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Keeping Up With The Canadians: The biggest Canadian storylines in 2020

Keeping Up With The Canadians
Keeping Up With The Canadians (NBA.com)

2020 promises to be yet another big year for basketball in Canada following on the footsteps of a historic 2019.

As NBA.com's Carlan Gay has noted, The Golden Era of Canadian Basketball is here.

We've flipped the page into the new year and with some January momentum picking up steam, here's a look towards the biggest Canadian basketball storylines to follow over the next 12 months.

Who's the face of Canadian basketball?

The fact that this is up for discussion is a win in itself, as three players have established themselves as being worthy of consideration for the title.

It could be one. It could be all three.

Each player has done plenty to help their case this season, beginning in Oklahoma City.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

When the Thunder decided to usher in a new era of basketball last offseason, the historic haul of players and future assets was highlighted by Gilgeous-Alexander, the wiry 21-year-old combo guard with potential to be a franchise player.

Only he seemed to realize that potential much sooner than most would have imagined.

In just his second season, SGA has emerged as a nightly threat to score 20 points, leading a Thunder team made up of established veterans with 20.0 points per game on the nose.

In 41 games, he has already:

  • Recorded a career-high 32 points three times
  • Established himself as one of the league's most clutch players
  • Recorded a historic triple-double of 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists

Gilgeous-Alexander's play is a big reason that the Thunder have established themselves as a playoff team for this year and many years to come and he's on the cusp of becoming a perennial All-Star in this league.

MORE: SGA and CP3 are a match made in backcourt heaven

It's only Year 2.

This year, Gilgeous-Alexander has the opportunity to make himself into a household name in his second postseason appearance. 2020 also means OKC will continue to build around its franchise cornerstone, who is only getting better with time.

Jamal Murray

While OKC was dealing in the Summer of 2019, the Denver Nuggets were busy ensuring Murray would be a part of their future for years to come.

The Kitchener, ON native signed a historic five-year $170 million contract extension to remain in Denver - the richest deal to date for a Canadian player in league history.

He's living up to the billing.

Along with big man Nikola Jokic, Murray has fuelled the Nuggets offence as the second-leading scorer for a team primed to make yet another playoff run.

2019 saw Murray put up some of his biggest performances on the biggest stage - he scored a career postseason high of 34 points twice during a playoff run that ended in Game 7 of the West Semis.

This year, Murray has an opportunity to do more of the same, as the Nuggets look to make their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2009. Things may run through Jokic, but Murray's assertiveness and aggression are the keys that have the ability to unlock Denver's full potential.

Oh, and that record-setting deal kicks in at the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

Andrew Wiggins

Of course, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 NBA Draft has an equal stake at claiming the title, especially given his performance this season.

In Year 6, the soon-to-be 25-year-old is averaging 23.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists through his first 31 games with the Wolves.

Most impressive? He's shown great leaps by adding to his game, specifically on the perimeter, where he's knocking down a career-best 2.1 triples per contest.

Through the first half of the season, Wiggins has already hit three or more 3-pointers 12 times, something he did just 16 times over the entire course of the 2018-19 season.

He's also scored 30 or more points six times, including a season-high 40-point performance in a win over the Warriors.

After a hot start to the season, the Timberwolves have cooled off some but the duo of Wiggins and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Karl Anthony-Towns is talented enough to spark a run in the second half of the season to put Minnesota right back in playoff contention.

It helps that the Wolves are within games of the West's eighth seed.

If Minnesota should make a return to the postseason after a one-year absence, plenty of credit is owed to Wiggins for the additions he has made to his game.

He's far too talented to ignore.

Barrett and Clarke making the leap

In the history of the NBA, just six Canadians have earned All-Rookie Team honours.

2020 should see that total rise to eight.

Not far behind the aforementioned three faces of Canadian basketball are rookies RJ Barrett and Brandon Clarke, who have been two of the top performers in the 2019 draft class - a class made up of a record six Canadian draft picks, no less.

Through the first half of his rookie season, Barrett has averaged 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, showing plenty of flashes of excellence along the way. The 19-year-old ranks third among all rookies in scoring and has scored 20 or more points nine times already.

MORE: RJ Barrett starting to live up to the hype

Clarke's 12.2 points per game might be tied for eighth among all rookies but he's doing so in just 21.2 minutes per game. His teammate, Ja Morant, is the only rookie that is averaging more points per 36 minutes, meaning more opportunity for Clarke should mean even more efficient production.

From the beginning, lofty expectations were placed upon Barrett, the No. 3 overall pick with superstar potential. Clarke, on the other hand, was selected 21st overall and continues to look like the biggest steal of the 2019 draft.

Once both wrap their All-Rookie calibre first seasons, they will have cemented themselves as key parts in the futures of their respective franchises.

