The Canada Basketball Power 20: How Ujiri, Nurse, Murray stack up

Raptors president Masai Ujiri guarantees the Maple Leafs will one day hoist the Stanley Cup, saying, "that's just how sports is," everything comes around.

In many ways, Canada’s “Golden Age” of basketball is in full flower, or at least on the cusp. The Toronto Raptors are defending NBA champions, and the 17 Canadians who will head to training camp with contracts this coming week represent the most players ever from a country other than the United States.

But the Canadian basketball story is broader than that. Canada’s women are gunning for their third straight Olympic appearance, and five — more than ever before — have cracked the ultra-competitive WNBA. And it’s not just on the floor that Canadians are making themselves heard. Whether it’s coaching, player representation or as builders, more and more Canadians — or those from abroad who have made Canada home — are having an out-sized impact at home and internationally.

For this reason it seemed like a good time to initiate Sportsnet’s first power rankings to identify, track and celebrate those who are making the game what it is. The criteria are necessarily fluid and inevitably subjective, but the ultimate question will stay the same: Who is making a difference and why?

20. Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks

The profile of most of Canada’s NBA players is fairly typical: head to the U.S. in high school; attend one or maybe two years of college; get taken in the first round of the draft; rinse and repeat. Powell represents something different. The six-foot-10 forward spent four years at Stanford and was a second-round pick in the 2014 draft – the range where it’s easy to get spit out from the NBA funhouse before your career even begins.

But Powell wouldn’t have it, grinding his way through three trades, multiple G-League assignments and long stints on the bench before earning his way into the Dallas Mavericks rotation, where he’s expected to be a full-time starter for the first time in his career this coming season. He’s signed two long-term contracts worth nearly $70 million and has led the NBA in offensive rating the past two seasons by sticking to what he does best – finishing on the pick-and-roll and attacking the offensive glass while slowly adding some perimeter shooting to his game.

Who would have thought that Powell would have been on his way to a better NBA career than the three Canadian first-rounders from 2014 or Anthony Bennett, taken No. 1 in 2013? In that way, Powell should be a role model for the youngsters coming up behind him: It’s not where you start in the NBA, but where you finish.

19. Chantal Vallée, coach/executive

Vallée broke new ground in 2018–19 as she became the first woman general manager and head coach in professional basketball, roles she held with the Hamilton Honey Badgers in the inaugural Canadian Elite Basketball League season this past summer. That appointment came on the heels of her unprecedented success running the University of Windsor Lancers program as the Montreal native took the moribund Lancers to five straight USports women’s titles. Vallée led the Honey Badgers to a .500 record in CEBL play, helping the off-season league aimed at providing opportunities for USports athletes and returning European pros to play at home. Vallée’s seamless crossing of the gender divide gained both her and the league international attention.

18. Jesse Tipping, builder

From his unlikely base on the outskirts of Orangeville, northwest of Toronto, the former USports player has created a destination for elite Canadian talent. The Athlete Institute Basketball Academy has become a hub for players across Canada looking to compete against the best in North America while staying in Canada. Their list of NBA alumni is impressive and their Div. 1 placements extensive. Orangeville Prep, their top academy team, is an anchor tenant of the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, a level of structured competition and development supported by the Ontario Basketball Association and Canada Basketball that is changing the profile of high school basketball for boys and girls aspiring to play at a post-secondary level.

Tipping – along with Tony McIntyre, co-founder of the legendary CIA Bounce AAU program and Orangeville Prep’s head coach – also helped found the BioSteel All-Canadian Game, the annual all-star showcase for the top 24 girls and boys across Canada that draws attendees from across the NBA and has become a stamp of approval for the next generation of Canadian hoops stars.

17. Tariq and Elias Sbiet, builders

For years the passion surrounding Canadian basketball at the grassroots level has been starved for structure. This pair of Mississauga-based brothers has stepped into this void and provided just that, layer by layer, since founding North Pole Hoops in 2011. What started as a scouting and ranking service for NCAA and USport coaches has grown year by year into a one-stop shop for aspiring Canadian players.

