The rise of Canada Basketball

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“With the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select: Anthony Bennett, from Toronto, Canada.”

Those words spoken by former NBA Commissioner David Stern in June 2013 marked the first time in NBA history a Canadian had been chosen first overall. While Bennett is now regarded as one of, if not the worst number one pick of all time, the stage was set for Canadians in the NBA.

Bennett didn’t pan out, and was out of the league after just 151 games spread across four teams over four seasons, one of which was his hometown Toronto Raptors. Regardless of Bennett’s success — or lack thereof — he was almost a sacrificial lamb of sorts, as many Canadians have found success in the league since. The following year, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected another Torontonian, Andrew Wiggins first overall, marking two straight Canadians being chosen as the number one pick.

Wiggins has had immensely more success than Bennett; he won the 2015 Rookie of the Year award and signed a five-year, $148 million contract last season. Now, five years after Wiggins and Bennett went back-to-back, another Canadian is likely to go number one: Mississauga’s R.J. Barrett.

Barrett made a name for himself in the summer of 2017, where as a 17-year-old, he led Canada to the FIBA U19 World Cup Championship, which included a 38 point, 13 rebound and five assist game against the U.S. in the semi-finals. Barrett is now playing at Duke University, college basketball’s most prestigious program, in preparation for what looks to be an illustrious career. In his first game as a Blue Devil, he scored 33 points, setting the record for most points by a freshman in their college debut.

There have been 27 Canadians drafted in the NBA, with current Raptors broadcaster Leo Rautins becoming the first back in 1983. Of the 27 drafted, 18 of them have been picked in the last eight years, with eight of them being lottery picks (Bennett, Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Nik Stauskas, Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). There are currently 12 Canadians playing in the NBA, the most out of any country other than the U.S.

So where did all these players come from? Until the start of this decade, it was rare for a Canadian to make it to the league, let alone succeed. Even when Steve Nash, the greatest Canadian basketball player of all time, won back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006 (not to mention eight All-Stars, seven All-NBA teams, and five assist titles), people claimed he was an outlier, a Cool Runnings of sorts.

Canada’s men’s national team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 2000, and has only medaled once, winning silver way back in 1936, when the final score in the gold medal game was 19-8 in favour of the U.S. They came close to qualifying in 2015 at the FIBA Americas Championship, but a complete collapse to Venezuela saw Canada’s Olympic hopes squandered once again.

Canada should undoubtedly qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and should compete for a medal. Gold might be a bit ambitious, but a bronze is certainly within reach. If everyone commits to playing (ahem, Wiggins, ahem) then Canada should boast one of the best rosters in Olympic play.

Back to the original question — where did this new wave of Canadian basketball talent come from? For one, the number of elite basketball programs in Canada has risen over the last decade. CIA Bounce, Uplay Canada, and many more youth programs have made a name for themselves in recent history. Wiggins played for Bounce, Barrett played for Uplay, as did A.J. Lawson and Andrew Nembhard, both starting their NCAA careers at South Carolina and Florida, respectively.

Elite basketball prep schools such as Orangeville Prep have produced lottery picks such as Jamal Murray (who recently tied Nash for most points ever by a Canadian with 48) and Thon Maker, as well as several other NCAA Division I athletes, including Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett. This season, there are 133 Canadians playing Division I basketball, 20 more than last year.

One of the biggest problems with Canadian basketball has been a lack of attention. While Canada will never have as many fans filing into high school gyms as the U.S., more and more scouts are starting to pay attention to young Canadian prospects. Online publications like NPH (North Pole Hoops) have become incredibly helpful when it comes to providing exposure for Canadian high-schoolers.

NPH has tabs on virtually every legitimate prospect — both male and female — and allows viewers to track the successes of its alumni with NCAA D1 stat trackers on the site. NPH ranks players in their respective classes and includes advanced analysis which provides NCAA scouts an inside look at potential recruits.

The growth of elite prospects in Canada is only going to continue; Montreal native Quincy Guerrier, the number one prospect out of Quebec received over 20 D1 scholarship offers, ultimately committing to Syracuse on Halloween. Fellow Montrealer Luguentz Dort — who just began his freshman year at Arizona State — set a Sun Devil record for most points by an ASU freshman with 28 in his debut game.

Ontario has always been the most talented province, but Quebec is making a name for itself. Guerrier and Dort look to follow Chris Boucher’s lead, who after helping lead Oregon to a Final Four appearance in 2017 (their first appearance in 78 years), signed a two-way contract with the Toronto Raptors this summer. Boucher is currently averaging 32.5 points and 12 rebounds for the Raptors 905 in the NBA G-League.

Speaking of Raptors 905, the 905 broke ground this summer by hiring Tamara Tatham as a mentor coach, making her the first Canadian woman to coach in the G-League. Tatham will serve under Jama Mahlalela, who began his tenure as the 905’s first Canadian head coach earlier this year.

One of Mahlalela’s assistants this year is Charles Kissi, who previously coached the Badgers men’s basketball team for the past five seasons. Kissi led the Badgers to a 107-72 record during his time as head coach, including a 31-8 record a season ago. Just like the increased talent of players, the Canadian coaching talent has significantly improved as well. The Raptors 905 have rewarded some of Canada’s most talented coaches by promoting them to the bench this season.

Among those talented coaches is Madhav Trivedi, the head coach for the Badgers men’s basketball team. Trivedi took over from Kissi, and has led Brock to a 4-1 record early on.

In addition to rewarding Canadian coaches, the 905 have also taken a liking to Canadian players. In this fourth season of existence, the 905 have seen 13 Canadians suit up for the franchise. Many NBA hopefuls have seen time with the parent organization and for those who didn’t make it to the league, have found success overseas.

In a country that has been historically dominated by hockey, basketball was never Canada’s go-to sport. Even today, with house league basketball enrollment at an all-time high, when people think of Canadian sports, they think hockey, and rightfully so.

But is it so crazy to think that basketball might one day overtake hockey? For starters, it is infinitely cheaper in every single aspect; equipment wise, all you need to play basketball are shoes that go for $100-$200 dollars.

Skates alone can easily cost $400-plus. Not to mention sticks, shoulderpads, pants, helmet, gloves, elbow pads, etc. In terms of facilities, it is a lot cheaper, and easier to manage a hardwood court than an ice rink. If parents want their kids to be active, it is much easier on the wallet to sign them up for basketball instead of hockey.

In terms of popularity, basketball is significantly more popular worldwide. In Canada, hockey still trumps basketball, but across the world, basketball brings in an immense amount of money. Look no further than NHL vs NBA contracts, where Connor McDavid, arguably the best player in the league has an 8-year/$100 million contract, compared to Stephen Curry’s 5-year/$201 million contract.

“At first there wasn’t too many kids playing [basketball], it was still hockey. Now, I’d say guys play basketball more than hockey… it’s just a better sport,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

To each their own, but Gilgeous-Alexander may have a point.

When you take into account the amount of successful Canadian NBA players, the greatest stretch of Raptors basketball, and up until recently the Leafs’ struggles, it’s conceivable to see why a number of kids jumped ship from hockey to basketball.

For decades, Canada has had a bad reputation when it came to basketball. Only recently is that starting to change, with pioneers like Rautins, and legends like Nash paving the way for a new generation of Canadian talent, has the reputation changed. A medal in Tokyo in 2020 would certainly shatter any remaining doubt.

 

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