Skip to main content


Gilgeous-Alexander’s unflappable nature should bode well for Canada’s Olympic chances

Oklahoma City Thunder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – There’s still plenty of unknowns for the Canadian men’s national team four months out from this summer’s Olympics.

What will their group look like? Tuesday’s draw revealed one of their three preliminary round opponents – fifth-ranked Australia – but the other two will be determined by a couple of last-chance qualifying tournaments in early July, just a few weeks prior to the opening ceremonies in Paris.

Will Jamal Murray be healthy enough to play? The country’s second-best player opted out of last summer’s FIBA World Cup to manage his body coming off of a championship run with Denver. He’s got an extensive injury history, has battled multiple ailments this season, and is poised to go deep into the playoffs once again.

How will the rest of the roster shake out? If it comes down to it, will Canada Basketball stay true to its word and stick with the Summer Core – 14 players who helped the program get back to the Olympics for the first time in more than two decades – or extend invitations to some of the guys who, for various reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t commit, most notably Andrew Wiggins?

Despite all of that uncertainty, there’s at least one thing they can bank on: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

It’s been an eventful year for one of the sport’s brightest young superstars. Last summer, he led Canada to a historic bronze-medal finish at the World Cup, helping secure its first Olympic berth in men’s basketball since the 2000 Sydney Games. That was the precursor for what he’s done this season.

The Hamilton, Ont., native has put himself in the MVP conversation with a two-time winner of the award, reigning champion Nikola Jokic, all while elevating an Oklahoma City Thunder team that finished 10th a year ago (and 14th the year before that) to the very top of the Western Conference.

“It’s been a blessing,” Gilgeous-Alexander said upon receiving his Northern Star Award for the best Canadian athlete of 2023 ahead of Friday’s game in Toronto. “A lot of people put in work and do a lot of the right things but aren’t blessed with the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with. So a little bit of it is humbling just to know that everything I’ve done has worked out and paid off. There’s a little bit of luck that’s gone into it. But, yeah, it’s for sure everything a kid could ask for.”

This year could be even more memorable for the 25-year-old. First, he and his young Thunder team will have a chance to make some noise on the NBA’s biggest stage this spring. It’ll be his first playoff appearance since 2020 – his second year in the league and first with OKC. Then, he’ll take the world stage, realizing a lifelong dream by representing his country at the Olympics and, perhaps, pushing for a podium finish.

None of it will come easy. Both teams will be looking to do something similar: prove that they belong amongst a field of very tough clubs with more size and experience. The Thunder could be tested early, with the veteran Lakers, Warriors and Suns as possible first-round opponents. The same could be said for Canada, who will share a group with Australia and, likely, Spain – two international basketball powerhouses – as well as either Luka Doncic and Slovenia or Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece. They’ll have to finish the group stage with a top-two standing in order to guarantee their spot in the quarterfinals. Among the teams that could be waiting for them there, and beyond: the tournament favourite Americans, Jokic and Serbia, and host France.

Fortunately, Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t easily fazed.

“It’s the Olympics,” he said. “It’s all going to be tough. Best [12] teams in the world. We expected it to be hard. We had France in our group [at the World Cup] last summer and played Spain before we got to the Philippines. We expect to play good teams and we expect to be ready for them.”

Even at such a young age, Gilgeous-Alexander is as unflappable as they come. His maturity and poise have becoming defining qualities. It’s the single biggest reason why Oklahoma City – the NBA’s second-youngest team – has been able to accelerate the rebuilding process and contend ahead of schedule; with Friday’s 123-103 win over the Raptors, they maintain a half-game lead on Denver for the No. 1 seed in the West.

“He’s incredibly consistent in his day to day,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “He does a great job of staying steady, staying present, and I think it's had a contagious effect on the team, for sure. He also hasn't lost his way in terms of being a part of the team. He's one of the guys, too. He’s not just this great player that operates on his own level. He’s very plugged into the team, and therefore he has a ton of influence, as well.”

