CHICAGO - The Rising Stars Challenge presents a unique opportunity for two players in particular.
Oklahoma City Thunder second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and New Orleans Pelicans rookie guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker will suit up for Team World, allowing the two cousins and fellow Canadians to take the court donning the same uniform for just one night.
Playing at different universities and for different NBA franchises, the two of them haven't teamed up since their high school days at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy back in 2015.
Though Gilgeous-Alexander has been in the league one year longer than his family member, the two are both 21 years old, born just two months apart. Growing up together, they had aspirations of making this happen someday, but now that the day has come, it's like a dream come true.
"I'm really excited," Alexander-Walker told the scrum at Rising Stars media availability. "It's something we dreamed of as kids."
They had played this out before, too, just not in real life; in a virtual world instead. "Like dating back when we used to have our own All-Star Weekends on NBA Live, playing the Rookie-Sophomore challenge. Now to be a part of it, I thank God, and I'm excited."
Gilgeous-Alexander was an obvious choice for this contest. He participated in the game last year as a rookie, posting 15 points off the bench on 5-for-10 shooting from the field with six assists. His first year in the league was promising, averaging 10.8 points, 3.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while helping the LA Clippers unexpectedly reach the playoffs. He earned All-Rookie Second Team honours along the way.
SGA showcased so much potential in his rookie campaign that he became the key piece of the Thunder's offseason trade that sent star forward Paul George to the Clippers. Now as a cornerstone of OKC's franchise, he's played a vital role in helping the Thunder to their overachieving 33-22 record at the All-Star break, averaging a team-best 19.5 points to go with 6.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
"This opportunity with a new team and the supporting cast around me - the organization does a really good job of putting you in the right situation to succeed and it's really been a blessed, blessed situation," Gilgeous-Alexander preached at Rising Stars media availability.
And while numbers like that after a stand-out rookie season make you a lock for this exhibition contest, his cousin's roster spot wasn't as guaranteed.
Alexander-Walker's playing time has come sparingly, like most rookies in the league. In 12.2 minutes per game, he's averaging 5.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 33.9% shooting from the field.
He still got the nod in the midseason showcase.
"An extreme rollercoaster," NAW described his rookie season so far. "You go through so many thoughts in your own head. Just trying to get better every day. The vets always say there's three separations in the season and you go through each one differently. Right now, I'm just riding a wave and enjoying this moment. It's been bumpy, but like, that's just the process and you have to stick to it."
He and his cousin had talked about the possibility of sharing an NBA court as teammates together growing up, but the path wasn't always so clear for Nickeil. When asked if he knew this would happen someday, he was honest in his answer.
"Yes and no. You go through dark times where you're like, 'What's the point? Is there ever going to be some light?' But we dreamed of this and we kinda talked it into existence.
"For it to be here, I'm definitely feeling like it was earned. And I'm feeling like, when I think back to myself, it's like, I did kinda know, but you can never really be sure."
Alexander-Walker has the potential to be a scorer in the league, even through his efficiency struggles early on in his career. In the Summer League, he averaged 24.3 points per game - the third-best in Las Vegas - shooting more consistently at 41.0% from the field.
When asked about what he can learn from his cousin and what makes Shai so great, he had a laundry list of things.
"His work ethic, he thinks the game well and he works extremely hard," NAW praised of his family member. "He's super skilled. He can shoot the 3 off the bounce, catch-and-shoot, midrange, getting to the basket and finishing. There's a lot of dynamics to his game that this year he's been able to help his team win."
And outside of basketball, in a much more joking matter, Alexander-Walker is learning to take after his cousin's style, too. Gilgeous-Alexander has become somewhat of a fashion mogul in the league, and Nickeil has been doing his job to keep the family proud in that category.
"He's got it, man. He took it and ran with it. I'm just trying to do good on the family name so I don't make him look bad," laughing as he responded. "I'd say I'm a close second, though."
The duo constantly appears on Slam's LeagueFits Instagram page, letting the NBA and its fans know who the most stylish family in the league is.
Beyond the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, Gilgeous-Alexander will also appear in the Skills Challenge on Saturday night. When Alexander-Walker was asked to make his picks for Saturday's events, he kept an open mind toward the 3-Point and Slam Dunk contests, but suggested he "knew his favourite" for the Skills Challenge.
It'll be a special moment for their family when the two take the floor together in the same uniform on Friday - a dream becoming a reality for the two Canadian cousins.
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