06/20/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/19/2019 22:33
NEW YORK - At the same time the 2019 NBA Finals were being decided, Nickeil Alexander-Walker was on the West Coast.
A lottery prospect in Thursday's 2019 NBA Draft, the Virginia Tech sophomore has been working out with his cousin, Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
A lifelong Toronto Raptors fan, Alexander-Walker was anxious to watch what proved to be the Game 6 clincher against the Golden State Warriors. But even within the time zone, Alexander-Walker struggled to watch his favorite team clinch: just as Toronto was fending off the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Alexander-Walker was making his way through Los Angeles International Airport, apparently without ready access to a big-screen in one of the travelers' bars or lounges.
'I'm at LAX, I'm on FaceTime and I'm trying to get my friends to show me the screen,' the guard from Virginia Tech said on the eve of the Draft, which will be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
'So I'm, like, yelling [as Toronto won]. People at the airport are looking at me like, 'What the heck is going on with this guy?'' Alexander-Walker said. 'I got chills, to be honest. It felt unreal. 'Did they really just do that?''
They did - the Raptors in a span of about two weeks went from hosting the first Finals game played outside the United States to becoming the league's first champion based outside the U.S. And now Alexander-Walker, Duke's RJ Barrett and several others like them are about to do more - flood the Draft with Canadians, lending an even stronger maple scent to the NBA's spring.
'I was jumping up and down screaming, watching the game,' said Barrett, who had a better seat for the clinching game than Alexander-Walker and will have a better spot in Thursday's talent mart. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 pick, likely headed to the New York Knicks anywhere from 10 to 15 spots ahead of his countryman from Toronto.
'It means a lot for our whole country,' said Barrett, who grew up outside Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario. He is the son of Rowan Barrett, a Toronto native who played at St. John's, competed professionally overseas and helped the Canadian national team in the 2000 Olympics and in FIBA world championships.
Not only is the elder Barrett the source of his son's name - 'RJ' is short for Rowan Junior - he also is the current executive vice-president and GM of Canada Basketball. And his good friend Steve Nash, the two-time NBA MVP and Naismith Hall of Famer from Victoria, British Columbia, is RJ's godfather.
All that pedigree makes Barrett one of the most heralded players in Canada's hoops history, up there in hype with Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins, dubbed 'Maple Jordan' as he generated excitement growing up in Vaughan, Ontario, before enrolling at Kansas.
'[The Raptors] are the only team we've got,' Barrett, the Blue Devils' 6-foot-7 wing - teammate and roommate of No. 1 prospect Zion Williamson - said of the freshly crowned Raptors. 'I remember as a kid watching Chris Bosh, watching DeMar DeRozan. So I can only imagine what the young kids now are doing watching Kawhi Leonard, and seeing the whole team and how they're doing. Hopefully it inspires the nation.'
Canada already ranks as the NBA's second-biggest source of talent, as noted by commissioner Adam Silver before Game 1 of the Finals last month, with 13 of its citizens on rosters at the end of 2018-19.
This will be the 10th consecutive Draft in which at least one Canadian gets selected, and there likely will be more to follow; according to multiple mock drafts, five players from Canada could hear their names read from the stage at Barclays Center.
In addition to Barrett and Alexander-Walker, the top north-of-the-border prospects include Florida State forward Mfiondu Kabengele of Burlington, Ontario; Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort of Montreal, and Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke, who was 3 years old when his family moved from Vancouver to Phoenix.
Others with Canadian roots who could be in play Thursday: Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis of Oakville, Ontario, and Iowa State guard Lindell Wigginton of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
'You see it,' said Barrett, who won't match Wiggins (2014) or Toronto's Anthony Bennett (2013) as the first selection overall but has the talent and training to perhaps surpass both in career impact.
'There are more and more Canadian players coming. We're about to go crazy. We're about to do some amazing things.'
Ironically, with so much homegrown talent on the board, the Raptors don't have a first-round pick this year. They hold the No. 59 pick, one from the end, although a frenzied trade market is expected Thursday that could jumble the order of teams from No. 4 through No. 60.