'Year of the Canadian' in NBA kicks off with Alexander-Walker debuting at home

Pelicans’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker (middle) is sandwiched between Raptors’ Fred VanVleet (left) and Marc Gasol during the second quarter at Scotiabank Arena Oct. 22, 2019. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun

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Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been turning heads since the draft workout process this summer, and he got a chance to show his stuff in front of the home crowd on Tuesday night.

No, not New Orleans Pelicans fans, basketball supporters in Toronto, where the rookie guard was born 21 years ago. After a marvellous pre-season, Alexander-Walker has been bandied about as a potential sleeper rookie and has already cracked the rotation of the deep Pelicans. The schedule has worked out for him too, as he became the first Canuck to make his NBA debut on Canadian soil (Tristan Thompson’s first game also came against the Raptors, but that game was in Cleveland).

After shootaround in the morning, Alexander-Walker looked a bit tired for a reason.

“It was hard for me to sleep last night. Kind of just like taking everything in,” he said.

“Playing your first NBA game at home. I mean, you couldn’t make this up. For me to have this experience, I’m truly honoured and blessed,” Alexander-Walker said.

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and general manager David Griffin both spoke highly of the rookie before the game.

“I think he plays like a veteran guy. He’s a really smart basketball player,” Gentry said.

“He’s been solid. He’s an extremely hard-working kid. He works on his craft, he’s not just out there (goofing around). He works on the things he needs to get better in and he asks questions, watches a lot of film and I think he’s one of those kids who has got a real bright future in the league.” Griffin said he’s approached that Alexander-Walker came in “fully-formed” knowing how he wants to play and the effort required. “I feel like I earned the right to be here,” Alexander-Walker said.

“All my hard work and time I put into it, it makes no sense for me to be afraid of the moment.” He appeared to have some jitters in this one though, starting the game 1-for-8 from the field, including just 1-for-6 on three-point attempts in eight first-half minutes. It was a tough evening all in all, with the Pelicans falling 130-122 if overtime and Alexander-Walker shooting 1-for-10 for three points. He did at least grab four rebounds, two assists and two steals and was a +6, one of the best marks on the team.

“For me it’s more about trying to get that win,” he said after the game. “We came up short but it’s a long season.”

Alexander-Walker was pleased with the ovation he got from the fans when he entered the game.

“To not even have played (in the NBA) for them to give me some respect even though I haven’t done much in the league, I appreciate it,” he said.

CANADIAN INVASION

Alexander-Walker is one of a record 20 Canadians on NBA rosters (including four on two-way contracts, such as Toronto’s O’Shae Brissett).

His cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be a focal point for Oklahoma City, Jamal Murray is a potential all-star for Denver, Dwight Powell, Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk remain solid veterans, Andrew Wiggins gets the most money and can pile up points, R.J. Barrett was the No. 3 pick by the New York Knicks, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clark had strong preseasons for Memphis and the list goes on.

The 2018-19 season was the most-watched ever in Canada, culminating in the playoffs, where more than half of the population watched the Finals. Who knows how many more potential professional players were inspired by what they saw.

NO CRYING ABOUT ZION

For all the deserved hoopla surrounding the championship ceremony and opening night, the best athlete on either team was absent. And that sucked that Toronto fans were denied their lone chance to check out Zion Williams, who will undergo knee surgery and miss 6-8 weeks.

Williamson is a wonder in person. A 6-foot-7 wrecking ball. Part running back, part slam dunk champion, part expert finisher.

Griffin apologized to the media on Tuesday for keeping the Williamson injury details vague and a bit under wraps, saying that’s not the way he likes to do things and also pushed back at the notion that Williamson hurt his knee because he is too heavy and not in shape.

“He wasn’t in poor condition when he went 12-of-13 last week against Utah. That’s not what it is. He’s just a very unique body type and certainly from a physics perspective,” Griffin said, calling the theory “asinine” Griffin said the team will have to protect Williamson from himself a little bit and make sure he takes enough time off.

“We’re going to be very cautious,” Griffin said. “This isn’t a sprint. … We’re going to treat everyone with kid gloves and get them through this the best way for them long term.” “That dude is a freak of nature. When he went through his physical, he ran on the treadmill longer than the cardio-stress test people have ever needed to put anybody through a test to get his heart rate up. That happened because he’s touched by the hand of God to do this. He’s in elite condition. He stays in elite condition,” Griffin said.

“He also has a body type that we’re learning to deal with as a 19-year-old kid. He can be 274 pounds and 8½ percent body fat. He can be 280 pounds and 9% body fat. As we’ve gone through this process for our medical team, learning how they’re going to keep him lean and giving him the core strength and stability and control he needs to handle all the torque he generates, typically that means you’re doing to do things to strengthen those areas. In this case, he gains muscle mass so fast and gains weight so fast, no one’s ever dealt with anybody like him before. He’s 19. It’s going to be a learning experience for all of us.” The NBA world is disappointed that Williamson’s debut will have to wait.

“I always think it hurts our league when the best players aren’t on the floor,” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse.

“I hope he gets healthy and gets a lot of games in. We prepared for him quite a bit until we knew for sure he was out.” Raptors guard Norman Powell lamented fans not seeing “guys like that who have so much potential and such a following. (The Pelicans are) really high on him. He’s really good,” Powell said.

“Hopefully down the line I’ll get a chance to play against him in person.”

rwolstat@postmedia.com

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