What's next? Gilgeous-Alexander has already shown us the type of leap a player can make in Year 2. Don't be surprised when one of Barrett or Clarke - or both - make another leap to start off next season as they ride the momentum of impressive rookie campaigns.

And don't forget…

Of the six Canadians to make an All-Rookie team, Steve Nash isn't one of them.

It's not always how you start, and it all hinges upon opportunity.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Mfiondu Kabengele, Ignas Brazdeikis and Marial Shayok round out 2019's historic draft class. They haven't necessarily had as much of an opportunity to showcase their skills just yet.

In due time, they'll show just why they were selected.

Postseason Performers

At the midway point of this season, eight teams with at least one Canadian on their respective rosters hold one of the top nine seeds in their respective conferences

In some cases, these teams are in contention with one another but that doesn't change the fact that there will be plenty of CanCon in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

Here's what to keep an eye on:

  • Denver's Jamal Murray looks to build upon an impressive playoff debut in 2019
  • In Miami, Kelly Olynyk's role as a stretch big could potentially alter the course of a series
  • Toronto's Chris Boucher will see his increased role translate into the postseason
  • The Luka Doncic-Dwight Powell connection means more highlights in Dallas
  • OKC's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will see his first playoff series as the first option
  • Orlando Khem Birch's rebounding, rim protection and overall toughness on the interior
  • In Memphis, the duo of Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke could take things into the postseason. Brooks's scoring, in particular, has a direct correlation with the Grizzlies' success.
  • Trey Lyles could potentially earn his most meaningful postseason minutes in a starting role with the Spurs

Don't forget, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns could propel a second-half playoff push from the Timberwolves, while the rookie trio of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes and Zion Williamson could do the same for the Pelicans.

What's next for Olynyk, Thompson?

Free agency looms for veterans Kelly Olynyk and Tristan Thompson, but what does that mean?

As a stretch big man in a game that is constantly evolving, Olynyk has plenty of value, especially considering he'll just be turning 29 in April.

Is Miami in his future? Will he go elsewhere? There is sure to be a market for Olynyk both at the trade deadline and in the offseason.

Thompson, who will turn 29 in March, is enjoying the best statistical season of his nine-year career. Through the first half of this season, the centre is averaging 12.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists - all career-bests.

He also recently recorded a career-high 35 points in a win over the Detroit Pistons.

Winning hasn't exactly been in the cards much for Cleveland this season, though, and some of the same questions arise regarding Thompson. As an elite rebounder with size, there will be interest in Thompson at this year's trade deadline as well as the offseason.

Could we see him in a different uniform by season's end, or will he remain with the franchise that selected him in 2011?

Who will follow Boucher's path next?

Again, it's all about opportunity.

Chris Boucher proved he was worthy of that opportunity by putting forth a season of historic proportion with Raptors 905. Last year, the Montreal native became the first-ever player to win G League Defensive Player of the Year and MVP for his efforts while on a two-way contract that was eventually converted into a fully guaranteed deal.

He's now averaging 6.2 points per game with Toronto as he's established a role within the team's rotation.

This year, Oshae Brissett (Raptors 905), Luguentz Dort (OKC Blue), Naz Mitrou-Long (Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Marial Shayok (Delaware Blue Coats) and Kyle Alexander (Sioux Falls Skyforce) are the five Canadians making their presence felt while playing on two-way deals.

MORE: Kyle Alexander gets two-way opportunity with Miami Heat, becomes fifth Canadian on two-way contract

In the case of Brissett and Dort, injuries to their teams' respective NBA affiliates meant these rookies received early opportunities to play meaningful minutes in a likely preview for things to come later on in their careers.

Shayok hasn't seen as many opportunities just yet but his skill set addresses glaring needs on the Sixers roster. The Ottawa native has already recorded a 42-point performance with the Blue Coats and earned G League Player of the Week honours in November.

Mitrou-Long has a bit more experience under his belt and is on the verge of a breakthrough. Look no further than his career performance of 12 points, three assists and three rebounds in a Pacers win over the Nets on Nov. 18.

When opportunity comes knocking, each of these four players will be ready.

The road to Tokyo

While thee Canadian Men's National Team failed to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo during the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, not all hope is lost.

Canada will host the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria from June 23-28 but it won't be easy.

Joining Canada in Group A of the tournament is Greece and China while Group B of the tournament consists of Uruguay, The Czech Republic and Turkey.

Just one of the above six teams will qualify for the Olympics.

Canada has already received pledges from some of its top talents, including the likes of RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray; the team will be lead by Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who has expressed his excitement about the opportunity ahead.

With the structure and talent in place, Team Canada is certainly in a good position to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since the 2000 games but they'll have to earn it.

The journey alone is worth keeping an eye on.

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