A few weeks ago I started to write an article on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Canadian point guard prospect who was deciding if he was going to turn pro or not. It was a safe bet he was, and it was also a seeming lock that he wouldn’t be coming to Toronto since the Raptors didn’t have a first round pick in the draft.
My take was basically that if the Raps could draft someone like SGA it could change the face of Canadian pro-basketball forever. You know, nothing major. But, it was never going to happen.
And now here we are. Smack in the middle of a rumour storm that says the Raps are willing to make any player available on their roster to move into the top-10 to take the highly coveted Canadian.
To say that I am giddy, would be an understatement.
All right, a caveat first — and it’s a big one at that.
In his time in Toronto, Masai Ujiri has been a master at keeping his business out of the media’s eye. If the Raptors were alleged to be making a move, it was almost a sure sign that they were not, in fact, considering that move. Because Toronto’s front office kept such tight lips, the theory was that the leaks came from other teams, trying to use the “Raptors are interested in Player A” angle to cover up their own agenda. The idea was that because Ujiri would never comment, these rumours couldn’t be completely dismissed.
So, the idea that the Raptors have given out their strategy and so strongly come out in favour of taking a particular player, which would certainly erode their bargaining power in a trade, seems unlikely.
Still, the Mike Bundenholzer saga could be a sign that the previously impenetrable Raptors front office is now penetrable, and that this infatuation for Gilgeous-Alexander is real.
And if that’s the case, then taking the Canadian could be the most impactful thing the Raptors have done in their entire history.
First, let’s take a look at the player. At 6’6”, and with a deliberate, yet gliding game, watching the Kentucky freshman is an exercise in seeing something that feels new, and yet familiar. As a Raptors fan, you’d be excused for thinking SGA patterned his game off of Delon Wright, except SGA is six years younger and carries himself with a confidence that Wright is still finding. He’s going to take work and good coaching to make him into something, but the raw material is more than there for SGA to be a starter on a legitimately good NBA team.
Of course, if this was just about how good he might be on the court, the story would be exciting, but relatively simple. Good kid. Very interesting potential. Highly unlikely to be a superstar.
Of course, it’s not just about that, because with everything the Raptors have done right, there is one thing they haven’t had a chance to do. A thing, that if it worked, would truly give Toronto a national profile — aside from the hoop heads scattered across the country — draft and develop a Canadian and turn him into a household name.
The Raptors have had three Canadians in their existence. Jamaal Magloire was a respected big man at the end of his run, who put in an honest day’s work and is still with the franchise. Anthony Bennett was a lottery ticket that never cashed out, but more to the point, nobody expected to. Cory Joseph is legitimately a very good player, and he reached another level of his career here, but he wasn’t ours.
None of those players moved the needle for casual sports fans across Canada. CoJo had a hockey player’s hustle which didn’t hurt, but his way of influencing the game was often too subtle for a basketball newbie to really understand.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s strengths, anticipation, footwork, heady play are also the stuff of a hoops’ connoisseur. But, with one major difference, Gilgeous-Alexander can take over a game, body and soul.
Like most Canadian ball fans, I started to pay some legitimate attention to SGA when he wrested the starting point guard gig at Kentucky early this year. I didn’t really get a close look at him though, until the SEC and then the NCAA tournament.
In those first two games of March Madness, Gilgeous-Alexander controlled everything. The way he thought the game, his odd personal rhythm within it, how he was effortlessly in charge on both ends of the floor, made it impossible not to notice him. He got wherever he wanted, got in the way of whatever his opponents did, and showed flashes of a ceiling that could make him a truly special player.
Think Sean Livingston, without the horrific leg injury and with a jumper. A player who, if he can add weight to his very thin frame, could legitimately guard three positions, and both space the floor, and punish. Everyone is over the moon for Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic (as they should be), but if SGA breaks just right, he’s the smaller, but more athletic version.
I know that sounds crazy. Maybe it is. But the kid has high-end handle, intelligence, toughness, can shoot the ball, and understands the game. He won’t ever have Doncic’s size, and maybe his moxy, but he showed that he could be the best player on the floor in those tourney games, and it wasn’t even close.
Now, chances are things won’t break just right, but if they did… that player, a Canadian player has a chance to grab people’s attention in a new way, to get all of Canada interested. And what’s more, because of his style of play, following Gilgeous-Alexander will demand fans understand the game in a new, and deeper way. This isn’t Vince Carter whose dunking exploits were simple, violent pleasures that anyone could enjoy. Becoming a fan of Gilgeous-Alexander will demand that Canadians who hadn’t given the game much deep thought do so, changing the sporting culture for basketball in this country.
If Canada truly becomes a basketball nation, how might that change the calculus of high-end players making decisions about their free-agency futures? If truly becoming Canada’s team comes with anything close to the in-league lustre the Maple Leafs or Canadians enjoy at their peak, does that push the Raptors brand high enough, that when the next LeBron James-esque decision is made, Toronto is a front-runner?
I can’t know that, but I want to believe that for the right players, it could.
What I do know is that if Toronto does acquire Gilgeous-Alexander, and the game he showed us in March was real, the joy of watching that kid figure out how to bend the NBA to his will, will create a near hysteria for Canadian basketball fans. Imagine the joy you’ve felt watching Pascal Siakam, or Wright, or Fred VanVleet, or OG Anunoby or Jakob Poeltl take steps towards becoming an impact NBA player.
Now multiply that by 100, because as much as we love our Bench Broskis, it’s going to be a totally different feeling when that love comes homegrown.