It’s a good time to be a hoops head in Canada right now.
As if the positive vibes around Canadian basketball of late couldn’t get any higher after the Toronto Raptors’ historic first Larry O’Brien trophy, the confirmation that said championship club’s coach Nick Nurse will take the helm of the country’s national men’s team at the forthcoming FIBA World Cup — an event that Andrew Wiggins has confirmed he will play in — this year’s NBA draft could serve as the proverbial cherry on top.
There are five Canadians who played NCAA basketball this past season who are expected to have their names called Thursday night at Barclay’s Center, according to ESPN’s latest mock draft.
Should this mock draft end up being accurate, the selection of five Canadians would be a new record, supplanting 2014’s previous high of four (Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis and Dwight Powell).
At the very least, it looks like the 2019 draft will be the 10th straight draft that will see at least one Canadian selected – Andy Rautins was taken in second round by the New York Knicks in 2010 to kick this run off.
Keeping that ESPN mock in mind, here’s a little more on each of the five Canadians identified.
R.J. Barrett – Duke
The presumed No. 3 overall pick to the New York Knicks, Barrett’s resume is already vast with highlights including: a 2017 FIBA Under-19 World Cup gold medal and MVP award, the 2018 Gatorade National Player of the Year as the best high school player and, most recently, a consensus first-team All-American selection and Jerry West award as college basketball’s top shooting guard while at Duke.
That last accolade is of particular interest because coming into college, Barrett wasn’t pegged as a true two guard, but turned himself into NCAA basketball’s very best out of necessity because fellow freshmen Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson occupied the team’s three and four spots.
Barrett is the closest thing Canada’s ever seen to basketball royalty. He’s the son of Canada Basketball’s senior men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett, the godson of Canadian basketball icon Steve Nash and has been anointed as Canada’s next great basketball hope since he was about 16 years old because of his pedigree. His success he’s had winning at all levels his physical gifts he possesses as a long, strong athlete, who has the advantage of being a lefty, have only added to the hype.
There are legitimate concerns over whether some of the tunnel-vision and poor decision-making Barrett showed at times at Duke will carry over to the NBA, but you also have to remember that he just turned 19, so those are things that can be corrected over time. His ability to get buckets right now, however, is a skill that would be the envy of a lot of seasoned NBA veterans.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker – Virginia Tech
Cousin and very close friend of Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker doesn’t have the same level of hype around him that SGA did around this time of the year, but he could similarly be a pleasant surprise.
Alexander-Walker chose to stay another year with the Hokies, and because of it, he’s become a much-improved player, leading the team in scoring this season with a 16.2 average while becoming a much better playmaker as he was asked to run a little more point guard this year.
It’s because of this experience, that Alexander-Walker could potentially push his way into a lottery position. Though he’s not overly quick or athletic like his cousin, Alexander-Walker is a big guard at six-foot-five and is even stronger than Gilgeous-Alexander, something that inherently gives him a better view of the floor when running the offence and will allow him to get to spots more easily as he can carve out space better than his smaller counterparts.
Brandon Clarke – Gonzaga
Clarke was born in Vancouver but he and his family moved to Phoenix, Ariz., when he was three.
A defensive specialist, Clarke had an amazing single season with Gonzaga after transferring over from little-known San Jose State, winning WCC Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year while also finishing third in the nation in blocked shots with 3.1 per game.
Even more impressive is the fact Clarke managed to turn aside that many shots despite being undersized at six-foot-eight.
Clarke is gifted with explosive athleticism and uncommon lateral quickness that allows him to more than make up for his size as he can meet just about anybody at the rim and often does so by first beating his man to their spot.
With that said, it’s one thing to be shorter but more athletic than most college big men, it’s another to be shorter and probably just as athletic as most NBA bigs.
Mfiondu Kabengele – Florida State
Hailing from Burlington, Ont., whose parents are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the nephew of basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, Kabengele burst onto the scene in his sophomore year at Florida State after leading the Seminoles in scoring despite coming off the bench.
At six-foot-10 and a chiselled 250 pounds with a seven-foot-three wingspan, Kabengele has the body and desired measurables scouts want to see in a centre at the next level. He’s also proven in college he can finish well as a roll man in both pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations, and understands how and when to make smart cuts for easy dunks and layups from the dunker spot.
The big knock against Kabengele, ironically because of his four-time Defensive Player of the Year uncle, is that he’s not the best defender yet. He can get torn up in space and when he’s forced to play pick-and-roll defence. He has the athleticism and quick feet to eventually become much better with time, but at the moment he lacks the anticipation and knowledge required to make defensive plays out on the perimeter.
Luguentz Dort – Arizona State
A big, strong, ultra-athletic guard from Montreal, Dort went from pretty much complete unknown coming into his lone year with the Sun Devils to becoming the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a Pac-12 All-Defensive Team selection, something that has him projected to go anywhere very late in the first round to the early second round of the draft.
Dort is a six-foot-five, 225-pound athletic specimen who can jump out of the gym and whose drives to the cup more closely resemble those of a running back exploding through the hole.
This size and supreme athleticism is the primary reason why he was such a nightmare for opposing teams on defence where the ability to cover ground and stay in front of guys and make strong contests was nearly unmatched.
Good skills to have at the NBA level, but where he’ll struggle and will have to improve to really carve out a niche for himself – like Norman Powell did – is with his shooting.
It’s nice to be able to make cuts and slash to the basket for explosive finishes at the rim, but Dort still only shot 40.8 per cent from the field this season and 30.7 per cent from three, because right now he doesn’t have much in the way of a jumper.
Should he get drafted, whatever team picks him up will need to get him immediately on a shooting program.