A new basketball generation comes of age in Canada

Eighteen years later, in 2013, the No. 1 pick in the Draft, Anthony Bennett, was a Canadian. So was No. 1 in 2014, Andrew Wiggins. Several others from the Great White North arrived the same way, many as lottery choices: Kelly Olynyk, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis and Dwight Powell. That was soon after Tristan Thompson went fourth in 2011 and Andrew Nicholson was the 19th selection of 2012.

Canada as an overnight basketball sensation is not so overnight. Sixteen, 17, 18, 19 years — that is no coincidence. It is exactly a generation of boys growing up with the NBA in their country.

All-Access: Pride of Canada

Draft prospect Andrew Wiggins gives an all-access look at his upbringing in Vaughan, Ontario and talks about the recent Canadian invasion into the NBA.

The upswing in Canadian talent in the NBA over the past nearly two decades can be attributed to several factors. The sport had been spiking in popularity as prospects used the emergence of computers to compare themselves with high school players around the country. Even after the Grizzlies left for Memphis in the summer of 2001, a breakup that left many in the region upset at the NBA and commissioner David Stern, local hero Steve Nash kept British Columbia connected.

You want fortuitous timing? Nash, from just outside Vancouver, was reaching his prime as the Grizzlies tore up roots. He was the Canadian who was named MVP in 2005 and again in 2006. Even folks cross-country in Toronto cheered him. It was a matter of Nash-ional pride.

It’s still a country-wide thing like that. When the Raptors and Kings played an Oct. 5 exhibition in Vancouver, a capacity crowd of 18,630 filled Rogers Arena. The team from Toronto, some 2,000 air miles away, got the backing and Stauskas, the Sacramento rookie from the Toronto suburbs, received loud cheers.

“Having a Canadian MVP two years in a row was big,” said Jama Mahlalela, who played at the University of British Columbia and is now a Raptors assistant coach. “But I think it was the longer term of the team that made the greater difference. Those individual players were huge. Jamaal Magloire on our staff was huge. Thirteen years in the NBA. People aspired and said, ‘He can do it so we can do it.’ Individuals helped. But having teams there really was the foundation that allowed it to be possible.

“It truly is these kids could see the NBA in their own backyard. ‘This is possible for me. I can do this.’ The aspirations started. They went for it and this generation is here. We have another two or three years of really good players coming up. The coaches are starting to ladder up, the coaches are starting to get to the NBA level, the players are getting there, and our national team is getting there as well.”

By 2013, Forbes was citing statistics, though without specific attribution, that the growth rate of basketball among Canadian youth exceeded hockey and soccer. Also, the magazine claimed, basketball was the most popular team participation sport among kids 12 to 17. It didn’t hurt that Canada had eased its immigration laws since the 1970s, leading to an influx of new residents from countries where basketball was the passion, not hockey. Individuals helped. But having teams there really was the foundation that allowed it to be possible. – Raptors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela

“We are really on the right side of some of the immigration trends happening in Canada,” Dan MacKenzie, the general manager of NBA Canada, told Forbes in the same 2013 story. “If you look at the countries from which the largest subgroups are coming to Canada from, like China and the Philippines, you see that in those countries, basketball is if not the most popular sport, within the top two. These people are coming to Canada with a love of the sport and into a market where there is a great infrastructure to play basketball.”

Kings rookie Stauskas is the embodiment of the country’s new direction. He was born in Canada — 28 days after Toronto was awarded its NBA franchise — and lived there until moving to the United States for high school and, after, the University of Michigan. He swears — no matter what laws it breaks back home, no matter how unbelievable it sounds — that he has never held a hockey stick while wearing skates. He has ancestors from Lithuania, a proud basketball nation. He is not a Canadian cliche.

(“…[P]eople think that all Canadians say ‘Eh,’ ” Stauskas said. “That’s not true. C’mon now.” You do say aboot, though, right? “I used to, but I grew out of it the more I stayed in the U.S.”)

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Other non-Canadian influences may have shaped the move away from hockey and the hackneyed image, as they did for Wiggins (whose father, Mitchell, is from the United States and played in the NBA) and Bennett (whose mother grew up in Jamaica).

Stauskas is tall — 6-foot-6 — but not so tall that growing up he would have been forced to find a sport other than hockey, the way future 7-foot Celtic Olynyk or others, including 7-foot-2 Jordan Bachynski from Arizona State who now plays in Turkey, grew their way off the ice.

Stauskas started playing basketball when he was about 8, when an uncle coaching a group of Luthianians in Toronto asked him to join. He was good, better than most of the others, and he got hooked. He had an NBA in his own city to root for, not across the border in Detroit. And then Vince Carter, a Raptor, went to All-Star weekend in Oakland in 2000 and got all Vinsanity.

“Obviously with Vince Carter around, I think things grew because of him almost,” said Stauskas, who was 6 at the time. “There was a lot of hype around Vince when he won the dunk contest and all that kind of stuff. We had one of the most talented players in the league at that time. For kids like me, that gave us a superstar to look up to.” Nash, Magloire, Rick Fox, Bill Wennington, Mike Smrek and others had come before. The influence of Nash as a future first-ballot Hall of Famer was obvious.

But winning a dunk contest, that’s a kid magnet. And the guy represents Toronto? The role of an American, Carter, is critical.

Canada still has a way to go. The national team failed to qualify for the World Cup this summer in Spain and must go through a tournament next offseason in hopes of earning an invitation to the 2016 Olympics, when the roster would still be young.

But the Canadians are looking at the real possibility of an experienced all-NBA starting lineup for the 2019 World Cup or the 2020 Summer Games.

Steve Nash: Reminiscing about Steve The guys recall the greatness of the two-time MVP point guard, Steve Nash. “I think [it’s been] a bunch of things,” said Nash, the injured Lakers point guard who in 2012 was named general manager of the senior national team of Basketball Canada. “The Raptors — and the Grizzlies for a time — but the Raptors being in everyone’s household throughout the year. The Internet. Kids could see who the best players were at their age or best practices. That was pretty distant when I was growing up in Canada. I think there’s been some transformative players. A guy like Vince Carter probably inspired a lot of young Canadian kids to play the game. I think because of that, AAU, coaching improvement, we’ve seen the game flourish.”

They’ve seen it flourish to the point that Canada was second only to the United States in representation on opening-night rosters. Olynyk, Powell (Celtics), Thompson (Cavaliers), Joel Anthony (Pistons), Nash, Robert Sacre (Lakers), Bennett (Timberwolves), Wiggins (Timberwolves), Nicholson (Magic), Ennis (Suns), Stauskas, Cory Joseph (Spurs) put the country atop the list of international exports for the first time ever, with the likelihood the number will grow as additional prospects become draft eligible.

Canada has gone from failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the former world championships, to thinking about a medal at the 2020 Olympics while remaining hopeful about 2016.

“We’re hoping to make this a culture,” Nash said. “We have a lot of talented kids. If we can implement the systems and the coaching to give them an opportunity to develop their skills, we hope this is many generations of great talent. But that’s always something that is cyclical as well.”

No. 1 in international players in the NBA, the top pick in the last two drafts, several other first-rounder in recent years. Hope is disappearing. Basketball as a culture in Canada is reality

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