Hamilton guard Gilgeous-Alexander lives up to billing in Canadian debut

TORONTO — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had more than 50 friends and family members in the Scotiabank Arena crowd Sunday night to watch his first professional basketball game on home soil — a scenario Doc Rivers has seen play out with disastrous consequences.

“Usually they play awful, they really do,” the Los Angeles Clippers coach said. “I remember my first game, I was so concerned about tickets that I remember Mike Fratello (Rivers’ coach in Atlanta) telling me at halftime that I’d forgotten to play.”

Rivers needn’t have worried about Gilgeous-Alexander. The 20-year-old from Hamilton was the one big bright spot for the Clippers in a 121-103 loss to the Raptors in Toronto, scoring a team-high 19 points.

The six-foot-six guard was easy to spot. His long hyphenated last name must have caused fits for the jersey printer, wrapping up one side of his number and down the other. It’s believed to be the longest name in NBA history.

But boasting a seven-foot wingspan, it was the Canadian’s length and athleticism that impressed, along with a fierce fearlessness against one of the league’s best teams that Gilgeous-Alexander nonchalantly said he’s always had.

“I always thought I would make it to the NBA,” he said with a shrug. “Always been a dreamer, I guess.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 10.1 points and 3.0 assists a night, and is shooting a solid 47 per cent from the field. He recently earned a spot in the Rising Stars game featuring rookie and sophomore players during NBA all-star weekend in Charlotte.

Rivers has been famously stingy with playing time for rookies, but the coach made Gilgeous-Alexander a starter just 10 games into the season, and the Canadian has clutched onto that spot ever since.

“He’s been terrific, way ahead of schedule,” Rivers said. “He has his ups and downs like all rookies do, but he’s a smart kid, extremely coachable. That’s the nice Canadian part of him I’m assuming. He’s been a joy to deal with.”

The 57-year-old Rivers credits the Canadian’s work ethic, but said he’s had to rein in the young player’s enthusiasm.

“Oh yeah, he works … maybe even too much,” Rivers said. “Last week I had to remind him it’s OK to take a day off. But it’s hard to tell a person to stop working, and I probably fail at that. If something’s not working in his game, he’s going to go fix it. That’s what great players do. All the great shooters and players work more than everyone else, and Shai is one of those guys.”

Gilgeous-Alexander grew up a Raptors fan during the Chris Bosh/T.J. Ford/Jose Calderon era, and remembered his first time sitting high up in the nosebleeds of what was then the Air Canada Centre.

“I just remember the first time I came it was LeBron and the Cavs,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. ”Cavs beat ‘em.”

Fast forward a decade, and the Canadian regularly faces the likes of star guards LeBron James and Steph Curry.

“It’s been fun, getting to see how good they really are, not through a TV screen,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. ”They’re obviously amazing talents, and I just try to go there and challenge them as much as they challenge me.”

Rivers said what’s most impressive is that the Canadian is “not scared. That’s all you can ask for.”

The emergence of the Kentucky product gives Canada’s national team a wealth of talent at guard. Gilgeous-Alexander could share point guard duties in upcoming international games with Indiana’s Cory Joseph, while Denver standout Jamal Murray could get the start at shooting guard.

“(There is) a bunch of excitement,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of Canada’s national program. “Everyone feels like it’s getting better at a rapid rate. I guess the U.S. can say they’re the powerhouse, but I feel like we’re in a good spot right now.”

Canada has already booked its berth in the FIBA World Cup, Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China.

It was also a good week for Gilgeous-Alexander’s cousin Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Virginia Tech guard earned ACC Player of the Week honours after racking up 36 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and nine steals in two games.

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