His influence is hard to miss. Going into Friday’s game, Oklahoma City had outscored opponents by 549 with Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor this season. To put that into perspective, nobody else on the Thunder was better than a plus-354 and they were a minus-25 without him.

Earlier this week, he became the fifth player in the last 35 years to score 30 or more points 50 times in a season, and the first since James Harden did it in 2018-19. At 25, he’s the youngest player to do it since Tracy McGrady in 2002-03, and Michael Jordan (1987-88) before that.

His influence on the national team has been every bit as significant. After another disappointing elimination, this time on home soil at the 2021 Olympic qualifiers, general manager Rowan Barrett and then senior men’s head coach Nick Nurse asked the country’s best players to make a three-year commitment.

They had repeatedly come up short, falling apart at the biggest moments of the biggest games in the most important tournaments to countries with a fraction of the NBA talent but far more experience and continuity. But Gilgeous-Alexander was the first to stand up and pledge his fealty to the cause, which didn’t go unnoticed. Thirteen others followed, and the benefit of having the same group train together over the course of two summers showed itself at last year’s World Cup. Finally, they had the chemistry to match their immense promise as a growing basketball nation, and finally, they were able to get over the hump. Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell and so many others that suited up over multiple qualification windows helped change the culture of the program.

In exchange for their commitment and fulfilling their obligation to, at minimum, attend training camps, the 14-man Summer Core was promised first dibs at roster spots during this Olympics cycle. The door was never closed on Wiggins, who didn’t make the three-year commitment, or on some of the up-and-coming Canadian players, who were going through the draft process. The message to those guys was: you’re welcome to come try out if and when a spot opens up. But assuming Wiggins and some of the others come calling – and, by all accounts, many have expressed interest in playing this summer – turning them away will be easier said than done.

It’s not hard to see them make an exception for somebody like Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard, who would be a low-maintenance fit with the current core, giving them depth at point guard and serving as a bridge to the younger generation. The Wiggins case is trickier. The 29-year-old has taken a considerable step backwards this season and would presumably take minutes and shots away from guys like Barrett, Brooks, Luguentz Dort and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, all of whom showed well in the Philippines last summer. On the other hand, Wiggins has played for the national team before, most recently in Victoria in 2021, and could take pressure off of Gilgeous-Alexander offensively.

As one source suggested recently, Canada Basketball’s decision makers could leave it up to the team’s prominent and most venerable players – do they think they’d be better off with or without Wiggins?

If consulted, where does Gilgeous-Alexander stand on the potential roster dilemma – stick with the guys who got them there, or add reinforcements?

“Great, great, great question,” he said. “I would stay out of it. Rowan is really good at his job and I would let him do his job. We have so much talent, so many guys that will be ready for this stage. Whoever they pick will be warranted, for sure. They’ll deserve this spot and we’ll be ready to go come July.”

Even if they do have a tough decision to make when they break camp in Toronto in late June – ahead of a pre-Olympics friendly against the United States in Las Vegas on July 10 – it’s a good problem to have. It wasn’t long ago that the program had to beg NBA-quality players to show up, and would have far fewer to choose from.

“Doors are open for everybody,” said Jordi Fernandez, Canada’s head coach and an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. “We love the commitment and the excitement. As you guys know, a lot of things can happen, like injuries or whatever the case is. My experience with national teams is it [doesn’t] always go to plan, for whatever the reason is. So you have to be ready. We generally want everybody to be committed and want to play. This way we'll get the best out of everybody. And then if they put me in a really, really tough spot with Rowan and [consultant David Blatt] to be like, 'These guys are so good' then it's a good sign. Then we have to make a tough call, but that's ultimately what you want.”

It’s hard to imagine them being in this position without Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way. Regardless of the competition or roster construction around him, and despite the inevitable challenges they’ll face along the way, Canada’s Olympic hopes are in good, steady hands.