Want to grow and test your game against the best players in your region? Attend one of their showcase events held across the country.

Want to see how your club team stacks up against the best in the country under the gaze of countless NCAA coaches? Get yourself to the Canadian National Invitational tournament they founded.

Want to compete against top competition while attending high school in Canada? Attend one of the schools that competes in their ambitious National Preparatory Association (NPA), which will field teams in seven provinces this coming season with a plan to add an eighth – British Columbia – for 2021.

Perhaps their biggest accomplishment is expanding the scope of Canadian elite grassroots basketball well beyond its traditional GTA stronghold, reaching out to all regions of the country. What the Sbiet brothers have done in eight years is eye-popping. What they do in the next 10 could change Canadian basketball forever.

16. Dave Smart, coach

The legendary Carleton Ravens head coach has stepped aside from coaching after leading the Ravens to an unprecedented 14th title in 16 seasons. His new role is the Ravens director of basketball operations, a move to allow him more flexibility to be with his family — he’s coaching his son’s minor hockey teams. But there is no doubting Smart’s influence is ever-lasting. His expertise, intense competitive drive and commitment to excellence not only helped the Ravens to a boatload of titles, but raised the bar for USports basketball across the country and across genders. The way the Ravens would regularly beat visiting Div. I programs changed the profile of USports hoops at home and abroad.

It will be a shame if Smart retires entirely from coaching but even if he never coaches again his influence on the sport will forever be felt.

Toronto Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/CP)

15. Nav Bhatia, superfan

Everyone’s favourite Hyundai dealer went from local celebrity and league-wide curiosity to a full-blown legend during the Raptors’ playoff run. And why not? His passion, enthusiasm, big-hearted nature and authentic representation of how the Raptors connect with newer Canadians and across ethnic lines like few cultural forces before wasn’t some kind of gimmick but a quarter-century in the making. From his baseline seats, Toronto’s “Superfan” has been part of the Raptors scenery at every home game for 25 years. Among the first to recognize his passion were players, going all the way back to Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Over the years, even opposing players have came to appreciate that the small man with the turban cheering so hard for his club could do so without cheering against them and their team.

More recently, the NBA has begun to work with Bhatia to help bridge the gap between the league and south Asia, one of the few areas the league has yet to fully penetrate. He will be working for the league as they host the first NBA game played in his native India later this month. He’s also lent his charitable efforts and image to Canada Basketball as the organization’s “global community ambassador.” His foundation is aimed at building and refurbishing courts around his adopted city. He’s as well-known as almost any Raptor and the franchise is better for it.

14. Roy Rana, coach

It is no exaggeration to say that there is not an elite Canadian basketball player in the game today that the newly minted Sacramento Kings assistant coach hasn’t worked with at some stage in his career. Whether it was with the national team program, during his years leading the World Team at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit, or in the process of turning the Ryerson Rams into a USports powerhouse, Rana’s presence around Canada’s best has been ubiquitous. His path from coaching high school hoops in Toronto to joining Luke Walton’s staff with the Kings is unprecedented and testament to the growing recognition that Canada’s explosion in hoops talent has been accompanied and in some ways precipitated by an expansion in the depth and quality of Canadian coaching.

13. Glen Grunwald, executive

When Canada Basketball was looking for a new chief executive officer, they were lucky that Grunwald was interested in making a move. It would be impossible for any other candidate to check off the boxes that Grunwald does: Canadian citizen; twice the general manager of NBA teams that have made the playoffs; business ties in Toronto; and experience with some of the challenges facing amateur sport from his years as athletic director with McMaster University. But getting Canada Basketball on solid financial footing may be a bigger challenge than getting both the Raptors and the New York Knicks to the NBA playoffs. The need is acute.

