Nickeil Alexander-Walker remembers the moment he feels Canada’s contribution to the talent pool in the NBA changed.
It was long before the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship and even before he and fellow countryman R.J. Barrett were among two of the top 2019 NBA Draft prospects. It was back in the summer of 2017 when Team Canada beat the USA and squashed its hopes for a third straight FIBA U19 World Cup for Men title in the tournament’s semifinals. Canada ultimately won.
Alexander-Walker wasn’t even on the team — Barrett was — but the 20-year-old guard said Canada’s victory sent a message to the U.S., as well as the rest of the world: “Now, you guys gotta listen. Now, you guys gotta take us seriously.”
A native of the Toronto area, Alexander-Walker is ready to help take Canada’s reputation in the basketball world to the next level, and he’s projected to be a top-20 draft pick this year.
“The NBA and U.S. produce great players, but Canada is now showing we do the same,” Alexander-Walker said in an interview with NBC Sports Washington. He declared for the NBA Draft following his sophomore year at Virginia Tech.
In his second season with the Hokies, he led the team with 16.2 points and 1.9 steals per game. He scored in double-digits in 29-of-34 games this season, and he hit his season-high of 25 points three different times. (His NCAA career-high in-game points was actually 29 as a freshman last season in Virginia Tech’s win over The Citadel.)
NBC Sports Washington’s latest mock draft projects the 6-foot-5, 205-pound shooting guard will be the No. 20 overall draft pick by the Boston Celtics, thanks to a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers.
While they’ll still contribute to a small percentage, Alexander-Walker and Barrett — a one-and-done forward out of Duke — certainly won’t be the only Canadian players in the league. Power forward Chris Boucher is the only Canadian-born player on the Raptors’ title-winning roster, and he was on the Golden State Warriors’ winning team last season. Before him, Tristan Thompson was the last Canadian player to win an NBA title, which he did in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And then there is, of course, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker’s cousin who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers. Gilgeous-Alexander was the 11th overall 2018 NBA Draft pick out of Kentucky and started in 79 games this season, including the Clippers’ first-round playoffs matchup against the Warriors.
Alexander-Walker said his cousin is currently letting him stay with him in Los Angeles, and it’s just one of the countless ways the pair support each other. While he’s waiting to realize his own big-league dreams, he was still in awe watching Gilgeous-Alexander accomplish so many of the things they talked about while growing up together.
“If you were a cousin in our family, you were a brother,” he said.
The two star athletes were always doing something together, and it wasn’t just about basketball, Alexander-Walker said. Throughout their childhood summers, they’d play football, soccer and baseball too, and he’d spend a lot of time at his cousin’s house.
“We really pushed each other,” said Alexander-Walker. “We knew we had the same goal. We really sharpened each other. As the Bible says, 'Iron sharpens iron.'
“He was everything I needed, and I tried to be everything he needed. In terms of support, he was always there to support me, and I’ve tried to be there for him. And everything he has taught me [about] this game and how he was a great point guard and how I can help him with scoring.”
Although Alexander-Walker hands Vince Carter “full credit for putting Toronto on the map” in the NBA, he still said when he was a kid, everyone pretended to be Allen Iverson. That’s just the way it was in his household and family in general. He specifically remembers imitating Iverson with the help of a Fisher-Price net.
“Me, Shai and his little brother would be doing up-and-under layups, trying to jump from one side of the door, land on the other, really trying to mimic [Iverson],” Alexander-Walker recalled.
But when it came to one-on-one between the current NBA prospect and his Clipper cousin, Alexander-Walker joked that the stories from back in the day “get skewed” but he’s confident he “won the most” matchups.
That competition against another future NBA player helped make Alexander-Walker the player he is today. He operates under the mentality of winning being important because “people remember the winners,” he said.
And it’s part of the reason why he’ll do anything to help lift his team to victory, and it’s not always scoring.
“I try to be a winner, and I want to impact the game as much as I can by winning -- whether that is scoring the ball, passing the ball, getting steals, cheering from the sideline,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help my team win is really really big.”
In Virginia Tech’s stunning 77-72 regular-season upset over Duke in February, he finished with 13 points, six assists, five boards and four steals.
That game, he said, was the highlight of his college career. He remembers the final seconds when Cam Reddish — another top 2019 NBA Draft prospect — missed the last shot, Hokies forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. got the defensive rebound and passed it to Alexander-Walker. He remembers the final buzzer — he had the ball in his hands — and the home court’s jubilant reaction.
And now, after two seasons in college — the Hokies ultimately lost to Duke in the Sweet 16 — Alexander-Walker is off to realize another piece of his childhood dreams.
When asked what he’d think about the Washington Wizards potentially drafting him with the No. 9 overall pick, he was able to visualize exactly what that moment on draft night would be like, along with his future.
“It’d be a dream come true — the fact that I’m in the NBA and have the opportunity to be what I've always wanted to be as a kid, especially in a great city like Washington, where that's Virginia Tech’s biggest alumni base,” Alexander-Walker said.
“Having all the support there, it's like being home again. And that would mean so much to me and my family.”
I AM THE PROSPECT