Grange: New heights for Canadian basketball

Anthony Bennett.

A wave that’s been building for years — decades even — finally hit shore last night.

It may even have come a year early.

The first Canadian to be taken first overall in the NBA draft was never supposed to be Anthony Bennett. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound rhino with a jump shot only played basketball to pass the time until he started high school at Brampton’s Harold M. Brathwaite Secondary.

He went the prep school route the next year, and just five years later his was the first name called by David Stern at the 2013 NBA draft. A year from now no one will be surprised if Andrew Wiggins of Thornhill, Ont. — the most famous player in the world not in the NBA — is the first player taken in the draft.

But the best he’ll ever be able to do is match Bennett, his teammate on the U17 national team that won a Bronze medal at the World Championship in 2010, an event that served as a coming out party for both players.

In at least one respect Wiggins will never be able to surpass Bennett, who will forever be the first Canadian taken first overall.

“Yeah. It’s just crazy. Made history. I can’t really complain about that,” said Bennett, shortly after getting the call from Stern and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He joins fellow Brampton native Tristan Thompson, who was taken No. 4 overall by Cleveland in 2011, until Bennett the highest a Canadian had ever been taken in the NBA draft.

He was also joined in the draft lottery by Kelly Olynyk, the Gonzaga University star from Kamloops, B.C. who was taken 13th by the Dallas Mavericks before being dealt to the Boston Celtics.

Together Olynyk and Bennett mark the first time two Canadians have been taken in the draft lottery in the same year. Prior to last night only one Canadian had ever been taken in the lottery — among the top 14 picks.

It was a remarkable, historical night.

Some perspective: In 1983 Leo Rautins became the first Canadian drafted in the first round by an NBA team, when he was taken 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, though knee injuries limited his career to 28 games.

In 1996 Steve Nash eclipsed his mark when he was taken 15th by the Phoenix Suns. In 2000 Jamaal Magloire was taken 19th by the Charlotte Hornets.

And that was pretty much it. In fact in a 25-year span from 1986 until Thompson was taken in the high lottery in 2011 Nash and Magloire were the only Canadians to be first round picks.

In the past three drafts alone there have been five — Thompson, Cory Joseph; Andrew Nicholson and now Bennett and Olynyk. Presuming Wiggins remains healthy it will be six in four years a year from now and it could easily be more than that as there are perhaps a half-dozen players on the NBA’s near-term radar.

In 1988 Canada finished sixth at the Olympics without a single NBA player on their roster. In 2016 Canada could very well have a starting lineup featuring five first-round picks, including two No. 1 picks and the No. 4.

It will be a collection of NBA-approved talent that no country in the world outside the USA will be able to match, at least on paper.

The only caveat is that that getting picked is only half the battle. The hardest thing to do in basketball isn’t making the NBA, it’s lasting long enough to get a second or third contract — to have a career.

I asked Steve Nash what he thought of Olynyk earlier this year. As the general manager of the men’s national team he’d scrimmaged alongside the Gonzaga big man last summer and admitted to being surprised at his combination of size and overall skill.

“I’m not really sure what kind of pro he’ll be,” Nash said of the versatile seven-footer. “He’ll be a good pro, I just don’t know yet what his niche will be because he’s got so many tools.”

But then Nash made the point that can be applied to any of the Canadians on the rise.

The world has discovered the talent that carries our passport, but that’s just the first step.

“The determining factor is going to be his personality,” said Nash. “What kind of person is he going to be at the next level?”

Bennett has every tool required to become an NBA all-star. He’s got the physical abilities, but his high school coach, Todd Simon, said last night that his NBA potential demonstrated itself in how quickly he digested and applied the skills he was taught, and how he committed himself to fitness for his senior season at Findlay Prep, the Las Vegas school that has had a steady stream of elite Canadian players come through its doors, including Myck Kabongo, the well-regarded point guard prospect who didn’t get picked Thursday.

He recalled a film session in which Bennett was singled out for various short-comings. Rather than pout he became resolved. Shortly afterwards he started sending bodies flying at practice.

“He was just dominant,” said Simon. “You could tell he took the coaching to heart. He didn’t complain. He just started dunking everything. A bolt fell out of the rim after one of them so we had to shut it down. It was amazing.”

Simon is hesitant to generalize based on the small handful of Canadian players he’s coached, but he did suggest that they have benefitted from being outsiders, to a certain extent.

“There’s a receptiveness, a humbleness,” he said. “They want to learn and get better; they’re humble guys. That’s the common strain. I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing or it’s a special group of kids, but the key will be for them all to remember how they did it. They need to keep that edge and take it to the next level.”

The Canadians that have preceded the current wave provide some good role models for those following. Jamaal Magloire spent 11 years in the league and made an all-star team as a classic, hard-hitting big man who improved his offensive game year-over-year in his early stages in the league. Nash rose from a third string rookie point guard to a two-time league MVP; the epitome of the type of professional who attempts to improve throughout his career.

Thompson is thriving in his role as an active, glass-charging, floor-running big. His commitment to improvement can be found in his free throw percentages — from a ghastly 48.7 per cent in his freshman year at the University of Texas to a semi-respectable 60.8 per cent in his second NBA season.

Cory Joseph chose to work on his game in the NBA Development League rather than twiddle his thumbs in the bench for the San Antonio Spurs as a rookie and even in his second year. He was rewarded by a steady role off the bench down the stretch this past season. He appears to be on his way to carving out a niche for himself.

Canada has been discovered, but that’s half the battle. Now the new wave of talent with the guaranteed rookie contracts has to prove they belong.

Bennett says his mother Edith, a nurse who often worked double shifts to make ends meet for him and his brother and sister, is his inspiration.

He sounds like he plans to make his mark by following her example.

“It feels like I made it for sure, but I can’t rest,” he said to me on the eve of his history making night. “It’s the NBA, there’s 60 new guys coming in every year trying to take your spot.”

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