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Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks on loyalty to Canada, his big NBA dreams

Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) drives against Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (8) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

It’s been much discussed in this country why NBA players don’t always represent Canada in basketball.

This summer I was curious to learn why one does. After Dillon Brooks‘ rookie year in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, no one would have faulted him had he wanted to take the summer off. But not only did Brooks play for Canada, he came back to Toronto and played in the Nike Crown league, winning the championship and league MVP.

I caught up with Brooks, whose surprise fourth place Grizzlies host his hometown Toronto Raptors Tuesday night on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet Ontario.

Brooks is a self-professed “loyal soldier” for Canada basketball. A big part of it is an “I owe you” he says he has with the national program. Well before Brooks had grown in to his six-foot-seven, 220-pound frame and was seen as a potential pro, he wasn’t on the radar in terms of Division I NCAA scholarships. In fact, the local basketball blogs in Canada didn’t even have him rated as one of the country’s top players. But the national team saw something and continued to develop him.

Rowan Barrett, the executive vice president and assistant general manager of the senior men’s program at Basketball Canada says: “Dillon is just a fighter. He has fought for everything all the way coming up. He wants to win every drill. He wants to impact every scrimmage. At some point when you want your program to have that mentality and be a squad of young men the country feels embodies them and wants to cheer for, how can you leave Dillon Brooks off your team?”

Evidently, you can’t.

In 2014 Brooks played in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship averaging 25.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He followed that up a year later playing in the FIBA U19 World Championship, averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He made so much noise playing internationally against the best players in the world his age it changed his perception among NCAA recruiters. All of a sudden Brooks was in demand and landed a scholarship offer from the NBA draft pick factory, Oregon Ducks.

Three years later he left Eugene, Oregon as the Pac-12 Player of the Year and a First-team All-Pac-12 player. Despite the resume he was looked over in the first round of the NBA draft and wasn’t taken until the 15th pick of the second round. Once again Brooks was overlooked. As a surprise starter with the veteran Memphis Grizzlies team he scored 19 points in his NBA debut, the most ever by a Canadian. He hasn’t looked back and maintained his spot in the Grizzlies rotation to start his sophomore season although he’s out of the lineup right now rehabbing an MCL sprain.

But he’s used his idle time and bigger platform to help develop the grassroots basketball in Canada that helped shine a light on him.

This summer he held basketball camps in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia to help develop basketball players in parts of Canada that don’t receive as much attention as the Greater Toronto Area.

Off the court, he participated in a soup cook off with the police to help break down the barriers between law enforcement and urban communities.

And of course, when called upon he participated in Canada Basketball’s games both in exhibition play and qualifying.

The next time you see Dillon Brooks on the court he’ll be wearing a Grizzlies jersey and the in-arena announcer will say, “From the University of Oregon.” But Brooks wants it to be known that he’s only playing at a high level because of what happened in Canada before anyone was announcing his name.

“I’m from (Toronto). This city, this country is what made me. I’m not going to stop until I’m one of the best players in the world and we are considered the best basketball nation in the world,” Brooks said.

It sounds crazy. But so has every other step in what has been a dream ascension for Canada’s on court “fighter.”

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