As Canada Basketball has gotten better on the floor – routinely qualifying teams across all age groups to global championships – their costs have gone up. Similarly the new FIBA qualifying rules for the World Cup and the Olympics strain budgets as well. A deep run at the World Cup by a team well-represented by NBA talent would have made Grunwald’s efforts easier, presumably, when it comes to securing the kind of cross-category sponsorship relationships that, say, Hockey Canada enjoys, but until then Grunwald will have to turn lemons into lemonade. The Raptors success and two million people on the streets for a parade are proof that there is an ocean-to-ocean passion for basketball; the challenge now is to leverage it.

12. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

The path the 19-year-old wing has taken to the NBA has been gilded. Where in the past so many kids with NBA dreams had to rely on some version of trial-and-error to find their way to the promised land, with many misses along the way, Barrett is an example of how brightly lit the path has become for Canadians with the kind of talent that forces the U.S. basketball machine to take notice. He left home early, sure, but only to attend an elite private high school in Florida. He starred in the national program at every age group and landed at Duke, becoming famous before even starting his freshman year. There were some hiccups and he fell back from the No. 1 pick as his Blue Devils teammate Zion Williamson blew up and Ja Morant came on late, but Barrett arrives at a Knicks franchise that is on the ground floor of a rebuild with the expectation that he will be a foundation piece. If he can pull it off, Barrett has the platform and personality to be a star. If he translates his on-floor game and off-court charisma to the national team he can be a hero.

11. Steve Nash, icon

The baller known as “Captain Canada” could be higher on this list. He could easily be number one. But with five kids, a beachfront California address and a full plate balancing family with existing business interests in his retirement, Nash has largely stepped away from an active role as Canada’s basketball icon. His decision to step down as the men’s national team’s general manager this past March only formalized his growing distance from the program he helped resurrect when he took on the role in 2012 while he was still playing. You can’t fault Nash for setting his priorities, but you can’t help but wonder what kind of impact he could have if he put his shoulder in a little bit.

Nash can still make news more easily than almost any other Canadian basketball figure as his mild criticism of Canadian NBA players’ decision to forgo the World Cup on Bill Simmons’s podcast earlier this month proved. When he speaks, people listen, which may happen more often now that Nash has begun to dip his toes into NBA broadcasting with TNT. No matter how many NBA players Canada produces, odds are there will only ever be one two-time MVP. He can be the face of Canadian basketball anytime he wants to be.

Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa goes to the basket during a WNBA basketball game on Aug. 20, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

10. Natalie Achonwa, Indiana Fever/Olympian

Before there was Kia Nurse, there was Natalie Achonwa. She suited up for Notre Dame, earned All-American honours as a senior and led the Irish to four straight Final Fours, but was robbed of her chance to win a championship when she tore her ACL in an Elite 8 game as a senior. She was still a first-round WNBA pick by Indiana and earned all-rookie honours in 2015, helping the Fever to the WNBA Finals. The 27-year-old has appeared in two Olympics – making her debut as a 19-year-old in London in 2012 — and is one of the cornerstones of the Canadian women’s emergence as a medal contender.

Achonwa was Canada’s second-leading scorer and rebounder at the World Cup in 2018, but her smarts, spacing and screen setting are better measures of how she can make a team go. Should Canada qualify for the Olympics in 2020, Achonwa would join an elite club of three-time Canadian basketball Olympians (teammates Miranda Ayim and Kim Gaucher could join her) and is young enough that she could entertain the possibility of playing in four Olympics, which would put her in a club of one. Smart and outspoken, Achonwa’s role in the game after she finishes playing could well be worth watching.

9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

The lanky Oklahoma City Thunder guard may be Canadian basketball’s best-kept secret. While the hype always swirled around bigger-named (figuratively) prospects both during his high school years, his single season at the University of Kentucky and even in the build-up to the 2018 draft, Gilgeous-Alexander has slowly but surely emerged as the Canadian player with the highest ceiling. Physically he’s perfect for the current NBA game – he’s six-foot-six with the kind of never-ending arms that allow him to play even bigger. He’s ideally suited to guard three positions, a significant benefit in the switching defences that most teams use to combat smaller lineups and the three-point barrage. He also is a natural point guard with an unteachable sense of pace, and showed signs during his rookie season of being a capable three-point shooter, finishing at 36.8 per cent.

