Canada looks like a top contender in FIBA World Cup behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off a career year in the NBA. Now he’s putting on a show on the international stage at the FIBA World Cup.

When he finished last season with an absurd 31.4 points per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, SGA finished atop the All-NBA voting among guards, edging past four-time 1st-teamer Luka Doncic. The two guards joined Steph Curry (2021) as the only players since 2017 to make All-NBA First Team without also making the NBA Playoffs.

Now at the World Cup, the two lead two of the most dominant teams in the field with gold medals and MVP honors in their sights. Thanks to a more supportive team context than what Doncic has with Slovenia, Gilgeous-Alexander is the one most deserving so far, and Team USA should be worried.

Canada vs France stood out among the early games in this tournament as one of the more marquee matchups; one team, France, being more established in international play rostering multiple NBA players while the other, Canada, isn’t as used to the international stage but is hungry led by even more NBA players.

France led after the first, 18-14, and were within three at the half, but the game got away from them in a hurry as head coach Jordi Fernandez, a Sacramento Kings assistant, had SGA and the Canadians ready for the third, which they won 25-8. SGA tallied 13 points and two assists in the frame.

Especially in that quarter, Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t have any problem getting to the rim at will in half-court sets against a very real defense that includes 3-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert as well as other strong defenders with international reputations like Nic Batum, Nando de Colo, and Guerschon Yabusele.

He really continues to make his case for “Best Driver on the Planet (who isn’t broken like Giannis)”. In this game, his deceleration stood out, which opens up chances to bait defenders with in-and-out moves, jab steps, and step-backs.

The third quarter explosion was enough to propel Canada to a 95-65 win to make a statement in their opener. The biggest takeaway from this one being just how easy SGA makes the game look no matter what he’s doing.

Lebanon was always going to be the punching bag of the group, though it was fun to see Omari Spellman get after it several years removed from his national championship team at Villanova. This second game gave Fernandez and the Canadian team context a chance to show their stuff.

Canada shot blisteringly well from deep, 18-of-30 (60 percent), led by Trae Bell-Haynes of the Spanish League, who made 5-of-6 from three-point range. They also shared the ball like the World Cup has never seen, setting an all-time record with 44 assists. SGA had five of those, but he mostly took a backseat in this game, playing only 17 minutes.

The 128-73 final score is the largest margin of victory so far in the tournament this year, and was 12 points shy of cracking the all-time top 5 (fifth was Soviet Union beating Colombia in 1982 by 67).

Canada had their worst start of group play in their third and final match, going up against undefeated-at-the-time Latvia, who hit three threes in the first two minutes alone, forcing Fernandez’s hand to call an early timeout. Latvia led 23-13 after one; Canada down, but certainly not out.

Down the stretch of the third quarter against Latvia, Gilgeous-Alexander put together a very impressive sequence. Canada expanded their lead out to nine before a plethora of mistakes came down, including back-to-back turnovers by Nickeil Alexander-Walker as well as an offensive foul from Dwight Powell.

Up by just one with 3:21 left in the third, SGA started to take over. Starting with a fadeaway mid-ranger, Gilgeous-Alexander scored or assisted on six of the next seven Canada possessions. That one-point lead was up to double-digits for the first time all game.

Canada needed a more difficult game like this before moving on, because the first two games presented very little challenge in terms of mental toughness. SGA proved he has the fortitude to weather tough starts against tough teams where his teammates seem to be falling apart.

Despite those three consecutive turnovers by teammates, he was able to put Canada in position to win 101-75.

Thanks to an advantageous draw, the earliest that Team USA would even have to see Canada is the semifinals. That gives head coach Steve Kerr and the Americans enough time to sort out everybody’s roles and figure out which matchups work best against Fernandez and Canada.

The matchup that would give Kerr headaches? Gilgeous-Alexander against the world.

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