Young Canadian hoops stars making most of their opportunities

Canadian guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Billy Gates/The Oregonian via AP)

Even when Cory Joseph was helping blaze a trail for young Canadian basketball talent to follow, there was a belief that the Toronto Raptors point guard (in conjunction with his old high school teammate Tristan Thompson) represented the start of something.

That Joseph’s path – a starring role at a U.S. prep powerhouse, front-and-centre on an AAU program that went head-to-head with the best American clubs, recognition as an elite NCAA prospect and a quick jump to the NBA – wasn’t going to be a one-off, but maybe an example, and proof that all the talent north of the border just needed the opportunity to be seen.

The opportunities are coming ever faster and Canadians aren’t disappointing.

Monday night was the third annual BioSteel All-Canadian Game at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, bringing together the best of a deepening pool of Canadian high school talent playing both here and in the U.S.

How quickly has the game gained traction? This year scouts from 24 NBA teams were at the Athlete Institute in Orangeville watching the 24 athletes go through five practices and a scrimmage before the game Monday night, which sold out weeks in advance.

“Just talking to the NBA guys over the weekend they are saying this is by far the deepest pool of players they’ve seen up here and the level has been exploding year after year,” says Jesse Tipping, president of the Athlete Institute and co-founder of the BioSteel game. “I knew that, but it’s nice to hear.”

It’s the capper on a remarkable week for Canadian high-school aged players.

The BioSteel Game models itself in some respects on the Nike Hoop Summit which held it’s 22nd showcase Friday night in Portland, Oregon, with a team of under-19 players from across the globe competing against an under-19 team chosen by USA Basketball.

For several years Canadians playing at the Hoop Summit were a rarity – only five through the first 15 years.

Since Joseph played in the 2010 event, however, there have been Canadians on the World Team – coached for seven years and counting by Roy Rana of Ryerson University and Canada Basketball – each year, often making significant impacts as Andrew Wiggins and Jamaal Murray were both named MVPs on their way to becoming NBA lottery picks.

But this past week was on another order of magnitude, almost literally.

Even Joseph, who is only six seasons removed from his draft year, can’t quite grasp how quickly the trail he helped cut has become a highway.

“Five? Are you [joking] me? That’s amazing man,” Joseph was saying the other day. “That goes to show you where Canadian basketball is at.”

The Raptors guard was reacting when told that five Canadians were on the roster for the World Team. It’s the most ever for any single country other than the host United States.

Over the event’s 22-year history countless NBA stars have played in it and it’s been a significant stepping stone for European teenagers to plant themselves on the league’s radar, with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Tony Parker (France), Bismack Biyombo (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Serge Ibaka (Republic of Congo) and Dennis Schroeder (Germany) seeing their draft stock rise after performing strongly at the event.

“Anytime you have a kid in the game, he’s a legitimate pro prospect,” says Rana whose first year coaching the Hoop Summit was 2011. “When you get four of them it speaks about the next wave of Canadians that could be entering the league. And there are other Canadians that could be in the game too.

“It’s a life-changing moment for everyone who plays in the game,” says Rana. “It’s the best evaluation they’re going to get at the NBA level in their careers, at this point. To have one week where every single NBA team has guys sitting there watching you practice and play, it’s pretty unique. There’s really nothing like it.”

It’s estimated 150 NBA front office personnel were in Portland for the week watching the teams practice in advance of the game. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri missed Kyle Lowry’s return from wrist surgery last Wednesday to be in Oregon.

“It’s the only event of its nature,” says Jonathan Givony, founder of DraftExpress, the most widely respected resource for the NBA draft. “For [NBA teams] your options are to either go to Europe and watch European players play other European players or stay here and watch Americans against Americans and then you always have to compare in your head how they would look against each other. … It’s a rare opportunity to see these guys together on the same floor.”

The five Candians at the Hoop Summit: R.J. Barrett, 16, was the youngest player on either team and is already considered a likely NBA lottery pick in the 2019 or 2020 draft, depending on which year he decides to leave high school for college; Shane Gilgeous-Alexander, heading to the University of Kentucky; Lindell Wigginton, bound for Iowa State; Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech) and Luguentz Dort, who will be highly recruited as part of the 2018 high school class.

“It was huge deal,” said Joseph of his Hoop Summit experience. “You’re on the World Team, but you’re wearing your country across your jersey, It’s crazy. And so many names, so many great stars have come through that game.”

“It’s just a great event, a lot of NBA players have played in that event, guys from all over the world. It’s amazing.

Both Dort (who was named co-MVP Monday) and Alexander-Walker flew across the country to take part in the BioSteel game – Gilgeous-Alexander; Wigginton and Barrett were invited to play in the Toronto game but declined.

More and more, the basketball world will be coming to see them and very likely another wave of talent coming behind.

“The novelty is gone,” says Givony. “Everyone knows Canadians can really play, it’s been proven over and over again, and there’s a lot more coming.

“[We sent] a scout to the BioSteel … we have to scout Canada just a strongly as we scout the U.S. That’s where it’s at.”


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