When the NBA honoured 10 international first and second-year players as the members of "Team World" for the 2021 Rising Stars Challenge, you couldn't help but notice that half of the players selected hail from Canada.
Among the five were Luguentz Dort and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, two guards that play for up-and-coming teams in the Western Conference that hope to rise to prominence in the coming years.
Dort, who went undrafted in 2019, has quickly established himself as one of the league's premier perimeter defenders but continues to prove time and time again that he can be so much more for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Alexander-Walker, who was selected with the No. 17 overall pick in 2019, has shown flashes of excellence but at times, has been limited by a very crowded New Orleans Pelicans backcourt.
On Sunday, each guard stepped up in big ways when their respective teams needed them the most…
The Thunder entered Sunday on a two-game losing streak and although they set to face a Houston Rockets team that has not won since Feb. 4, they would be doing so without third-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has emerged as one of the league's best scoring guards this season.
Gilgeous-Alexander's absence meant that Dort would need to assume more lead guard responsibilities and step up as a scorer, all while handling tough defensive assignments on the perimeter.
He did not disappoint.
Sharing the starting backcourt with 19-year-old rookie Théo Maledon, Dort rose to the occasion against a desperate Rockets team, finishing the night with a team-high 23 points (on 10-for-22 shooting) to go along with three rebounds and three assists.
In his walk-off interview, Dort spoke on assuming more point guard duties, saying "it felt good, it's something that I've been working on with the team and the coaching staff and I feel like I'm getting better each and every game."
As excellent as Dort was offensively, it was fitting that his biggest play of the night came on the defensive end. With OKC up one in the game's final moments, Dort delivered a clutch chase-down block on John Wall.
LU D 👏 pic.twitter.com/EMsZC9YLmd- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 21, 2021
After rookie Aleksej Pokusevski split a pair of free throws, Dort forced Wall to miss the potential game-winning 3-pointer with solid defence on the final play of the game.
If you take a closer look at OKC's lineup down the stretch, you'll notice that it was extremely young, with 23-year-old Ty Jerome serving as the elder statesmen of the group. In most cases, you could imagine that 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and 20-year-old Darius Bazley would also be on the floor in clutch time, reiterating just how young this OKC team is.
Just days ago, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Dort's contract has been fully guaranteed through the 2022-23 NBA season. At just 21, we already know what Dort can be defensively, but performances like this one against the Rockets are a reminder of just how much he can grow as a perimeter scorer on the NBA level.
Also entering the day on a two-game losing streak, the Pelicans faced a tough road test as they were set to face the Denver Nuggets.
Making the test even tougher was that New Orleans would be without Lonzo Ball, who was a late scratch ahead of the tip.
Ball's absence meant that the 22-year-old Alexander-Walker would be inserted to make the fourth start of the season and the fifth start of his young career. In an increased role, the second-year guard stepped up in a major way.
Aggressive from the get-go, Alexander-Walker scored 13 points in the first half on 5-for-9 shooting from the field.
Antonio Daniels on NAW: "That's a confident young man right there." Nickeil off to another good start on the road, with 13 pts on 5/9 FGs. He nearly ran into a ref in the left corner before sinking his second three-pointer of game- Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) March 21, 2021
The Toronto native finished the game with 20 points (on 8-for-15 shooting) in 31 minutes of action as New Orleans earned an impressive eight-point win over Denver.
While the Pelicans aren't quite as young of a team as the Thunder, it's worth noting that of the team's three leading scorers - Alexander-Walker, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson - the 23-year-old Ingram is the oldest of the bunch.
As pointed out by ESPN's Andrew Lopez prior to the game, some of Alexander-Walker's best performances have come in a starting role this season.
A lot of it has to do with his 37-point game against the Clippers, but here are NAW's stats as a starter this season:- Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) March 21, 2021
NAW did have a 20-pt game against Portland on Tuesday off the bench.
With 23-year-old Ingram and 20-year-old Williamson leading the charge, the Pelicans are working to build for the future while competing to become a playoff team as early as this year. As for Alexander-Walker, performances like this one could result in a more steady role with the team.
This season, Alexander-Walker is averaging just under 18 minutes per game through 34 games but in nine games, has played in under 10 minutes and picked up an additional eight DNP-CDs. As for the future, the 23-year-old Ball will be a restricted free agent in the 2021 offseason while 31-year-old Eric Bledsoe is on a different timeline than the rest of the Pelicans.
Along with 19-year-old Kira Lewis Jr., Alexander-Walker is one of the future pieces the Pelicans will rely on in the backcourt as they look to emerge as a contender in the West in coming years. It might not be in a starting role, but given player development and potential roster moves, a solidified role is soon to be earned by Alexander-Walker.
He looks to be ready for the challenge.
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