There was a reason the Thunder insisted on Gilgeous-Alexander coming back as part of the Paul George trade, and now the Toronto-born, Hamilton-raised point guard will have a chance to shine as a focal point of what should be a robust rebuild in OKC. His commitment to the national team – which could influence the decision of his talented cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a rookie with the New Orleans Pelicans this season – could have major implications for Canada Basketball’s future.

8. Mike George, player agent

The former York University hooper never made the NBA as a player, but he’s a player in NBA circles, using his credibility gained as a co-founder of the CIA Bounce AAU powerhouse to make the leap into player representation, first working for Excel and last February launching his own shop, One Legacy Sports Management, based out of Toronto. No one represents or co-represents more of Canada’s growing wave of NBA players – his client list includes Murray, Khem Birch, Dwight Powell, Dillon Brooks and former No.1 pick Bennett, as well as a long list of pros on the cusp of the league or playing overseas. His plan is to be well-positioned as Canada’s NBA pipeline continues to swell and as a result will remain an influential voice in Canadian basketball from the grassroots to the national team to the NBA for years to come.

7. Rowan Barrett, executive/senior men’s national team general manager

Between his experience as a player, his first-hand experience raising a projected NBA star and his undeniable passion for the national team program, Barrett would appear to be a perfect fit to lead the Canadian men’s program back to prominence. There have been successes, such as helping build out Canada Basketball’s talent-identification process and athlete-development model to extend the organization’s reach into younger age groups. Both were instrumental in Canada winning the U19 World Championship in 2017. The way his son RJ Barrett – who starred on that team — has thrived as a rising prospect on and off the floor is a testament. But leveraging Canada’s talent boom for the national team will be the ultimate measure of Barrett’s success, and for now the jury remains out.

While it would be unfair to place Canada’s disappointing finish in China on his shoulders, Barrett lost marks for his clumsy handling of the transition from former head coach Jay Triano. And given Barrett’s long run as the hands-on assistant general manager to Nash, his argument in the wake of Canada being eliminated from medal contention in China that he was new on the job didn’t come across well. But the reality is Barrett has no leverage to compel Canada’s NBA players to play internationally if they don’t see it as being in their interest, so his role in many ways is to build bridges, remove obstacles both real and perceived, and to help create the kind of environment where athletes want to take part. It’s not an easy task, but there likely isn’t a basketball fan in Canada who doesn’t want him to succeed.

6. Lisa Thomaidis, coach

Don’t look now, but the unassuming women’s national team head coach and University of Saskatchewan bench boss is on track to become the most successful international basketball coach Canada has ever had – with apologies to the legendary Jack Donahue. A long-time national-team assistant, she was around when the women’s team was in disarray – they missed the Olympics in 2004 and 2008 – and helped guide them back for the London Games in 2012. In her six years as head coach, she has led the program to a fifth-place ranking. She’s also helped create an expectation of a podium finish at a World Cup or Olympic tournament in the near future, which would be the first basketball medal for Canada at a senior global championship since the men won silver at the 1936 Olympics. Her Huskies teams have thrived, too, qualifying for the USports Final 8 in 10 of the past 11 years while winning the national championship in 2016.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray reacts after scoring against the San Antonio Spurs. (Eric Gay/AP)

5. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Canadian basketball’s chorus is ever-growing, but what it’s missing is a star, someone to fly the flag at centre stage – on the men’s side at least. For a while there was hope Andrew Wiggins might be that person but he’s proven personally and professionally unsuited for the task since he was taken first overall in 2014. Anthony Bennett, Canada’s other No. 1 pick, taken in 2013, has proven to be one of the NBA’s greatest busts. The likes of Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph or Kelly Olynyk don’t have quite the star power. Does Murray? For the moment he is Canada’s best NBA player and the five-year, $170-million extension he received from the Denver Nuggets in the off-season makes him Canada’s wealthiest athlete.

