METAIRIE, LA. – Canadians have been cracking NBA rosters in ever-greater numbers for some years now, but mostly in working-class roles.
There are 12 Canadians in the league at the moment – the most for any country outside the United States – but the only Canadian passports on hand at all-star weekend belonged to Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets – who took home MVP honours at the Rising Stars challenge Friday night – and Trey Lyles of the Utah Jazz.
No Canadian has played in the main event since Steve Nash made the last of his eight all-star game appearances in 2012, although rising third-year star Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves figures to get there at some point.
But just off the radar a few miles away, and light years removed from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans on the opening weekend of Mardi Gras, Mississauga’s Rowan Barrett Jr. signalled again that he may not be that far from making his own all-star game debut in the not-so-distant future.
The 16-year-old from Mississauga was named Most Valuable Player at the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, a three-day event bringing together the top-ranked boy and girl prospects from outside the United States to work with NBA coaches, often before the eyes of NBA executives interested in getting baseline evaluations they can use to track prospects building towards their draft year.
“I had no idea who they were,” said Barrett, a 6-foot-7 wing who is the son of former national team star and current Canada Basketball senior men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett. “They look like regular people. But I tried to play the best I could.”
His best is pretty good. Barrett is in Grade 10 at Montverde Academy near Orlando, a well-regarded private school that has won three U.S. national high school championships in the past four years. He is already the top-ranked player in his age group on all the major recruiting websites. For the moment he’s expected to graduate in 2019, which would make him draft eligible in 2020, but it’s not uncommon for top prospects to accelerate a year which could make his draft year 2019.
In any case, he arrived in New Orleans with expectations to fulfill, but managed them easily, even as one of the few 2000-born players at the camp.
“I love the kid. I think he’s really, really talented,” said Fred Vinson, an assistant coach with the New Orleans Pelicans who coached Barrett’s team. “He can handle the ball, can get to the basketball at will; he’s tough, he’s competitive … he can go both ways, offensively. Defensively he’s not afraid to guard the best player on the other team. As a coach you can’t ask for much more, which is why he’s the camp MVP.”
Barrett was one of seven Canadian boys and three Canadian girls at the camp. No country had more boys represented and only Australia had more girls. The boys were: Simi Shittu, Andrew Nembhard, Noah Kirkwood, Luguentz Dort, Emmanuel Akot and Ignes Brazdeikis. The girls: Roxane Makolo, Hailey Brown and Shaina Pellington.
All showed well. Joining Barrett on the boys all-star team was Dort, a powerful 6-foot-4 guard from Montreal currently considering scholarship offers from Louisville, Missouri, Oregon, Baylor and Florida, while all three of the Canadian girls were named all-stars.
That they looked so comfortable competing against global talent is as much proof of how far basketball has come in Canada. It’s not just that they are arriving on the world stage in numbers, it’s that they feel comfortable when they got here.
“I know my abilities and just play to my strengths,” said Barrett. “And this gives me confidence to keep building.”
I asked Dort if he was surprised that he would do so well against players from five different continents.
“No,” he said. “I was ready for that. I was working hard for that this year to be ready for this.”
Barrett is growing accustomed to having all eyes on him. He sparkled at the under-17 world championships last summer, finishing among the tournament’s leading scorers even though he was playing two years above his age group.
This weekend the campers trained every day and took in the all-star weekend events in the evenings.
“You grow up as a kid watching all of the events on TV,” said Barrett. “And to actually be there, and see the players it’s really cool.”
It’s a long way from playing against your peers – even if they’re from all over the world – to making the NBA, let alone becoming an all-star, but Barrett’s showing in New Orleans suggests that he may well have more all-star weekends ahead of him.