Andrew Wiggins no longer the sole Canadian basketball hope

Andrew Wiggins takes some time out to work with aspiring youth basketball players and tells Donnovan Bennett what his journey to the NBA was like as young player in Canada.

“Air-ball,” Andrew Wiggins chides as a camper on an imposing team to his comes up short on a long range attempt. Not known to be much of a trash talker on or off the court the soft spoken Wiggins is much more positive and just as animated with the campers who are wearing his name on the back of their jersey. “ Let it fly,” he tells one adolescent. “Be confident in your shot,” he’s heard screaming later.

“These kids are the future. I’m old news” he states humbly as he looks on at the gang of bouncing basketball across the Air Canada Centre practice court floor, the location of a BMO kids clinic that he’s coaching at.

Time flies when you’re young and having fun. The description is appropriate for both Wiggins, who is now paid to put up shots in the Association, and the kids, who are trying to get his attention by showing off their fadeaway jumpers. Still just 21, it was just a decade ago that Wiggins was in these kids shoes.

Except the realities for the current generation of aspiring Canadian ballers is much different. Every night they can watch at least one NBA game if not more on TV. They’ll be able to consume two-thirds of the games showcasing Golden State’s inspiring style of play from a few time zones away. That’s not even including the streaming and NBA LeaguePass capabilities at their fingertips.

Wiggins truly believes the heights of these kids will surpass his because of the digital age, both in consumption but also in recruitment. “The kids are noticed more here— and earlier,” he says. “Our best kids have their hi-lights on Instagram before they are even showered after the game. That border is disappearing. When I was coming up you had to go down south and prove yourself to get that respect.”

If Andrew Wiggins was coming along maybe he wouldn’t have to leave home and go to Huntington Prep after his grade 10 season at his hometown school Vaughn Secondary, a place he still trains in the offseason. In his home province of Ontario the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association has formed. In it 11 schools in the boys category and eight schools for the girls division act as prep schools and compete against other high level talent both in tournaments in the United States but in league play in Canada. The hope is to allow Canadian players in their formative years to have dietary plans, physiological and psychological training to put them in a position to succeed on the world stage. So far so good: the most renowned school, Orangeville’s Athlete Institute produced two lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft.

But it was in America, when Andrew’s father, former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, knew his son was the real deal. The Seminole alum reminisced about a trip back to Tallahassee “I took him back to FSU. There was a run with some pro’s and some college players. Andrew played and held his own,” he recalls. “Some of the NBA guys were telling me hey that kid is going to be good pro in a couple years. I laughed because what they didn’t know was Andrew was 15 at the time. And that’s when I knew we had something special here.”

Canada has always produced great players, but the depth and volume with which they are about to come will only increase. Since 2011, ten Canadians have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft, second to every country in the world other than the USA. The feeling among most in the basketball community is the damn is about to break, flooding the league with even more Canadian talent in coming years (and Canada already boasts more NBA players today than any other country except the United States). A big part of that is the investment in grassroots development both by Canada basketball and corporate partners looking to tap into that market like BMO.

Mike Brown, who is currently the lead assistant of the Golden State Warriors and previously head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers where he coached Canadians Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, has his own theories.

“I see it in California, that the AAU kids from Canada come down here and they win everything and the biggest thing is they aren’t afraid. They now have competed against the top Americans and seen them their entire lives,” says Brown.

“The other thing is,” he continues, “unless there is something in the water up there, the biggest thing is your immigration policies have helped. You have so many Caribbean, African, and even European, and South American kids or second generation kids in your country. They aren’t like us where they are predisposed to play just one sport and specialize then burn out. They play a little bit of everything soccer, hockey, you name it. So they are so much more athletic by the time they get good coaching because they have those crossover skills”.

If you’ve followed Wiggins’ first two years you know his growth and development has been scrutinized like no Canadian player before him. His decision to take a break from Canada basketball this summer was debated until regular season games were played in the fall. Now a quarter into the season with the Minnesota Timberwolves off to a slow start, his name has loosely been mentioned in trade rumours. Yet he heads home to Toronto on Thursday averaging 22 points per game and playing an average of 36 minutes each night. He spent the summer working on his three-point shot and he’s raised his percentage to just under 40% while on pace to hit more triples than he did in his first two seasons combined.

Andrew Wiggins is a work in progress. Just wait on it, is his message even if its tough for him to do. “Patience is not my strong suit,” he admits, “but I’m getting better at it. And it helps. That would be my message to these kids. Don’t believe anyone else just believe in yourself and give yourself time to prove yourself right.”

A nation of basketball fans hope he’s right that the next generation of Canadian players will surpass him. If we have enough patience.

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