TORONTO — The role of saviour, Canada Basketball division, post Steve Nash-era, remains open for the moment.
The leading candidate, Andrew Wiggins, has signaled that he doesn’t want the job, at least not yet.
Later this month, Canada will be heading to Prague to compete in the U19 World Championships which begin June 27th. Wiggins, the best player his age in the world, was a key reason the team qualified for the tournament last summer as he led them in scoring on the way to a bronze at the FIBA Americas in Brazil.
He was listed on the roster for the world championship team that began practice on Sunday night, but on the eve of camp opening told officials at Canada Basketball he wasn’t going to play. The reasoning is a bit vague, but it appears that Wiggins wanted to be able to get settled and start a training program and summer school at the University of Kansas. He was also looking to get some down time at home over the summer in between what was a circus-like final year of high school and what promises to be an intense first year of college leading up to the 2014 NBA draft.
Playing a month for Canada would have meant sacrificing one or the other and so it was international duty that was set aside.
The challenge now for those who would love to see him play this summer is to make it sound like it's not a big deal.
"It's a little bit disappointing, but understandable given his situation," said Roy Rana, Canada's head coach and perhaps as close as anyone from Canada Basketball to Wiggins, given he's coached him internationally for two summers and at the Nike Hoop Summit twice. "I'm completely in support of him either way. He's a unique kid with a unique challenge ahead of him, it was really up to him to decide what he wanted to do; my job is to support him."
His friends and teammates voiced their views similarly:
"It's his choice; he's got a lot on his plate," said Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who played with Wiggins at Huntington Prep the past two years and who will be starting summer school at Florida State as soon as he gets back from Prague. "I don't blame him … he's a little burnt out from the media stuff around his (college) commitment. I think that's a big factor in him deciding not to play.
“I'm a little disappointed; that's my best friend. We want him here, but I understand where he's coming from, and we'll be all right."
Wiggins isn't the only player of his calibre to pass on the U19 Worlds. As many as a half-dozen top US prospects have elected not to play for Team USA, including Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, Wiggins' likely competition for the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
But while basketball talent runs a mile deep in the US, in Canada Wiggins is alone. There are a lot of promising young players with NBA potential, but Wiggins is the only one universally acknowledged to be a potential NBA All-Star and franchise player so he is present by his absence. Mix in the fact there is some history when it comes to Canada's NBA talent finding reasons not to play for their country in the summers and it's a choice that looms more ominously than it probably should.
“This is not a case where we’re wondering about Andrew’s commitment to the program,” said Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager and executive vice-president. “He’s played for us before and will again. This about taking the long view and him doing what it takes to be ready at money time, in 2016.”
That anyone is even paying attention to Canada's U19 team is part of the story. Normally what Canada Basketball does outside the Olympics (the odd time they get there) or the World Championships doesn't really register outside the realm of the nation's hardcore hoops fans.
But this summer was supposed to be the start of something different and Wiggins, the basketball prodigy from Thornhill, Ont., was as good a reason as any why. It was the promise of Wiggins as the centrepiece of a suddenly deep pool of young Canadian talent that inspired Steve Nash to take the job as the general manager of the senior men's team and Jay Triano to be rehired as the national team coach. It was the inspiration for Canada Basketball to start a separate fundraising arm for the senior men's team to build a budget that will allow Canada to compete with the rest of the world's basketball powers for the right to play giant killer against the United States.
On Tuesday night at Ryerson University the U19 team will play an intrasquad game where Blackberry will unveil its new sponsorship arrangement with Canada Basketball; an occasion that would have had some extra spice if Wiggins was in uniform.
There will still be plenty of worthy talent on display. Rathan-Mayes was the No.44-ranked player in ESPN’s high school rankings; Tyler Ennis, headed for Syracuse, was 20th, while Trey Lyles, a big man heading into his senior year of high school, is the No.4 ranked player in the class of 2014.
But Wiggins has fueled the hype around the possibility of Canada competing for a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games, for example, with a roster that could easily have two or three first-round NBA draft picks coming off the bench.
Canada Basketball is trying to grow in order to better service the talent growing like weeds all around them and Wiggins' burgeoning star power could help draw the kind of attention that sponsors, broadcasters (Sportsnet recently signed a deal with Canada Basketball and FIBA for the rights to broadcast FIBA events) and fundraisers crave.
It's all there waiting for the fuse to be lit.
The complicating factor here is that Wiggins, the obvious spark, seems determined to keep the hype at as great a distance as he respectfully can.
As he showed in his college recruitment, what others might like or expect from him is a distant concern compared with what he defines as his own priorities.
This would be easier to criticize if his priorities ran to ostentatious displays of self-aggrandizement. Instead Wiggins represents the opposite: he appears to badly want to keep his life as simple and grounded as possible, even if it means not everyone will like it.
He likely could have had his college announcement carried live on ESPN if he wanted to; instead he gathered friends, family and his high school teammates into his high school gym and had a lone local reporter invited to send out the news on Twitter. It was the anti-press conference and it was refreshing. He's yet to make a public comment about how or why he settled on the University of Kansas but it's not like he's been completely silent.
Shortly after his announcement he published a beautiful thank-you note to the community of Huntington, West Virginia in the pages of the local paper. In the letter Wiggins acknowledged teachers, coaches, friends and even the school janitor for making his two years at high school in the small West Virginia community such a special time. You couldn't script a classier gesture from an 18-year-old superstar/celebrity/multimillionaire to be.
For Canadian basketball fans it was a moment worthy of taking pride, if vicariously. Clearly Wiggins has the talent to be a leader for the sport in our country and beyond for a decade or more. The way he's handled himself while under the growing glare suggests he's got the character too.
It would be great if he felt ready to be Canada’s Basketball Jesus sooner rather than later; but credit to him that he can recognize that for him this summer is not the right moment.
Until then the rest of us will need some patience.