He’s been the guy bringing the group together and he’s been a voice and I think that is very important, because as young as he is, he’s showing leadership and you can lead in so many different ways and him in his own way, he’s bringing this group together.”
The Canadian squad is currently in training camp until Sunday at Toronto’s OVO Athletic Centre in the lead-up to the FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10.
A top-two finish among the seven Americas teams in the 32-team tournament is good enough for Canada to earn its first Olympic berth in men’s basketball since 2000, and punch a ticket to Paris 2024.
Asked of his role as a leader and having a voice, Gilgeous-Alexander was clear in stating the goal at hand.
“I think not only myself, but we all want to win. And that’s what we’re focused on,” he said. “We all just want to do whatever it takes to get the job done, that’s all we’re focused on and that’s one of the things we really want to get done.”
Gilgeous-Alexander was one of 14 players who made a three-year commitment to the national team program in May 2022.
He played in three games for Canada last summer in FIBA World Cup qualifying, averaging 26.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists in just 28.4 minutes per game. Canada went 3-0 in that span.
His presence on the team isn’t taken lightly.
“Oh a lot,” said centre Dwight Powell when asked about the weight Gilgeous-Alexander carries with the team. “I mean, Shai has experience in the international game. He’s one of the, you know, great players that this nation has to offer.
“He has the mindset of wanting to compete at every opportunity and win at every opportunity, especially with us. So that’s what we need. And everybody’s going to follow suit and we got a bunch of guys that are leading in their own way, which I think is super important, especially in a sprint like this, in a summer competition.”
Gilgeous-Alexander pointed to his roots when asked why this stretch of basketball is so important to him.
“I think the country, where I come from, is the reason I’m the player I am today,” he said. “With the opportunities that I got growing up and the coaches that helped me and the fans that were behind me and ultimately the city I grew up in, where I was raised, all of it goes back to being in Canada.
“And playing for the country, the nation, the fans, everyone that represents it and wears Canada on their chest, on their driver’s licence, whatever it is, it’s an honour and it means a lot. And we all wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for it.”
Becoming an Olympian would be an accomplishment of high regard for Gilgeous-Alexander.
“Everyone wants to play for the Olympics,” he said. “You grow up watching the Olympics, all the historic things that happen there. It’d be a dream come true.”