When David Stern announced Anthony Bennett as the No. 1 overall selection in this past NBA Draft, it trashed many mock drafts and sent shockwaves throughout the league. Not everyone, however, was blown away.
Take Tariq Sbiet. The National Editor of NorthPoleHoops.com watched as Bennett transformed from a squat 6-foot-5 player without a position into an explosive 6-8 presence and an essential building block the Cleveland Cavaliers hope will return the franchise to playoff contention. Sbiet’s Tweeter profile lists him as “In The Gym” and he’s a maven when it comes to discussing the 10-foot experience in the Great North.
“I was surprised, but not shocked,” Sbiet said of Canada’s first top pick. “I tweeted six months ago that he had all the tools to be the No. 1 pick.”
Bennett may be the first but he won’t be the last. Incoming Kansas freshman and Vaughan, Ont., native Andrew Wiggins, regarded by many as the best high school prospect since LeBron James, is slated to go No. 1 in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Bennett and Wiggins are key components in the rise of Canadian basketball, which began in the 1990s but has expanded rapidly in the last decade. Some are even predicting that Canada, which hasn’t qualified for the Olympics in men’s basketball since 2000, could challenge for a gold medal by 2020.
“As basketball grows in our country, the better the coaches get and the better the players get,” said Joey Mckitterick, director of the Montreal-based Brookwood Elite Basketball Program. “Now that we have the No. 1 pick there’s a sense of pride, country pride, but there’s also relief. It’s a load off of everyone’s shoulder but now we can say we’ve arrived.”
Before Bennett, no Canadian had ever been chosen No. 1 overall. Hall of Famer Bob Houbregs, a native of Vancouver, was the second overall pick in the 1953, Vancouver’s Steve Nash went 15th overall in 1996 and Brampton’s Tristan Thompson went fourth to Cleveland in 2011. History didn’t stop with Bennett.
Kamloops’ Kelly Olynyk, son of longtime University of Toronto coach Ken Olynyk, was selected 13th, giving Canada a pair of lottery picks for the first time. The Boston Celtics traded up to claim the 6-10 Olynyk, who starred at Gonzaga.
Canadians have been selected in the same draft only twice before. Last year, St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson (Orlando) and Syracuse University’s Kris Joseph (Boston) were chosen in the first round while Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre (L.A. Lakers) was picked in the second. Syracuse’s Leo Rautins, Villanova’s Stewart Granger and Boston College’s Ron Crevier were all selected in 1983. Western New Yorkers will remember Canisius College’s Mike Smrek, a second-round pick by Portland in 1985 who went on win back-to-back championships in 1987 and ’88 with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The rise of Canadian basketball corresponds with the NBA’s expansion into Canada in 1995 with the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies (Vancouver later relocated to Memphis). For the first time since the Toronto Huskies in the mid-40s, young boys could witness first-hand what all the fuss was about.
“There is an NBA influence, no question,” said Canisius assistant coach Mike Mennenga, who prior to joining the Golden Griffins’ staff was heavily involved in the country’s grassroots programs. “I’ve really noticed it over the last 10 years where kids are playing a lot more and starting to embrace coming to the states as far as the high school years a lot more aggressively. With better players comes better coaching and they’re starting to put more resources and energy in their young kids.”
The culture changed as NBA players were closely observed. Young Canadians went from being raw athletes into highly skilled players as they watched Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and Vince Carter.
“You put an NBA team in a major market, you are going to influence a lot of people, that’s what happened with the Toronto Raptors,” said Sbiet, who played soccer before the Raptors arrived. “I grew up being able to watch them and I got involved in the game more. You heard it from guys like Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Kris Joseph. Those guys grew up watching Vince Carter, Morris Peterson, Jerome Williams — the Junk Yard Dog — all these guys played for the Raptors.”
Close your eyes (or click on YouTube) and envision a young Carter and you’ll have Wiggins.
His father is former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins while his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, was a sprinter who won two silver medals in the 1984 Olympics. While he lacks James’ breathtaking all-around ability, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Wiggins is a gravity cheater with a 45-inch vertical who can effectively play three different positions. He’s fully aware of the expectations posed by his country.
“There’s always pressure when it comes to stuff like that but it’s not always bad,” Wiggins told sportsnet.ca. “It motivates me to fulfill what everyone thinks I’m capable of doing which is being No. 1 so I’m going to work hard and if I’m not No. 1 isn’t not going to be my fault. I’m going to work as hard as I can to be No. 1.”
And there’s more where Wiggins comes from. Brampton’s Tyler Ennis could take over the Syracuse offense this season as freshman while Scarborough’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes is an outstanding shooting guard prospect at Florida State.
New Mexico State 7-5 center Sim Bhullar from Toronto emerged as an interior force last season as a redshirt freshman and will be joined next season by his younger brother 7-3 Tanveer Bhullar. Wichita State’s Nick Wiggins, Andrew’s brother, and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas from Mississauga both helped their teams to last year’s Final Four. Locally, the University at Buffalo’s Jarryn Skeete earned all-freshman honors last season in the Mid-American Conference.
Meanwhile, at Stanford, 6-10, 235-pound Dwight Powell might be the most underrated player in college basketball.
A first team All-Pac 12 player, the Toronto native was Canada’s second-leading scorer in the University Games in Kazan, Russia, last month. Versatile in the mold of Robert Horry, Powell has played minutes at every position for the Cardinal except shooting guard.
“And if we needed him,” said Stanford assistant coach Charles Payne, “he could play there, too.”
An average of 50 potential Division I prospects have Canadian roots, a relatively low number in comparison to the U.S. but a number that’s on an uptick. Canadian travel teams like CIA Bounce and Brookwood Bounce travel in the U.S. to compete during July’s recruiting period.
It wasn’t that long ago when Bennett had to briefly give up basketball because he couldn’t find a team to play with. Gone are the days when players like Nash, the two-time NBA MVP, had to send video tapes to college basketball programs all over the U.S. to gain exposure.
FIBA ranked Cananda’s men’s national team 26th after last year’s Olympics. The Canadian boys, however, ranked sixth behind the U.S., Serbia, Lithuania, Argentina and Croatia.
When you take a closer glance at the potential Olympic roster in 2020, the challenge for gold isn’t far-fetched. You’ll have veterans like Joseph, Thompson and Nicholson blending in with younger talent like Bennett, Wiggins and Ennis who will be more seasoned. Earlier this summer Canada finished sixth in the FIBA U19 World Championships in Prague minus Wiggins, who elected to attend summer school at Kansas.
“It’s safe to say Canada will be at the forefront to compete for a gold medal,” Mennenga said. “You are in the ballpark to compete for a medal. Let’s just say expectations are high.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors are positioning themselves to draft Wiggins. They recently traded former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson. Camby, the Raptors first pick in 1996, already had his contract bought out. That leaves Toronto with DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and a team headed for another Lottery trip.
At least Wiggins will be more inclined to remain in Toronto, unlike former Raptors draft picks Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh who left via free agency while others like Vince Carter forced trades. And the lottery works in mysterious ways when it comes to homegrown talent (see LeBron James in 2003 and Derrick Rose in ’08).
Asked recently which NBA team would be the best fit for him, Wiggins responded, “I would like to say the Raptors because I want to play for them.”
“Wow, that would be surreal, that would be wild, it would be chaos in the city,” Sbiet said. “When you talk about having someone like Wiggins on the team — and I can say confidently — Andrew Wiggins represents the game of basketball in Canada with every game he plays and he represents it with pride. To see him wearing a Raptors cap would be big and the game would continue to grow to another level. And it’s not a one-time thing. We’re going to keep coming.”