The Nuggets’ championship aspirations could give Murray the platform to blossom into a star. And on the national-team front, Murray is probably best positioned to emerge as the leader of Canada’s growing crop of NBA talent. Had he not tweaked an ankle, it would have been interesting to see how he handled himself at the World Cup — on and off the floor.

Going forward, will he be the one to rally his peers? Hold informal workouts? Buy in with both word and deed? The stage is open.

4. Nick Nurse, coach

After one season, Nurse has the look of a coach who could be with the Raptors for a long time, should he choose. In that position he will inevitably become a role model for Canadian coaching as the highest-profile hoops coach in the land.

It was a major coup when Canada Basketball was able to convince Nurse to lead the senior men’s team into the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and (hopefully) into the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. And while he wasn’t able to overcome a severe talent shortage – only two of Canada’s NBA players made the trip to China to compete this summer – rather than being discouraged by Canada’s 21st-place finish he seems to be energized by the challenge of getting the Canadian men to their first Olympics since 2000. His proven ability to adjust on the fly in tense situations will come in handy at the win-to-get-in pre-Olympic qualifying tournaments next June and during the Olympic pressure cooker itself should Canada get that far.

3. Kia Nurse, New York Liberty, Olympian

If any of Canada’s NBA stars or stars-to-be are wondering what it takes to be a role model, just rip and read from Nurse’s playbook. She gets it done on the floor as her two national championships at UConn and status as a WNBA All-Star starter in just her second season would attest. But it’s Nurse’s vocal commitment to making her mark beyond her professional career that makes her such a compelling figure at age 23. She doesn’t wrestle with her commitment to the national team; she embraces it. She doesn’t shy away from growing her horizons; she sprints to them, whether it’s her budding broadcasting career or her regularly voiced goal to make the women’s game more accessible for those coming behind her.

“It’s always exciting to be able to show young girls from Canada that they have the opportunity to get to this level and be an all-star, enjoy what they’re doing and play basketball for a living,” she told Sportsnet on the eve of her WNBA all-star appearance, just the third by a Canadian.

Since Steve Nash left the NBA, Canada has been looking for someone to be the face of basketball. Right now the leading candidate is the combo guard from Hamilton.

2. Drake, fan/entrepreneur

He didn’t successfully recruit Kevin Durant to Toronto, and his omnipresence can be off-putting to the odd curmudgeon opposed to in-game, sideline massages. But the Global Ambassador’s symbiotic relationship with the Raptors and the Canadian basketball scene is undeniable. Drake’s growing fame helped lift the Raptors brand when it needed one, but you could argue the team’s championship run did the same for Drake. He has helped make Toronto more familiar and hipper among NBA players, overcoming years of stereotypes about weather and bad cable. His Bridal Path mansion is a welcome wagon for rich young athletes looking for a place to hang or get a workout in at his personal gym or basketball court. The tournament he hosts during OVO Fest has become a homecoming of sorts for Canadian pros every summer, and the presence of OVO co-founder Niko Carino on the Canada Basketball board of directors can only be seen as a positive for those hoping that Drake’s business savvy can rub off on the governing body of the sport.

1. Masai Ujiri, executive

Ujiri could top lots of “most influential” lists without his basketball ties – his philanthropic work through his Giants of Africa foundation or his willingness to use his reach through the Raptors and corporate parent Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to maintain an on-going relationship with Dene High School in La Loche, Sask., in the wake of a 2016 school shooting are examples. But in the context of basketball, Ujiri’s influence is massive.

The Raptors president is an internationalist at heart with personal ties to Nigeria, Kenya and England, and professional ones all over the world. His fierce brand of civic boosterism carries the kind of weight that resonates at home and echoes across the NBA landscape.

A lot of things came together to help make Toronto a fitting home for an NBA champion, but Ujiri’s fingerprints were on all of them. In a highly image-conscious league, Ujiri not only raises Toronto’s cool factor; he makes it cool to believe in it here at home. Ujiri has also deepened and broadened MLSE’s commitment to Canada Basketball as a financial and logistical lifeline in times when the need has been greatest.

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