Passed up by big NCAA schools, Carleton guard Phil Scrubb is blazing a trail to the pros anyway
Somewhere at home in Richmond, B.C., is the tiny Michael Jordan jersey, though the mini hoops and Nerf basketballs are long gone. Also remaining are memories of trips to General Motors Place with his dad to watch the Vancouver Grizzlies, back when dreaming NBA dreams was simple kid stuff. “I remember Steve Francis getting booed the first time he played in Vancouver and him having to leave the game early because he couldn’t handle it,” says Phil Scrubb, the Carleton University point guard carving out one of the most remarkable careers ever seen in Canadian basketball. “I saw [Allen] Iverson, and it was pretty exciting to see Vince Carter.”
Like any kid, he imagined himself playing in the NBA when he battled against his father, Lloyd, and his brother, Thomas, in the living room, wearing his Jordan jersey. They were a basketball family. Lloyd was part of the University of Victoria dynasty constructed by Ken Shields, and the boys’ late mother, Diane Murphy—she died of cancer in 2010—played for the Bishop’s Gaiters.
But even as Scrubb starred at Vancouver College, interest from NCAA Div. I schools was tepid. He was good, but by his own admission hardly outstanding at any particular aspect of the game, at least by the standards of big-time U.S. schools. Quite reasonably, he figured if they weren’t calling, the NBA wouldn’t be calling either, so he was quite happy to join Thomas at Carleton for a commerce degree and a slew of Canadian titles. “Out of high school, I pretty much forgot about [making it to the NBA],” he says. “I thought there was no way that was possible.”
Things have changed. While there will be no shortage of Canadian stars in the NCAA tournament this month to capture the attention of pro scouts, Scrubb’s career in the CIS has been so good the NBA has been forced to cast a glance north for the first time in a long while. With four national titles on his resumé and a record three player-of-the-year awards in his pocket (Thomas is no slouch, either, as he was named CIS defensive POY), Scrubb, 21, is dreaming like a kid again. “I know now it’s not going to come easy, [but] it would be crazy to make it from the CIS.”
Ravens head coach Dave Smart, with a CIS-record 10 national championships to his name, believes deeply that the year-round training and attention to detail his athletes get can help them reach their goals. Smart told Scrubb to start thinking NBA after his second season when he earned his first player-of-the-year award. “I hadn’t really thought about it until then,” says Scrubb. “Dave’s usually pointing out your flaws, which you need, but it was good to hear.”
Scrubb has proved his case with some outstanding games in exhibitions against the same kind of major U.S. schools that didn’t give him a look out of high school—he dropped 31 on Villanova last season and had 31 points and 12 assists against Syracuse in August. Scrubb was the only CIS player with the Canadian national team last summer and more than held his own against a roster of guards with elite NCAA pedigrees and, in the case of Cory Joseph, NBA experience. Watching was former Toronto Raptors guard and national-team special assistant Alvin Williams, who didn’t see a passport when he looked at Scrubb but instead saw a six-foot-three combo guard with deep range who could deliver pinpoint passes with either hand. “I love Phil Scrubb,” Williams says. “He can be an NBA player.”
Word spreads fast. At least five NBA teams are tracking Scrubb’s progress, making calls to Smart to dig a little deeper. He’s a long way from being drafted and even further from making it. But Phil Scrubb has already done something almost no other CIS basketball player ever has: He’s kept his Nerf-hoop NBA dreams very much alive.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.